The U.S. government appears to be waging an undeclared war against Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange, while media and other business interests either cheer the effort on or run for cover.
This clash is setting some precedents that we may all live to regret.
The government is infuriated at Wikileaks’ release of about a quarter-million secret messages purloined from the State Department, following earlier disclosures of military material from Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the leaks, particularly from the war zones, clearly jeopardized individuals’ personal safety or American security interests. Most of the recent disclosures, however, merely confirm and add detail to things we already knew. We did not need Wikileaks to tell us that the Arab states in the Persian Gulf were alarmed at the prospect of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.
Still, the officials responsible for safeguarding American secrets find it outrageous that a self-appointed defender of the public’s right to know has usurped their power to decide what information should be released. Nobody in public office likes to have his or her authority challenged.
But this is not merely about protecting official privilege. Assange probably would not lose any sleep if one of his disclosures got an American intelligence source fired or killed. He is not responsible for stopping weapons proliferation or terrorist attacks, and his conscience may not be affected if a lot of people die after such efforts fail. From the viewpoint of officialdom, what Wikileaks is doing actually is outrageous.
At moments like this, when emotions run high, we do well to remember that there are also other principles and other points of view. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page lost sight of this when it essentially called for Assange to be assassinated.
“If he were exposing Chinese or Russian secrets, he would already have died at the hands of some unknown assailant,” the newspaper wrote. “As a foreigner (Australian citizen) engaged in hostile acts against the U.S., Mr. Assange is certainly not protected from U.S. reprisal under the laws of war.”
The Journal lost an excellent, dedicated journalist named Daniel Pearl when he was beheaded in 2002 after trying to interview jihadist leaders in Pakistan. Julian Assange is no Daniel Pearl, but he, too, exposes himself to powerful and hostile interests to bring information to the public. So did most of the 39 journalists that a compilation by the Committee to Protect Journalists lists as killed this year.
The Wall Street Journal, more than any other entity I can think of, ought to abhor extra-judicial killings of people who disseminate information, no matter what title appears on their business cards.
Meanwhile, Wikileaks’ technical and financial infrastructure has been under relentless attack, since just before it released the first batch of State Department documents on the night of Nov. 28.
The organization’s Swedish servers were targeted in a “distributed denial of service” attack, typically used by hackers or extortionists who command legions of hijacked “zombie” computers to overwhelm a targeted website. Wikileaks, however, is not a typical commercial target; the attack made sense only for political reasons. Similar assaults have been mounted by Russian operatives against former Soviet satellites that ran afoul of the Kremlin.
In this case, the party with the obvious motive is Uncle Sam. But, so far, no American or allied fingerprints have been found. It is also conceivable that another government that wanted to avoid inconvenient disclosures might have staged the attack.
Nevertheless, Wikileaks was forced to migrate its servers to a more robust platform offered by Amazon.com. That only lasted a few days, however, before Amazon buckled to political pressure in the form of congressional inquiries, notably from Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. Amazon’s decision “should set the standard for other companies Wikileaks is using to distribute its illegally seized material,” Lieberman said in a statement.
Suppose someone assembles the State Department documents in book form. Should Amazon, or other vendors, be pressured or prohibited from selling the book if the U.S. government argues that the material was “illegally seized?” The First Amendment would prevent the government from outlawing the book, but Amazon’s reaction shows that pressure may suffice to get results that the law itself cannot produce.
Days after Amazon evicted Wikileaks from its physical home, the organization lost its cyberspace address when another U.S. firm canceled the Wikileaks.org domain name. That firm, Everydns, also came under pressure from Lieberman. Wikileaks became temporarily inaccessible until it secured a Swiss address, Wikileaks.ch.
There have also been concerted efforts to cut off the Wikileaks money supply. PayPal became the third U.S. company to run from the organization when it suspended Wikileaks’ account. The company said in a blog post that Wikileaks violated a PayPal policy that prohibits use of the money-transfer service to “encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity.” Mastercard and Visa followed suit yesterday by cutting off processing for Wikileaks.
Wikileaks has not been found to have broken any law. Of course, the person who leaked the documents — suspected to be U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning — may have done so, but if Wikileaks is responsible for its sources’ disclosures, then so is any news organization. Would PayPal, Mastercard or Visa cut off The New York Times for reporting on leaked secrets?
Not this time. But we have been down this road before, and in other situations, the traditional press has had the role that Wikileaks is playing today.
“Quit making national heroes out of those who steal secrets and publish them in the newspaper,” President Richard Nixon said at the height of the Pentagon Papers controversy. His administration went to court to block The New York Times from publishing the secret Vietnam history leaked by Daniel Ellsberg. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called Ellsberg “the most dangerous man in America,” which became the title of a documentary about the case last year. After warning The Washington Post’s management that there would be financial repercussions for joining The Times in publishing the papers, the Nixon administration orchestrated a challenge to the Post’s licenses for five television stations. (The challenge ultimately failed.)
The Obama administration is likewise rattling every saber it can get its hands on, for reasons that are not entirely clear. The Wikileaks documents have been disseminated electronically to every corner of the globe. What sense is there in warning Columbia University students not to link to the documents or comment on them, for fear of not getting hired by the State Department after college? Or instructing federal workers and contractors not to read the Wikileaks documents online, because they are still classified? The Pentagon Papers, which are available in their entirety, are still classified, also. Are government workers who read the history of the Vietnam War also subject to punishment?
Still, Attorney General Eric Holder regularly intones that the publication of the Wikileaks papers was illegal, though he cites no particular law on the subject. There has been some speculation that Wikileaks could be prosecuted for possessing stolen government documents. If Wikileaks can be prosecuted on those grounds, so could everyone involved in publishing the material Ellsberg leaked.
Assange himself is likewise the target of an apparently coordinated campaign to bring him to heel. Assange was arrested yesterday and held without bail in the United Kingdom on a Swedish warrant that, according to Assange’s attorneys, relates to sexual relations Assange had with two women who purportedly asked him to stop when his condoms failed. While Assange may need to get better at his bedroom skills, it is fair to ask whether these alleged sexual assaults would get international attention if Assange had not made so many enemies in high places.
A useful principle could come out of all this. If I make something a secret, it is my responsibility to keep it secret. I don’t get to tell it to hundreds of thousands of people, including low-level Army personnel who have no need to know any of this, and still make it a crime when the secrets get out — and especially not a crime for which people that merely learn the secrets, rather than actively take them, can be held responsible.
This is the approach that makes journalism possible. Anything else reduces the press to a mere conduit for government statements. This would suit many government officials, but would not suit any society that calls itself democratic and self-governing.
The war against Wikileaks is a war against the press. The press just hasn’t realized it yet.