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Ten Thoughts About Julian Assange and WikiLeaks

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Andy Worthington     Permalink
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The first of these is a US problem involving classification and accessibility. Ironically, had the US intelligence agencies not failed so spectacularly to communicate with one another before the 9/11 attacks, those terrorist attacks might have been thwarted. In response, the database pillaged so easily by Bradley Manning (or whoever leaked the documents, if not Manning) was established, and, although "top secret" information presumably remains as compartmentalized as ever, opened up all other information (including "secret" information) to a ludicrous extent, with the information that was leaked available to three million government employees -- something that all but the most deluded officials would surely have concluded was a disaster waiting to happen. All that was required, as we have seen, was a disgruntled employee with a CD disguised as a Lady Gaga album.

The second factor is that, unlike with the war logs, which Assange shared with a number of media partners -- the Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times -- the "Cablegate" releases have been coordinated much more closely with these media partners (now including Le Monde and El Pais) than previously, to the extent that it is the media partners who appear to have been dictating what is released, and when, and WikiLeaks has followed, as the Associated Press explained in an article on December 3. This is worth reading in its entirety, and it includes a reference to New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller telling readers in an online exchange that the Times "has suggested to its media partners and to WikiLeaks what information it believes should be withheld." Keller wrote, "We agree wholeheartedly that transparency is not an absolute good. Freedom of the press includes freedom not to publish, and that is a freedom we exercise with some regularity."

Assange himself admitted as much in a Q&A session on the Guardian's website, when he wrote, "The cables we have release[d] correspond to stories released by our mainstream media partners and ourselves. They have been redacted by the journalists working on the stories, as these people must know the material well in order to write about it. The redactions are then reviewed by at least one other journalist or editor, and we review samples supplied by the other organisations to make sure the process is working."

In addition, as Scott Shane explained in an article for the New York Times on Saturday:

[E]ven as the government seeks to rein in WikiLeaks, WikiLeaks is reining in itself. The confidential diplomatic cables it disclosed have unquestionably turned the discreet world of diplomacy upside down. But the disclosures have been far more modest than WikiLeaks' self-proclaimed dedication to total transparency might suggest.

Had it chosen to do so, WikiLeaks could have posted on the Web all 251,287 confidential diplomatic cables about six months ago, when the group obtained them. Instead, it shared the cables with traditional news organizations and has coordinated the cables' release with them. As of Friday, fewer than 1 percent of the cables had been released on the Web by the anti-secrecy group, The Times and four European publications combined.

"They've actually embraced" the mainstream media, "which they used to treat as a cuss word," [Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University,] said. "I'm watching WikiLeaks grow up. What they're doing with these diplomatic documents so far is very responsible."

When the newspapers have redacted cables to protect diplomats' sources, WikiLeaks has generally been careful to follow suit. Its volunteers now accept that not all government secrets are illegitimate; for example, revealing the identities of Chinese dissidents, Russian journalists or Iranian activists who had talked to American diplomats might subject them to prison or worse.

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In an op-ed essay for The Australian last week, Mr. Assange ... declared his devotion to some core Western press values. "Democratic societies need a strong media and WikiLeaks is part of that media," he wrote. "The media helps keep government honest."

Moreover, it is also apparent that the media partners have been liaising with the US government beforehand, and that Assange himself attempted to reach out to the US. The Associated Press reported that "US officials submitted suggestions to the [New York] Times, which asked government officials to weigh in on some of the documents the newspaper and its partners wanted to publish," and that these redactions were then shared with the other media partners, and with WikiLeaks. "The other news organizations supported these redactions," Bill Keller of the New York Times explained. "WikiLeaks has indicated that it intends to do likewise. And as a matter of news interest, we will watch their website to see what they do."

As for Assange, the AP reported that "Days before releasing any of the latest documents, Assange appealed to the US ambassador in London, asking the US government to confidentially help him determine what needed to be redacted from the cables before they were publicly released. The ambassador refused, telling Assange to hand over stolen property. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called Assange's offer 'a half-hearted gesture to have some sort of conversation.'" However, as was reported in the Washington Post, "Assange then wrote another letter to State, reiterating that 'WikiLeaks has absolutely no desire to put individual persons at significant risk of harm, nor do we wish to harm the national security of the United States.' In that second letter, Assange stated that the department's refusal to discuss redactions 'leads me to conclude that the supposed risks are entirely fanciful,' and then indicated that WikiLeaks was undertaking redactions on its own."

This cooperation wth the US government, in turn, raises two additional questions: how can Assange and WikiLeaks be the prime villains in the "Cablegate" releases, when they have, in effect, acted as little more than a conduit between the original whistleblower (or whistleblowers) and the mainstream media, and what is the mainstream media's agenda? On this latter point, I would have to conclude -- and this is not meant to sound uncharitable -- that they have seized on "Cablegate" as a way of using both the initial whistleblower(s) and WikiLeaks as the basis for what, at the current rate, could be at least a years' worth of front-page or otherwise significant stories.

Discussions about Julian Assange's alleged sex crimes are unwise unless, or until he has been extradited to Sweden and officially charged.

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Discussions about Julian Assange's possible extradition to the US are, however, extremely important. In light of the above, it is somewhat inexplicable that, in announcing "an active, ongoing, criminal investigation" into WikiLeaks' releases, Attorney General Eric Holder "declined to equate WikiLeaks to traditional news organizations that enjoy certain free-speech protections," as the AP described it. "I think one can compare the way in which the various news organizations that have been involved in this have acted, as opposed to the way in which WikiLeaks has," Holder said, although he "did not elaborate on the distinction he sees between WikiLeaks and the publications."

Nevertheless, the latest reports suggest that the US government is indeed looking at ways to extradite Assange to the US. Its basis for doing so is the Espionage Act of 1917. This criminalizes the communication of "information relating to the national defense," which "the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States." However, as Peter Kirwan noted on Wired, although the Espionage Act "theoretically makes criminals of Julian Assange, the newspaper editors working with WikiLeaks and anyone who reads, or even Tweets, about the contents of a classified cable, [t]he law's sweeping nature has troubled judges for the best part of a century. As a result, administrations have become reluctant to deploy it." Kirwan added, "A civilian recipient of classified data has never been convicted under this law. Nor has someone like Assange, who will claim to be protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press."

This is certainly true. Although the Nixon White House pursued "The Pentagon Papers" whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg under the Espionage Act, it is Bradley Manning, and not Julian Assange, whose position corresponds to that of Daniel Ellsberg. Assange's position is more analogous to that of the New York Times in Ellsberg's case (publishing the leaked papers), and, of course, Nixon refused to pursue the Times, accepting, as the courts have since 1917, that part of the media's function, in a society with free speech, is the ability to draw on information produced by whistleblowers. As Peter Kirwan also noted, however, to pursue Assange, the Obama administration "may be forced to argue that WikiLeaks isn't a media organisation, but merely a web site, devoid of editorial functions, that publishes raw data," although "The argument that only 'established' media outlets can count on First Amendment protection is profoundly at odds with the reality of media production and consumption in the 21st century. Any prosecution on these grounds will provoke storms of criticism and ridicule."

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Andy Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison" (published by Pluto Press), as well as and "The Battle of the Beanfield" (2005) and "Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion" (more...)

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