Friday, December 10, 2010

Thanks a lot, Julian Assange

How many people can seriously say that they regret reading through the American diplomatic cables currently being distributed and uploaded by the WikiLeaks website? For journalists, the documents are a fountain that just keeps giving; for historians, a useful corrective to interpretative ambiguities about past events. For everyone, they provide a valuable window into how the US government functions.

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has both been hailed as a champion of free speech and condemned as an irresponsible jerk, even a criminal. But how does he view himself, and his endeavors? In The Australian this week, Assange took a broadly libertarian approach in explaining why he has leaked US diplomatic and military documents. “Democratic societies need a strong media and WikiLeaks is part of that media,” he wrote. “The media helps keep government honest.”

Assange explained, “WikiLeaks coined a new type of journalism: scientific journalism. We work with other media outlets to bring people the news, but also to prove it is true. Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?”

Uncovering the truth is an ambition that most honest observers of politics seek to fulfill. However, there are three major problems with Assange’s disclosure of the American diplomatic cables, but also American war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq. The first is fairly straightforward, and has been widely debated. The release of the documents risks the lives of America’s foreign sources or informants if their names are not concealed. Assange has defended himself poorly in this regard. Although he claims that no one has been harmed because of the publication of names, the evidence suggests otherwise.

According to a portrait of Assange in the New York Times, for instance, the Taliban have prepared a wanted list of 1,800 Afghans whom they consider traitors. A Taliban spokesperson told the newspaper that a nine-member commission had been formed to examine the names of “spies” whose identities were divulged in the Afghan war logs released by WikiLeaks, and was checking these against the names on the wanted list. Even people within the WikiLeaks organization have clashed with Assange over his reckless refusal to delete names in many documents.

A second problem is that even though WikiLeaks has put out some documents not related to the United States, by far the most significant material the website has publicized addresses American foreign policy concerns. That is, perhaps, understandable, since Assange was lucky enough to receive a treasure trove of papers and videos downloaded by an American soldier, Bradley Manning. But Assange has also openly expressed his hostility to the US, telling the New York Times that it was increasingly a “militarized society and a threat to democracy”. He also noted, “we have been attacked by the United States, so we are forced into a position where we must defend ourselves.”

That begs the question: Is Assange out to keep government and media honest, or is he out to punish the United States? He might answer that he is pursuing both aims, but today the second is being achieved at the expense of the first, especially in the Middle East. Partisan media outlets here are printing and highlighting only those cables that support their political line, and most of them are doing so by focusing on the links between their political enemies and Washington. In no way have the WikiLeaks leaks improved media behavior. On the contrary.

A third problem is that Assange, in his The Australian article, describes himself as following in the line of his fellow Australian Queenslanders, who “[speak] their minds bluntly” and “[distrust] big government as something that could be corrupted if not watched carefully”.

Sure, big government corrupts, but does Assange really believe that his release of diplomatic documents will do anything but spur Washington to expand its powers? The Obama administration is already throwing its weight around to compel Sweden to extradite Assange; and given American anger over the leaks, we can now expect information to be more tightly controlled by the US government, and officials to be less willing to talk to journalists, than ever before. The leaks won’t help make the US government more open and accountable; they practically ensure that it will be excessively suspicious, imperious and secretive.

So what do we really have with the leak of diplomatic cables? An America that feels, with some justification, that Assange’s prime objective is to humiliate it and impair its information gathering capacities. We have an America more likely to bolster its substantial ability to curb the dissemination of information, while punishing those who dissent. And we have media all over the world behaving like sharks in a feeding frenzy, acting even less responsibly than they normally do.

All we can say to that is thanks a lot Julian Assange.

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