Assange derangement syndrome

Something about Julian Assange has driven the leaders of the United States government stark, raving lunatic mad.

The Obama administration has forbidden government employees and its contractors employees to read any of the material disclosed by Wikileaks, including material published in newspapers, unless they have security clearances appropriate to read the material.   This applies on and off the job.  It applies, for example, to employees of the Social Security Administration

The Boston University School of Law and the Office for Career Services at Columbia University have advised students who are considering government careers to not link to any Wikileaks material on their computers or refer to Wikileaks on their Facebook or other social media pages.

The purpose of a classified information system is to deny information to enemies of the United States, even at the price of keeping ourselves ignorant.  The Obama administration turns this on its head.  Its policy is to keep Americans ignorant of things our enemies already know.  “The truth shall make you free”

Julian Assange

Julian Assange has never been charged with violating any U.S. law.  It has never been a crime in the United States to publish things the government would prefer to keep secret, except under the 1917 Espionage Act which has never been enforced and probably is unconstitutional.  It is a crime for someone with access to classified information to disclose it to a third party, but the receiver of leaked information has a right to publish it.

If it were otherwise, if the government had absolute power to make anything it wished a secret that it was a crime to publish, then it would have absolute power, period.  How can you hold a government accountable for incompetence or corruption if it can punish you for revealing the incompetence and corruption?

Nothing Wikileaks has caused to be published to date is as shocking (to me) as the original revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib, nor the New York Times stories on the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping on overseas U.S. telephone calls nor Dana Priest’s reporting for the Washington Post on the secret CIA torture sites, nor the story she and William M. Arkin did for the Post last summer on the proliferating U.S. secret government.

Attorney General Eric Holder said he is going to going to take some sort of unspecified legal action against Assange.  Visa, MasterCard and PayPal have been persuaded to cut him off from receiving money through them.  Amazon has been pressured into removing its Wikipedia link, and the French government is trying to cut him off from a French Internet site.  Assange’s Swiss bank has frozen his account.  Even the Australian post office where Wikileaks has a box number is being torn down (okay, that probably is coincidence).

This isn’t enough for the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, who asked some weeks back, “Why wasn’t Assange garroted in his hotel room years ago?”  Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly thinks Assange should be prosecuted for treason (against whom? he is an Australian).  Republican candidates Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee favor summary execution.

What is it about Assange that makes people freak out so?  It is true that his name and physical appearance suggest a James Bond villain, but I don’t think that is it.  I think it is the idea of Assange and Wikileaks that is so threatening – the idea that a small group of individuals can do things that hamper the workings of government and corporations and get away with it.  The big organizations are supposed to be in charge.  Those outside the big organizations are not supposed to have anything to say.  Assange’s crime is — insubordination.

I am not saying everybody who questions Wikileaks is a loon.  Let me address some of Assange’s more reasonable critics.

Mark D. Jordahl in Kampala says that publishing State Department files imperils dissidents in countries such as Uganda who have turned to the U.S. government for help.   Click on Wild Thoughts from Uganda for his thoughts.

I am under the impression that his examples are hypothetical so far as Uganda is concerned, although Wikileaks is accused of revealing the names of Afghan informers and collaborators in a way that can be tracked down by the Taliban.  I do think Wikileaks has made a good faith effort to shield innocent third parties.  It has offered to show its documents to the U.S. State Department for comment before publishing them, and the State Department has refused.

Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education that Wikileaks is more effective against semi-open institutions such as the U.S. State Department than closed institutions such as the Central Intelligence Agency or National Security Agency.  And so the quest for transparency may instead cause the translucent institutions to become opaque.  Also, as Drezner notes, the fact that a document is secret doesn’t mean its words are true.  Click on The Chronicle Review for his full article.

What he says is true, but it is an age-old dilemma, not something peculiar to Wikileaks.  For example, Amnesty International has long been criticized for publishing longer reports on South Korea than on North Korea. This is because it is easier to come by information about South Korea than about North Korea.  But what is Amnesty to do?  Surely fairness doesn’t require covering up human rights abuses in South Korea so as to put its government on a level playing field with North Korea.

Excessive credence in leaked information also is an age-old problem.  Look at how the Bush administration manipulated Judith Miller of the New York Times by leaking disinformation to justify the invasion of Iraq.  Any organization that accepts leaked information is in danger of the same kind of manipulation, but I don’t see it is worse for Wikileaks than for others.

Sebastian H on the Obsidian Wings web log distinguishes between whistleblowing, the exposure of specific wrongs, and indiscriminate info-dumping, which can do harm as well as good. Click on Obsidian Wings for his comments.

I see no evidence that Wikileaks is guilty of info-dumping as he describes.  Only a few thousand of the leaked State Department documents have been published, and those were cleared by the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Speigel and other newspapers and magazines.  Now you could accuse Julian Assange of betraying his ideal of transparency by letting newspapers act as gatekeepers, but that is another question.

For Assange’s viewpoint, click on The Australian for his most recent article.  As Assange points out, Wikileaks has not killed anyone, tortured anyone, imprisoned anyone without trial or started any wars on false pretenses.  And it is not clear that Wikileaks has violated any law, unless you think defying the wishes of a government official is a crime.  It is abundantly clear that many in the U.S. government have violated U.S. and international law during the past 10 years.

Postscript.  I have no opinion as to Assange’s guilt or innocence concerning the Swedish sexual misconduct charges.  If he is guilty of a crime, he should be punished the same as anyone else, no more and no less.  Click on Daily Mail and Reuters for an explanation of the nature and background of the charges.

Postscript [12/8/10]  Back when the government was talking about prosecuting Dana Priest for her articles in the Washington post about CIA “black site,” Jonathan H. Adler, a law professor and National Review contributing editor, and Michael H. Berry, a lawyer who specializes in media law, wrote explaining that it is not a crime as such to reveal classified information.  Click on National Review to read their article, “Reporting Is Not a Crime.”

Postscript [12/8/10]  James Fallows sees plausible reasons for the government ban on Wikileaks material, as an administrative measure to ensure that unclassified files are not “contaminated” with classified material.  I don’t see it, but click on The Atlantic and judge for yourself.

Postscript [12/10/10]

Here are some relatively sensible statements coming out of government.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates:

But let me – let me just offer some perspective as somebody who’s been at this a long time. Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time. And I dragged this up the other day when I was looking at some of these prospective releases. And this is a quote from John Adams: “How can a government go on, publishing all of their negotiations with foreign nations, I know not. To me, it appears as dangerous and pernicious as it is novel.”

When we went to real congressional oversight of intelligence in the mid-’70s, there was a broad view that no other foreign intelligence service would ever share information with us again if we were going to share it all with the Congress. Those fears all proved unfounded.

Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think – I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets.

Many governments – some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation. So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another. Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.

via Small Wars Journal

The Congressional Research Service:

This report identifies some criminal statutes that may apply [to dissemination of classified documents], but notes that these have been used almost exclusively to prosecute individuals with access to classified information (and a corresponding obligation to protect it) who make it available to foreign agents, or to foreign agents who obtain classified information unlawfully while present in the United States. Leaks of classified information to the press have only rarely been punished as crimes, and we are aware of no case in which a publisher of information obtained through unauthorized disclosure by a government employee has been prosecuted for publishing it. There may be First Amendment implications that would make such a prosecution difficult, not to mention political ramifications based on concerns about government censorship.

via CRS

However the Congressional Research Service, along with the rest of the Library of Congress, has been barred from examining the leaked documents themselves.

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3 Responses to “Assange derangement syndrome”

  1. Wild Thoughts from Uganda Says:

    Thanks for including me among the “reasonable” critics, Phil. I think you make some excellent points regarding the frankly childish reaction of the US government to these leaks.

    I love your statement “The purpose of a classified information system is to deny information to enemies of the United States, even at the price of keeping ourselves ignorant. The Obama administration turns this on its head. Its policy is to keep Americans ignorant of things our enemies already know.”

    Now that the information is out there, it seems ridiculous to pretend it isn’t and, as you so eloquently point out, it can only hurt us to stick our heads in the sand.

    And you are right that, as far as I know, my scenario is hypothetical. I wrote the post, though, after a conversation with the US Ambassador here where he mentioned that WikiLeaks is going to make such meetings a lot harder. Everyone can make up their own minds about whether that implies these meetings do, in fact, happen here.

    Thanks for your post.


    • philebersole Says:

      I don’t deny the validity of your concern and the ambassador’s concern. Indiscriminate publication of confidential communications could endanger people who look to the U.S. State Department for help against human rights abuses. The only guarantee that this won’t happen is the discretion of a self-appointed group of people and their future imitators.

      Back in the Joe McCarthy days (I’m 73 and old enough to remember them) I agreed with Presidents Truman and Eisenhower in refusing to turn over confidential communications to congressional investigating committees. They rightly said that this would inhibit people from speaking their minds honestly.

      Now Wikileaks is, in a way, doing the same thing that the Senate Internal Security Committee and the House Un-American Activities Committee tried to do. My attitude toward Wikileaks is different because of the way abuse of power and abuse of secrecy have developed since then. Wikileaks is an imperfect answer to a grave problem to which I don’t see any other answer.

      President Truman’s original executive order establishing the classification system stated that restrictions of information were not valid if done for the purpose of covering up misdeeds or mistakes. Unfortunately, this has not been observed.

      Aaron Cady wrote an excellent post on this issue on his Zunguzungu web site.

      I strongly recommend all his posting on Wikileaks, starting with this.“to-destroy-this-invisible-government”/

      Another aspect is the interesting paradox in that while Wikileaks seeks to penetrate the government’s veil of secrecy, its ability to function requires the ability to guarantee an absolute veil of secrecy for leakers.

      Keep up the good work.


  2. Okay, NOW I’m a Fan of WikiLeaks… « Wild Thoughts from Uganda Says:

    […] of my favorite quotes in the dialogue around this is from Phil Ebersole’s blog: “The purpose of a classified information system is to deny information to enemies of the […]


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