Julian Assange and Pfc Bradley Manning have done a huge public
service by making hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. government
documents available on Wikileaks -- and, predictably, no one is
grateful. Manning, a former army intelligence analyst in Iraq, faces up
to 52 years in prison. He is currently being held in solitary
confinement at a military base in Quantico, Virginia, where he is not
allowed to see his parents or other outside visitors.
the organizing brain of Wikileaks, enjoys a higher degree of freedom
living as a hunted man in England under the close surveillance of
domestic and foreign intelligence agencies -- but probably not for long.
Not since President Richard Nixon directed his minions to go after
Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg and New York Times reporter Neil
Sheehan - "a vicious antiwar type," an enraged Nixon called him on the
Watergate tapes -- has a working journalist and his source been
subjected to the kind of official intimidation and threats that have
been directed at Assange and Manning by high-ranking members of the
Published reports suggest that a
joint Justice Department-Pentagon team of investigators is exploring the
possibility of charging Assange under the Espionage Act, which could
lead to decades in jail. "This is not saber-rattling," said Attorney
General Eric Holder, commenting on the possibility that Assange will be
prosecuted by the government. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called
the Wikileaks disclosures "an attack on the international community"
that endangered innocent people. White House Press Secretary Robert
Gibbs suggested in somewhat Orwellian fashion that "such disclosures put
at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around
the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting
democracy and open government."
It is dispiriting and
upsetting for anyone who cares about the American tradition of a free
press to see Eric Holder, Hillary Clinton and Robert Gibbs turn into
H.R. Haldeman, John Erlichman and John Dean. We can only pray that we
won't soon be hit with secret White House tapes of Obama drinking scotch
and slurring his words while calling Assange bad names.
to let the Democrats adopt Nixon's anti-democratic, press-hating legacy
as their own, Republican Congressman Peter King asserted that the
publication of classified diplomatic cables is "worse even than a
physical attack on Americans" and that Wikileaks should be officially
designed as a terrorist organization. Mike Huckabee followed such
blather to its logical conclusion by suggesting that Bradley Manning
should be executed.
But the truly scandalous and shocking
response to the Wikileaks documents has been that of other journalists,
who make the Obama Administration sound like the ACLU. In a recent
article in The New Yorker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter
Steve Coll sniffed that "the archives that WikiLeaks has published are
much less significant than the Pentagon Papers were in their day" while
depicting Assange as a "self-aggrandizing control-freak" whose website
"lacks an ethical culture that is consonant with the ideals of free
media." Channeling Richard Nixon, Coll labeled Wikileaks' activities -
formerly known as journalism - by his newly preferred terms of
"vandalism" and "First Amendment-inspired subversion."
invective is hardly unique, In fact, it was only a pale echo of the
language used earlier this year by a columnist at his former employer, The
Washington Post. In a column titled "WikiLeaks Must Be Stopped,"
Mark Thiessen wrote that "WikiLeaks is not a news organization; it is a
criminal enterprise," and urged that the site should be shut down "and
its leadership brought to justice." The dean of American foreign
correspondents, John Burns of The New York Times, with two
Pulitzer Prizes to his credit, contributed a profile of Assange which
used terms like "nearly delusional grandeur" to describe Wikileaks'
founder. The Times' normally mild-mannered David Brooks asserted
in his column this week that "Assange seems to be an old-fashioned
anarchist" and worried that Wikileaks will "damage the global
For his part, Assange has not been shy
about expressing his contempt for the failure of traditional reporting
to inform the public, and his belief in the utility of his own methods.
"How is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the
public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of the
world press combined?" he told The Sydney Morning Herald. "It's
Assange may or may not be grandiose,
paranoid and delusional - terms that might be fairly applied at one time
or another to most prominent investigative reporters of my
acquaintance. But the fact that so many prominent old school journalists
are attacking him with such unbridled force is a symptom of the failure
of traditional reporting methods to penetrate a culture of official
secrecy that has grown by leaps and bounds since 9/11, and threatens the
functioning of a free press as a cornerstone of democracy.
true importance of Wikileaks -- and the key to understanding the
motivations and behavior of its founder -- lies not in the contents of
the latest document dump but in the technology that made it possible,
which has already shown itself to be a potent weapon to undermine
official lies and defend human rights. Since 1997, Assange has devoted a
great deal of his time to inventing encryption systems that make it
possible for human rights workers and others to protect and upload
sensitive data. The importance of Assange's efforts to human rights
workers in the field were recognized last year by Amnesty International,
which gave him its Media Award for the Wikileaks investigation The
Cry of Blood - Extra Judicial Killings and Disappearances, which
documented the killing and disappearance of 500 young men in Kenya by
the police, with the apparent connivance of the country's political
Yet the difficulties of documenting official
murder in Kenya pale next to the task of penetrating the secret world
that threatens to swallow up informed public discourse in this country
about America's wars. The 250,000 cables that Wikileaks published this
month represent only a drop in the bucket that holds the estimated 16
million documents that are classified top secret by the federal
government every year. According to a three-part investigative series by
Dana Priest and William Arkin published earlier this year in The
Washington Post, an estimated 854,000 people now hold top secret
clearance - more than 1.5 times the population of Washington, D.C. "The
top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist
attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so
secretive," the Post concluded, "that no one knows how much money
it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it
or exactly how many agencies do the same work."
result of this classification mania is the division of the public into
two distinct groups: those who are privy to the actual conduct of
American policy, but are forbidden to write or talk about it, and the
uninformed public, which becomes easy prey for the official lies exposed
in the Wikileaks documents: The failure of American counterinsurgency
programs in Afghanistan, the involvement of China and North Korea in the
Iranian nuclear program, the likely failure of attempts to separate
Syria from Iran, the involvement of Iran in destabilizing Iraq, the
anti-Western orientation of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan,
and other tenets of American foreign policy under both Bush and Obama.
is a fact of the current media landscape that the chilling effect of
threatened legal action routinely stops reporters and editors from
pursuing stories that might serve the public interest - and anyone who
says otherwise is either ignorant or lying. Every honest reporter and
editor in America knows that the fact that most news organizations are
broke, combined with the increasing threat of aggressive legal action by
deep-pocketed entities, private and public, has made it much harder for
good reporters to do their jobs, and ripped a hole in the delicate
fabric that holds our democracy together.
The idea that
Wikileaks is a threat to the traditional practice of reporting misses
the point of what Assange and his co-workers have put together - a
powerful tool that can help reporters circumvent the legal barriers that
are making it hard for them to do their job. Even as he criticizes the
evident failures of the mainstream press, Assange insists that Wikileaks
should facilitate traditional reporting and analysis. "We're the step
before the first person (investigates)," he explained, when accepting
Amnesty International's award for exposing police killings in Kenya.
"Then someone who is familiar with that material needs to step forward
to investigate it and put it in political context. Once that is done,
then it becomes of public interest."
Wikileaks is a
powerful new way for reporters and human rights advocates to leverage
global information technology systems to break the heavy veil of
government and corporate secrecy that is slowly suffocating the American
press. The likely arrest of Assange in Britain on dubious Swedish sex
crimes charges has nothing to do with the importance of the system he
has built, and which the US government seems intent on destroying with
tactics more appropriate to the Communist Party of China -- pressuring
Amazon to throw the site off their servers, and, one imagines by
launching the powerful DDOS attacks that threatened to stop visitors
from reading the pilfered cables.
In a memorandum entitled "Transparency and Open Government" addressed to the heads of Federal departments and agencies and posted on WhiteHouse.gov, President Obama instructed that "Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing." The Administration would be wise to heed his words -- and to remember how badly the vindictive prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg ended for the Nixon Administration. And American reporters, Pulitzer Prizes and all, should be ashamed for joining in the outraged chorus that defends a burgeoning secret world whose existence is a threat to democracy.