Julian Assange: hero or villain?

The issue of WikiLeaks is a complex one.  On the one hand, if the documents originally disclosed mentioned the actual names of the individuals who provided the information or who played leading roles in sensitive situations, publishing or disclosing those names would be absolutely irresponsible.  This could put their lives in danger.  It would be okay to disclose the event, but naming names of those involved in the process of obtaining the information would not be necessary.  The information sources must remain anonymous, as well as the methods used to obtain that information.  And I stress that WikiLeaks cannot give that information to anyone, not even to the media sources that will broadcast or publish the leaks.  It’s impossible to determine who will end up with access to this information.  I don’t know which documents were shared with newspapers, such as The New York Times or El País, which published the leaks.

It is also important to realize that if WikiLeaks’ leader, Julian Assange, actively cooperated with Bradley Manning (the US soldier accused of leaking the information) to help him make the information public, he would be violating US laws.  It is one thing to publish something that falls on your lap without having participated in violating the laws that protect state secrets, and a very different one to publish it after you have actively participated in obtaining secret information from a government in an illegal manner.  

On the other hand, if the media weren’t aggressive when it came to making government activities public, it would lose one of its fundamental roles.  There would never have been the Pentagon Papers or Watergate and the renowned journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (whose investigation of the break-in at the headquarters of the National Democratic Party at the Watergate office complex resulted in the resignation of the President of the United States, Richard Nixon) would have ended up in jail.  That is precisely the media’s job: to inform, to bring to light information that often is uncomfortable for governments to have aired.  That is why we have freedom of the press and of expression, two of the fundamental rights in any democratic society.  Similarly, if the information that is published, even if it violates the laws that protect state secrets, is something that demonstrates illegal government behavior, many would defend the press’ proactive action to bring to light those activities by the government.  Whether or not doing so violates the law. Of course, when it comes to dictatorships, the situation is even clearer.

Another variable is that if Julian Assange, just as he has said, didn’t play a role in the leaking of the information itself and the problem per se is that the information was published, the government would have to indict not only WikiLeaks, but all the newspapers and journalists all over the world which have published the information provided by WikiLeaks. Not only Assange, but everyone – practically every television, newspaper, radio and Internet news outlet worldwide.  Something that is obviously impossible to do.  Everyone is an accomplice in the dissemination of the information.

From my point of view, unless the government can demonstrate that Assange cooperated actively in the violation of laws that protect state secrets and didn’t only limit himself to publishing the leaks, the authorities would be better served by just ignoring WikiLeaks.  The more attacks WikiLeaks receives, the more public exposure it receives and the more supporters it gets.  A martyr is born. The proof was obvious when Julian Assange exited the police station in London.  He was greeted by an army of photographers and journalists from all over the world.  Just a little while ago, very few people knew who Julian Assange was (even if they knew about some of the information published by WikiLeaks). Today he’s on the cover of newspapers and magazines all over the globe.  He has become a real player on the world stage.

The government needs to admit its mistake for being unable to prevent the leaking of the top secret information published by WikiLeaks, ensuring that it never happens again, and move forward.  The damage has been done.  The government cannot prevent WikiLeaks from publishing these documents, they’re already out there.  Julian Assange has said that he has only made public one percent of the information he has received.  Harassing or even prosecuting Assange will not prevent the rest of the documents from being published; it will only make him a martyr for the cause of freedom of the press.  Assange has certainly made many enemies since he published the leaked documents, but he has also gained many followers.  These see him as a defender of the public interest before governments that do not want to be transparent about their activities. His supporters see a big difference between what some governments say they do and what they actually do.

The US government is certainly in a tough spot.  Prior to the September 11 attacks, it was harshly criticized because the various security agencies failed to share important information.  The government implemented drastic changes so that most information would be shared among the branches of government involved in the anti-terror struggle.  And now it turns out that too much information was perhaps shared with individuals who maybe didn’t have the need to access it to do their job. Without a doubt, the armed forces of a nation at war need to have information to better do their job when dealing with something as difficult as terrorism. However, first of all, a lot of the information leaked by WikiLeaks shouldn’t have been available to soldiers such as Bradley Manning or other low-level government employees; and secondly, if it was necessary for these individuals to have access to this information, the government should have done a better job of ensuring that the information couldn’t be removed illegally from the premises. 

In the past, the government was criticized for not sharing information, and now for sharing too much.  Let me stress once again that this is not easy for the government.  And it’s even harder while it fights a war against Al Qaeda.

The most interesting piece of this puzzle is that the majority of the information leaked by WikiLeaks is not anything that will bring about disastrous political consequences.  Much of the information was already known or rumored.  Some of the revelations are more sensitive than others, but the great majority does not fall in the category of political disaster.  On the other hand, the damage by WikiLeaks isn’t necessarily against the US government, but against other country’s governments discussed in the documents.  We could actually say that the leaks expose a US Department of State run by high-level professionals who not only draft reports full of useful information, but almost of a literary quality.  And we’re only talking about reports of a rather low level of confidentiality.

Many of the revelations are gossip.  I don’t think anyone will be surprised to read that a Department of State cable says that Italy’s president, Silvio Berlusconi, loves to party.  On the other hand, I have a feeling that the Department of State’s assessments of world leaders would pale in comparison to those we might be able to read if someday the diplomatic cables of countries such as Russia, China, Great Britain or France were made public.  And one can only imagine what those of Venezuela, Iran, North Korea or Bolivia would say.

From a public relations perspective, the US government, unless it formally indicts Assange, needs to close the chapter on him.  It should learn from its mistakes and go forward from here.  The worse thing it could do is, from the government’s perspective, to attack him.  The best thing to do is ignore him.  There will be plenty of people who will praise him for what he has done.  If the government wants to make him irrelevant and to ensure that the leaks stop grabbing international attention, the best thing it can do is to stop talking about him.

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