No Heroes, Just Circumstances in Wikileaks Struggles

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No Heroes, Just Circumstances in Wikileaks Struggles

A slightly shorter version published in The Daily Record April 19, 2019

It can be humbling to watch one’s own opinions change. Eight years ago, in this space, I posited that leakers are a necessary corrective to governmental abuse of secrecy, supplementing the functions of the press in our constitutional scheme. At that time, Wikileaks, cooperating with the mainstream media, was exposing some of the things the U.S. was doing in Afghanistan, misbehavior previously protected from public backlash by a system of classification that had kept the public from knowing about it. Because the killer drone program and other aspects of Afghanistan that Wikileaks exposed were simply wicked, in my view, I tended to applaud organizations that could publicize them.

All Leaks Handled the Same Way

Since then, though, we’ve seen the selfsame Wikileaks giving a public home to secrets the Russians stole from the Democratic National Committee, and also, because of failures to curate what it puts online, for instance repeatedly releasing private personal information like Social Security numbers and medical histories and the identities of rape victims. I’m not in favor of any of these revelations. And yes, my views have consequently changed – well, at least grown more nuanced. (As have Donald Trump’s; he went from calling Wikileaks “disgraceful” the year I complimented them to saying “I love Wikileaks” in 2016. We’re just going in opposite directions.)

I still maintain that when governments use official secrecy to evade accountability to their citizens, we need the services of leakers. But governmental coverups are one thing and (as I said eight years ago) legitimate governmental secrets another, and (as I now add) private secrets yet another. Yet at Wikileaks, they all nowadays seem to be processed in the same way. According to Associated Press reporting, at its founding (in 2006), Wikileaks professed a determination to protect properly private secrets, but the sheer volume of information leaked to and by Wikileaks made the redaction process intolerably slow to founder Julian Assange, who was quoted as concluding that “We can’t sit on material like this for three years with one person to go through the whole lot, line-by-line, to redact… We have to take the best road that we can.” Apparently the best road is one that saves Assange and his colleagues time, even if, for instance, as has happened, Wikileaks exposes the name of a gay person in Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality can be a capital offense.

There is also a difference between revealing government secrets – acceptable in my continuing view if done to prevent governments from hiding information on which they should be accountable to their citizens – and revealing the secrets of private organizations and individuals, who have no duties of public disclosure. The DNC may have a close relationship to governments and government officials, but the Democratic Party was still a private organization when Russian hackers attacked it and fed its correspondence to Wikileaks. And Sony was a private corporation at the time Wikileaks accepted and placed online a massive hack of Sony’s correspondence apparently conducted by North Korea. And obviously Wikileaks accepts the validity of corporate secrecy in principle, since it has some of the toughest non-disclosure agreements out there for its own employees, with a stipulated penalty of £12 million for breach.

A Moral Compass is Required

Now I am not suggesting that a news organization, or one like Wikileaks with some but not all of the traits of a news organization, should never publicize private information about individuals or the workings of private corporations. I can’t come up with any blanket rules for when it’s okay to publicize that information, however. To the contrary, I think it has to be decided on a case-by-case basis. But the DNC and the Sony dumps demonstrate quite clearly to me, first, that Wikileaks has abandoned case-by-case determinations, and second, that Wikileaks had no moral compass by the time it published them. When your information seems to be coming from the intelligence services of corrupt totalitarian states, it’s a pretty good bet the information, accurate or not, is morally tainted, and you probably should not be lending your aid to its dissemination.

Speaking of morally tainted, though, that is also the word for the U.S. effort to extradite Mr. Assange. The now-unsealed indictment which is the basis of the extradition request is a single count of conspiracy to obtain unauthorized access to a government computer. The indictment does not even report that this was a successful effort, though we know that Assange’s alleged co-conspirator Chelsea Manning was the source of a trove of State Department cables leaked to Wikileaks. Those cables revealed U.S. arrogance and misbehavior around the world, e.g. in aiding U.S. corporations to the detriment of public welfare elsewhere, from Boeing to McDonald’s to Monsanto, and authorizing spying on the UN Secretary General. Though Manning was sentenced to 35 years for this breach, it is significant that Barack Obama commuted her sentence to seven years, acknowledging implicitly the public-spirited nature of that breach. In other words, the U.S. may be trying to extradite Assange for one of the good things Wikileaks did, not one of the bad ones. Though it would seem to violate an explicit provision of a treaty between the U.S. and the U.K., other crimes might be charged if Assange ever reaches these shores; the indictment’s sneaky narrowness probably was simply a way to prevent the extradition request from being rejected because under that treaty, “political crimes” are non-extraditable. What recourse against further charges would the U.K. or Assange have after the extradition went through?

Full of Circumstances

As a late friend, citing his Jesuit training, would frequently say, “Circumstances alter cases always.” The evolving Wikileaks story is full of “circumstances,” new considerations which continue to alter my opinions. It’s clear we need leakers; it’s also clear Assange and Wikileaks have repeatedly behaved without integrity or moral clarity; it’s also highly likely that the U.S. wants Assange extradited for exactly the wrong reasons, namely to exact political revenge and clamp down on legitimate First Amendment activities. There are no heroes in this tale.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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