Revenge of the Nerd: Julian Assange, WikiLeaks and diplomacy in an open society

Whistleblower, terrorist, hacker – WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange has accumulated as many labels as enemies since his organization began releasing more than 250,000 secret cables between U.S. diplomats in November. What Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have done for social networking, Assange and WikiLeaks have done for transparency in government affairs, placing the geopolitical power structure in the hands of a solipsistic individual hell-bent on undermining power in all forms, regardless of the consequences.

As big as the headlines have been about WikiLeaks, the most sensational revelations are actually rather mild: Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi travels with a bevy of Ukrainian nurses and an American diplomat considers North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il “flabby.”

Speaking about the potential blowback of the leak, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”

If anything, the released cables showed American diplomats doing their job effectively and not misleading the public. Unlike the release of the Pentagon Papers – which exposed mass deception by the government to lead the nation deeper and deeper into war in Southeast Asia – WikiLeaks’ actions were not in the public’s interest.

The real story to emerge out of the leak was not the damage to American foreign policy; rather it was the intelligence community’s penchant for classifying documents. The American government remains the most transparent in the world, but the power to classify documents has been granted to far too many individuals. The volume of documents designated as “secret” – the second highest level of classification – increased by 75 percent from 1996 to 2009, according to the U.S. Information Security Oversight Office.

With that many classified documents and people with access, it was only a matter of time until a leak of this magnitude occurred. Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said the problem is not that things are classified; it is that too many things are classified.

In Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s opinion in New York Times v. United States, which granted the Times permission to publish the Pentagon Papers, he said, “When everything is classified, then nothing is classified … the system becomes one to be disregarded by the cynical or the careless, and to be manipulated by those intent on self-protection or self-promotion.”

Now that the hyperbole surrounding the release has subsided, it is apparent that Assange’s actions will actually have the opposite of their intended effect. The nation’s intelligence community will continue to resist demands to be more open and could become even more resistant to exchanging information between agencies, which needs to occur for the government to perform efficiently. Such balkanization was one of the main reasons why the government was not able to prevent 9/11. The FBI and the NSA were not sharing information that could have led to the arrests of the hijackers.

Transparency is needed in government, but Assange’s irresponsible publication of sensitive documents without sieving through them shows a clear disregard for the public good. Masking his misuse of technology behind comparisons to Daniel Ellsberg – the Defense Department analyst who released the Pentagon Papers – Assange’s irresponsible behavior is only eclipsed by his hypocrisy. While calling for greater transparency from the world’s governments, he runs a clandestine enterprise. When asked about the alleged source of the documents in an interview with Time Magazine, Assange said his sources remain confidential. He has every right to protect his sources just as the government has every right to classify sensitive cables between ambassadors.

Assange’s paranoid accusations in recent weeks also hint at a martyr complex. Ellsberg pursued the public’s interest regardless of personal circumstances. Assange, on the other hand, pursues the highest personal gain at the expense of the public. Ellsberg once said, “It is the courage … to face honestly the truth and the reality of what we are doing in the world and act responsibly to change it.” The key word there is responsibly.

The people have a need to know, and the press has the right to tell them. The newspapers that published stories based on the documents provided by WikiLeaks made a difficult editorial decision that was in the best interest of the public. Whereas WikiLeaks’ mass distribution of the documents – without screening them – was against the public’s interest.

Any attempts to prosecute Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act would be feckless and only make Assange look like more of a martyr. The Espionage Act has been used to suppress political speech since its inception, silencing dissidents like Eugene Debs and others who actually contributed ideas to the political discourse.

The need for principled individuals to stand up and call attention to abusive organizations is as great as ever, but Assange does not fill that void. He is neither a terrorist nor a whistleblower; he is a computer nerd who found himself at the confluence of technology and modern diplomacy and exploited it for his own personal gain.

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