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Julian Assange’s Comeuppance
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Julian Assange’s Comeuppance

He is committed to an ideology, not of transparency but anti-government activism.

You may have read that a British court has ruled that Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States. In fact, you may have seen more than one version of the story. One version might go like this: Julian Assange—a groundbreaking journalist, co-founder of WikiLeaks, and cause célèbre for advocates of press freedom—will stand trial in the United States for his “crime” of bringing transparency to the American government. 

A second, more accurate version, would present the story differently: Julian Assange, an anarchist and de facto asset for Russian intelligence, will stand trial for obtaining and disclosing national defense information and for conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. The charge is akin to getting Al Capone on tax evasion because it is a technicality compared with his known-but-hard-to-prove record of espionage and sedition.

Assange helped found WikiLeaks in 2006. The website describes itself as a “multi-national media organization and associated library,” that “specializes in the analysis and publication of large datasets of censored or otherwise restricted official materials involving war, spying and corruption.” In plain language, it steals secret documents—or conspires with agents to steal them—and publishes them to the world, consequences be damned. 

WikiLeaks is not like other media organizations. Most media follow a code of professional ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists, for example, exhorts journalists to “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm,” to “show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage,” and to “weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.”

WikiLeaks does not follow journalism’s professional code of ethics. It releases information indiscriminately, without regard for public or private consequences. For example, when normal media outlets gain access to private information, they typically withhold things that could directly hurt individuals’ privacy (like Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, or personal addresses). WikiLeaks, by contrast, has published Social Security numbers and credit card numbers, personal medical information, and the names of minors who were victims of sexual assault. There is no public interest served with such grossly irresponsible disclosures. 

Similarly, mainstream journalists usually withhold information that would endanger military personnel—like the specific times, dates, locations, tactics, or technology—or, more broadly, bring direct harm to national security. The New York Times waited a year before reporting about the NSA’s terrorist surveillance program in 2005, and even then omitted some technical details. By contrast, WikiLeaks has published tens of thousands of documents alleged to be classified American diplomatic and military communications, often with little or no redaction. 

WikiLeaks and its defenders argue there is no evidence that these releases have caused specific, identifiable harm. I doubt that is true—it is essentially impossible to know for sure that Wikileaks’ information was or was not the deciding factor in enabling an enemy military force, terrorist group, or rival diplomatic core to gain an advantage over the United States. But that also misses the point: WikiLeaks’ disclosures make it harder and costlier for the U.S. and allies’ militaries, governments, and intelligence agencies to do their thing. WikiLeaks is sand in the gears, a tax on everyday communication, an anchor dragging down the free world. It makes foreign policy, commerce, and diplomacy costlier, harder, and more likely to fail.

Because secrecy is good, actually. Businesses rely on secret decision-making to design a new product or a new market strategy. Without some secrecy, there could be no innovation, no market, and no commerce. Employers make hiring decisions in private and employees are entitled to privacy in their performance reviews. Without some secrecy, there could be no trust between employer and employee, no labor market, and no jobs. Parents talk about their children and make sensitive family decisions in private. Family life depends on some level of privileged information. 

And the same is true of governments. Military operations depend on secrecy. Diplomacy depends on talking over sensitive things in private. Presidential decision-making requires candid conversation among the president’s senior advisers. And intelligence agencies depend on doing their work in secret: If the sources and methods of spy craft are known, enemies and rivals can avoid them.

Transparency is good—but transparency does not mean conducting all business fully in the public eye, every word spoken and written immediately on record and disseminated to the entire world via the internet. Government isn’t supposed to be a live broadcast reality TV show. Governing under such conditions would be impossible. Assange and WikiLeaks do not care. If anything, they are happy to see governments stumble and flail, struggling to cope with the sand in the gears. They see no intrinsic merit to governments being able to govern. They seem to believe the opposite: that governments are inherently suspect, and anything to make it harder on them is good. The sand in the gears is a feature, not a bug, of their work.

In other words, Assange is an anarchist. He is committed to an ideology, not of transparency—a general stance of openness for the sake of accountability under law—but anti-government activism. His work is not that of a whistleblower, as he and his defenders often claim. A whistleblower, under U.S. law, is someone who reports wrongdoing to an internal watchdog, like an inspector general. Assange broadcasts anything—wrongdoing or not—in a public forum, not through a legal channel.

That is why Assange and WikiLeaks have been embroiled in lawsuits for more than a decade. That is also why corporations like Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, and Bank of America refuse to process payments or host accounts for WikiLeaks, and why WikiLeaks now has to rely on an intermediary Dutch foundation and on cryptocurrency for most revenue. Most of the world’s responsible actors refuse to do business with the organization.

Yet Assange and WikiLeaks still have defenders in the press and among far-left activists. Back in 2010 mainstream press outlets ran stories about “Why WikiLeaks is Good for America,” and “Why WikiLeaks is Good for Democracy.” That has, thankfully, become rarer since 2016, when WikiLeaks released emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee, embarrassing Hilary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency and aiding Donald Trump’s. Even so, as late as 2017, you can find articles claiming that “WikiLeaks is based on the value of knowledge,” and praising it because “WikiLeaks believes in a non-submissive culture.”

For most observers, it strains credulity to give WikiLeaks any benefit of the doubt anymore. Despite its posture of anti-authoritarianism, there is a clear pattern to WikiLeaks’ targets: It never criticizes Russia or publishes embarrassing information about it. In 2016, it reportedly turned down a trove of Russian government documents. The DNC emails that WikiLeaks published came from Russian intelligence. Assange has made paid appearances on Russian state TV. After Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor, stole and published a trove of classified information, WikiLeaks paid for his flight to Moscow and intervened with the government of Ecuador to help arrange his travel documents.

These facts, again, violate the code of professional ethics for journalists. The code instructs journalists to “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” and to “refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality.” WikiLeaks’ relationship with Russia—whatever its exact nature—certainly presents the appearance of a conflict of interests, at the very least, and heavily suggests that WikiLeaks’ integrity and impartiality is compromised. Whether or not Assange is a formally recruited agent of Russian intelligence, he acts like one. For all intents and purposes, he regularly and directly aids and abets Russia’s efforts to compromise American intelligence and American national security. 

The British court’s ruling about Assange’s extradition to the United States is the latest in a legal odyssey that stretches back to 2010 that involves Swedish charges of sexual misconduct, asylum in an Ecuadorian embassy, arrest and detention in London, and, of course, American charges of conspiracy and other crimes. Though he lost in the court of public opinion in 2016, his formal trial in the United States remains an important step to reinforcing legal norms and deterring copycats. Hopefully, it will also stand as a reminder to his former admirers to be more cautious about turning the next self-styled “journalist” who indiscriminately violates the profession’s ethical standards and compromises U.S. national security into a hero.