Assange and His Liberal Critics

Julian Assange

The U.S. government’s slow but steady march toward prosecuting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has picked up momentum in recent weeks. The Justice Department has subpoenaed the Twitter account information of WikiLeaks and several of its supporters as part of its “ongoing criminal investigation.” Facebook and Google are rumored to have received similar court orders. An indictment under the Espionage Act appears most likely, although conspiracy charges are reportedly being considered as well.

One charge the Australian Assange won’t be facing is treason. Not that some haven't entertained the idea. In December, Joe Lieberman was asked on Fox News what he made of the Justice Department’s failure to prosecute Assange as a traitor. “I’m not sure why that hasn’t happened yet,” Lieberman replied. His apparent belief that the United States could slap a treason charge on a foreign national elicited predictable howls of derision from liberals. Even the conservative New York Sun took a dig the next day at the Connecticut senator's cluelessness. “The Founders just didn’t trust the Congress [to define treason], and to listen to Senator Lieberman, one can understand why.” 

If a few conservatives stood up to defend Assange against accusations of treason, many more liberals have blasted him for its journalistic equivalent. Peter Beinart, former editor of The New Republic, condemned Assange soon after the release of the first leaked State Department cables for “publishing documents that sabotage American foreign policy without adding much, if anything, to the public debate.” Jamie Rubin, a former assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, called WikiLeaks’ actions “a cyber attack on the United States in general” for undermining American diplomats’ relationships with global leaders.

In light of these criticisms, it is worth reiterating one basic fact: Julian Assange is Australian. How is it then that he’s responsible for protecting American foreign policy interests? Suppose an American journalist published, say, Chinese diplomatic cables. Would Assange’s critics find that act equally reprehensible? Of course not.

So why the double standard? It’s quite simple, really. Assange’s detractors, even those deeply critical of American policies themselves, consider U.S. foreign policy writ large presumptively good. Their world exists in sharp contrasts of black and white. Anything that undermines American foreign policy is, therefore, objectively bad. Call it the “you’re either with us or you’re against us” syndrome, version 2.0. 

Take Rubin’s convoluted argument to CNN’s John Roberts on why WikiLeaks’ actions are so irresponsible. “If the U.S. needs the help … of the leader of Yemen to attack a terrorist group planning an attack on the United States, and that leader refuses to publically support us because of its own problems, we as Americans trying to defend our national security interests need to be able to have a private conversation with him … about how to go about defending the country … and if that leader knows that that statement or actions that he takes privately are going to be made public, he may not do them, and terrorist cells may not be destroyed, and Americans may die because of the irresponsibility of these people.”

Never mind that a number of experts have openly questioned the wisdom, not to mention the morality, of U.S. support for Yemen’s corrupt and authoritarian government, which according to Human Rights Watch has engaged in war crimes in its conflicts with domestic adversaries and elements of which have been linked to al Qaeda. According to Rubin’s logic, journalists must defer to the government’s policy judgments and keep their mouths shut—even if they’re Australian.

CNN’s generally liberal legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin argued as much during an appearance on Parker/Spitzer, where he seemed to suggest that only the government is justified in disclosing classified national security information. Said Toobin, “If you intend to simply blow out 250,000 documents that are at tremendous—putting individuals at risk, the United States government employees at risk, people who cooperate with the United States government at risk—that is not up to Julian Assange. That is up to the United States government.” (It should be noted there is positively zero evidence that anyone has died or been physically harmed as a result of the some 2,000 cables published so far, nor as a result of the previously leaked field reports from Afghanistan and Iraq.)

There are plenty of valid criticisms of Assange. He endangered innocent lives with the leaked field reports from Afghanistan, which failed to protect the identities of informants and other vulnerable individuals. His publication of a college sorority’s “secret ritual” and the private rites of groups including Masons and Mormons for no discernible journalistic purpose, as noted by the Federation of American Scientists’ Steven Aftergood, comes across as churlish, his belief in the virtue of near-total transparency naïve.

His refusal to kowtow to the expectations of American pundits punch drunk on some amped-up version of American exceptionalism, however, is not one of them. There are certain universal standards to which all journalists should be held to account—accuracy in reporting, respect for sources’ confidentiality wishes, care to protect innocent life. If fidelity to American foreign policy has suddenly become another, one can hardly blame Julian Assange if he didn’t get the memo.

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