The swiftness with which the Right and Left have banded together in supporting the criminal prosecution of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is unnerving. A surprisingly few number of voices are willing to question the political trajectory of the Wikileaks controversy. Over the last several days, characters as varied as Sarah Palin, Attorney General Eric Holder, Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld, and White House officials have either referred to Julian Assange as a criminal worthy of prosecution, even going so far as to label Assange a “terrorist,” in the case of Republican New York congressman Pete King. In the case of Palin, she equated Assange to al-Qaeda, and referred to Assange as “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands.”
Beware the AWC
The Anti-Wikileaks Coalition (AWC), comprised of a surreal group of otherwise-clashing Tea Party populists, nanny-state-hungry Progressives, and professed libertarians such as Gutfeld, is disconcerting. It is disconcerting, not because of fear for Mr. Assange’s well-being, but for the precedents that will be set and abused further down the line.
The AWC front seems to be predicated on the idea of safeguarding national security (i.e. “protecting the troops”). I would argue, however, that because the banner of national security is being waved, there exists a more urgent need in questioning the quickly-consolidating political stance on the possible prosecution of Assange. Let me be clear about one thing, however: I believe that Pfc. Bradley Manning, the military officer who leaked the material to Assange should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, even if the leaked materials did nothing to jeopardize national security. Clearly, Manning should be prosecuted for the illegal distribution of the material. The secondary recipient of the documents, however, should not. This is an issue that I would venture to say few have failed to consider; it reveals a contradiction in principle.
The Future Implications of Prosecuting Julian Assange
For instance, Wikileaks makes available the documents on its website, for unfettered viewing—and downloading. It is safe to say that thousands have downloaded the material already. Many of those people, including news sources and individuals, have subsequently made available the information to others, either in part or whole. For those who believe the Espionage Act requires the prosecution of Assange, you should also demand—unwaveringly—the prosecution of all whose IP addresses logged into Wikileaks and downloaded the dangerous material. Next, you must forcefully insist on the detainment and prosecution of those who obtained the materials from those people.
We are talking about containment of a national security breach here, people. This is a matter of national security. If you actively sought to lay eyes on this material, and then either told someone else what you had seen or shared it digitally, you are contributing to the further debilitation of national security. You are doing the exact same thing Julian Assange did. This classified information must be contained.
Let’s venture back to reality now. The central fact is that the government failed in its security measures. A soldier took privileged information—some of it important—and violated an explicit trust. Pfc. Manning broke a clear law for which penalties were laid out. The government failed, in the sense of a systematic failure, and in the person of Bradley Manning. Julian Assange is just the egomaniac who happened to acquire the information and distribute it. One egomaniac handed another egomaniac the information. The difference is that only the first was bound by clear legal terms and a military code.
Suppose that Julian Assange had not acted as a middle man. Suppose instead that Pfc. Manning had anonymously posted the information at Blogspot or something. Let’s say in three days, 200 people (who happen to enjoy conspiracy-surfing) came upon the material, further spreading it through hyperlinks and posts. In a week, 6000 people have seen it. Then someone in the media comes across it and realizes the voyeuristic gravity of the material, publishing it for millions to see. Should the government detain and prosecute the 200 people? What about the 6000? What about the media publisher? Should the government seize the paper before it is published and prosecute any who attempt to acquire its contents?
In a word, you can hate the messenger and deny his purity motives (Assange), but don’t kill him. The clear and present danger was Pfc. Bradley Manning.
Everyone misses the fact that the bulk—if not the entirety—of gross constitutional injustices in America’s history that occurred in the sacrosanct name of His Supreme Majesty National Security. I am not mocking the notion of protecting national security; I am mocking its appropriation by power-hungry people who realize the immunity it affords their policies.
Woodrow Wilson: The Patriotic Police State
Three historical examples demonstrate the way that the United States government throws national security around as an excuse to control Americans. Consider the Great War of 1914-1918, in which President Woodrow Wilson provided 20th century America with a flirtation in totalitarianism. In the name of protecting the democracy—i.e. national security—Americans were imprisoned for long periods of time, and “Americans were arrested and indicted for casual remarks made in private conversation.” All of this made possible in the name of national security. Libertarian Joseph Stromberg writes:
…the country was overrun with vicious morons. Some of the morons were judges, legislators, and bureaucrats. Others arose from the masses, so to speak, to demand that the people make political war on themselves, the better to fight those terrible Germans. On any fair reading of the period, there was probably more real freedom of speech in Germany and in the German Reichstag in the same years than in the “home of the free” or the World’s Greatest (and Least) Deliberative Body.
FDR: Defending Freedom with Incarceration
In the Second World War, FDR—under the guise of protecting national security—deemed Japanese-Americans (also known as “citizens”) to be enough of a possible threat. This Democrat’s solution was to throw the citizenry into camps. Over 100,000 Japanese-Americans ended up being incarcerated in internment camps after FDR signed Executive Order 9066, all in the name of protecting national security after Pearl Harbor. Much of this was done with the help of surveillance-obsessed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Nixon: How to Save Face When the Supreme Court Says ‘No’
While the WWI and WWII examples are perverse in their own right, neither parallels the Wikileaks situation as much as the Pentagon Papers and President Nixon’s response to the breach. The official Vietnam War narrative was turned upside down when Daniel Ellsberg, a government analyst, submitted thousands of secret government documents to several major U.S. newspapers. The documents essentially revealed the war to be based on a fraud, and caused major headaches for the Nixon administration. In a conversation with President Nixon, Nixon’s aide, H.R. Haldeman, national security was not pointed to as the problem. Rather, the problem centered on the notion that people might begin to doubt the credibility of the president:
[people begin to believe] you can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment; and the implicit infallibility of presidents…it shows that people do the things the President wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the President can be wrong.
Following the release, Nixon referred to Ellsberg’s actions as “treasonable.” Hearing, trials, and injunctions ensued.
I find it strange that the latest release of Wikileaks are the ones that are acting as the catalyst for broadly-supported criminalization of Wikileaks. The latest release, rather than focusing so much on military logistics, is more notable because it exposes the embarrassing, not so much the tactical, military aspect. Yet, “Cablegate” is motivating the most avid response from policymakers, the White House, and the State Department. Apparently, people are motivated by self-interest more than anything else.
In Nixon’s case, the Supreme Court barred the prosecution of those who publicized the materials, and Ellsberg himself was cleared when all charges were dropped. It had emerged that Ellsberg had been the victim of illegal wiretapping and break-ins had occurred (courtesy of Nixon). It also emerged that physical harm to Ellsberg was also in the works, as a workaround to checks and balances.
Again, all of this was superficially in the name of protecting national security. In reality, however, it was a matter of protecting reputation and political credibility.
The Obama Administration: Thinking a Few Steps Ahead
These leaks have happened. Now is response time. Yet, before you join the lynch mob, consider the following about President Obama:
This is the same administration which, when opposition to ObamaCare was at a fever-pitch, set up an email account by which Americans could report on those who had “fishy” criticisms of the proposed healthcare legislation. Remember?
This is same administration which desires the ad hoc power to shut down the information grid (the internet) simply by declaring a threat to cybersecurity. Remember?
This is the same administration under who the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department just gained the power to shut down individual websites without due process, simply by the ad hoc declaration of copyright infringement. Remember?
This is the same administration who appointed an Attorney General whose law firm represented terrorist detainees. Wow, really big on national security. Also, given the fact that the administration was insistent on civilian trials, and said detainee was acquitted on 99% of all counts, the administration’s national security credibility should be strongly questioned. Remember?
This is the same administration which operates—openly—under the assumption that you should never “let a crisis go to waste; it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid.”
Americans only have one question facing them: do we really want to hand this administration (and future ones) the precedent of arresting and prosecuting those who come across information that is deemed critical to national security? Keep in mind, the notion of “national security” is not exactly black and white. While the Assange incident may seem to be on the clearer side in terms of relating to national security, it could be extended into much blurrier areas.
Move On: Learning from Information Failures
Military bureaucrats, strengthen the information safeguards. Mr. Attorney General and other White House officials, I understand this crisis provides too much regulatory opportunity for you to abstain. Sarah Palin, your willingness to subscribe to ridiculous parallels between terrorists and an attention-starved hacker tells me you would be quick to sloppily shove through Patriot Act 2.0 in a crisis situation. Don’t count on my vote. Gutfeld, I love Red Eye and consider it the conservative antidote to the liberal comedic stylings of The Daily Show—but you simply ignore the subtleties of this issue by jumping on the prosecution bandwagon. On Monday’s episode of Red Eye, you stood up to be counted when the topic of prosecuting Assange came up. In your Big Hollywood post, you disregarded the real threat of ad hoc regulation and said the only “chilling effect” to be feared was the population’s fear of their email being made public through something like Wikileaks.
Understandably, one might accuse me of jumping the gun on the significance of the Wikileaks issue. Rather than standing on a slippery slope, I am just looking down from the mountain of political history on this one.