The U.S. Justice Department might have difficulty defining Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. The media also have trouble setting a name to what he has done.
He has portrayed himself as a cyber-age muckraker, crusading against government secrecy and skulduggery. Assange’s Wikipedia page says he’s “an Australian journalist, publisher, and Internet activist.” But if those words have ever described him accurately, they no longer apply. He is neither an investigative journalist, nor is he a whistle-blowing activist.
I can understand why the media have, to a certain extent, gone along with Assange’s self-description. In addition to serving in the military, I spent ten years with the broadcast division of the Associated Press, and we reporters love a hot tip, an anonymous leak. Some of my media colleagues have compared the Wikileaks document dump to Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the government’s own doubts about winning the Vietnam War.
Due to the value of inside sources, one might forgive reporters their habit of calling Wikileaks a “whistle-blower website.” Perhaps they saw Assange as a 21st-Century John Brown, a little crazy and using extreme methods, but serving a cause on the side of the angels.
However, a whistle-blower seeks to make things better. A whistle-blower works from inside an organization to call attention to wrongdoing. The thousands of classified documents released by Wikileaks have exposed no particular wrongdoing, at least none we didn’t already know about. They only revealed sensitive details about the diplomatic process, matters of prurient interest. Journalistic pornography.
That is, until Wikileaks released a list of sites and infrastructure considered vital to U.S. interests. The list ranges from a chemical manufacturer to an insulin plant to mines and oil facilities.
According to some reports, terrorist groups are already examining how they might use this target list, which Assange delivered on a silver platter.
As if that did not make clear enough Assange’s intent to harm, consider his next move. He announced he’d prepared the Internet equivalent of what his lawyer called a “thermonuclear device,” a cache of even more damaging material to be released automatically in the event of his death or prosecution.
That choice of metaphor tells us much about his allegiances, or lack thereof. Ian Fleming could not have written a more anarchic villain, attacking not just the U.S. but diplomacy itself. Now that he’s been arrested in London on sex crime allegations, maybe we’ll see what comes of his threat.
The journalist in me can no longer see Assange as any kind of a source. But as a military veteran, I know what he has become: If not an enemy combatant, as Newt Gingrich has called him, then at least an enemy sympathizer. Perhaps not exactly a terrorist, but plainly someone willing to hurt anybody in an effort to hurt the U.S. Someone planting Internet IEDs in a crowded marketplace, blowing up anyone nearby.
Prosecutors might understandably have trouble deciding which security laws, if any, Assange has broken. Technology has raced ahead of the statutes. And the motives of someone apparently bent on sabotage for its own sake stretches even the boundaries of believable fiction.
His specific violation may be unclear, but his crime is not. He has committed an act of war against…everyone. Against international relations. Against world order.
Whatever your politics, think of that the next time you fly, enter a hospital, pump gas, or punch an elevator button in a tall building. Whistle-blowing is one thing; anarchy is something else.