Newt Gingrinch has accused him of “information terrorism” and said he should be treated like an enemy combatant. Radio personality and columnist Jeffrey T. Kuhner has said the United States should treat him as they would any other high-profile terrorist target. And none other than former Nixon wonk G. Gordon Liddy has called for him to be added to the “kill list” of terrorists who can be assassinated without a trial.
Meanwhile, activists, hacktivists and some media are calling him a hero. Time readers have voted him Person of the Year, and the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence, a group of retired CIA officers, have given him the Sam Adams Award. Last and definitely least, Italy’s Rolling Stone magazine is honoring him as Rockstar of the Year.
So which is it? Is WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange a terrorist, or is he a new kind of media hero, using the Internet to expose the hypocrisy and collusion of the world’s governments?
Assange has gained worldwide fame and notoriety as the head of WikiLeaks, an international nonprofit “new media” organization that publishes submissions of otherwise unavailable documents leaked by anonymous sources. Though some media and the government portray WikiLeaks as an organization hostile to the U.S. government, the organization was founded in part to provide a safe outlet for people in countries like China, where simply writing about certain topics, such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, can result in imprisonment and execution.
WikiLeaks has claimed that its “primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behaviour in their governments and corporations.”
In just a few short years, WikiLeaks has won numerous awards for exposing events that otherwise might never have come to light, including police killings in Kenya, internal documents from an Icelandic bank showing unethical actions relating to that country’s financial collapse, and the content of secret Scientology “bibles.”
Although the U.S. government had WikiLeaks on its radar as far back as 2008 (according to leaked government memos published on WikiLeaks), the U.S. effort to criminalize Assange is the result of a string of published leaks from this year, starting with a video of a 2007 airstrike in Iraq, in which U.S. military personnel callously gunned down civilians and a Reuters photographer.
Then came the Afghan War Diary release, which included 76,900 documents about the war in Afghanistan. In October, WikiLeaks worked with other media to publish a package of nearly 400,000 documents it titled Iraq War Logs. Last month, WikiLeaks topped that by beginning the ongoing release of classified U.S. diplomatic cables.
There’s no doubt the U.S. State Department is embarrassed down to its dirty underwear by the content of these cables. But does that make Assange a terrorist or even a criminal?
Surprisingly, American politicians, normally so partisan, seem uniform in their agreement that it does — and that he ought to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. When reporters point out that the Constitution protects the media from government specifically so that newspapers and other media outlets can act as a government watchdog — the intent of the Founders when they wrote the free press provision of the First Amendment — politicos and talk show personalities then declare that Assange is not a journalist.
“Mr. Assange obviously has a particular political objective behind his activities, and I think that, among other things, disqualifies him as being considered a journalist,” declared State Department spokesman Philip Crowley.
By that standard, very few journalists are journalists, including Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and the entire reporting staff of FOX News.
Whether he’s a journalist or not, he’s certainly a publisher. His organization has laid bare the cynical underbelly of international politics, where Saudia Arabia hides behind the United States when it comes to Iran, where a U.S. company can use taxpayer dollars to hire a male child prostitute to entertain Afghan cops, and where the U.S. State Department colludes with the Spanish government to hinder a Spanish family from gaining justice for a Spanish reporter slain by U.S. troops.
As for Assange’s motivation, an unnamed acquaintance, speaking to the Guardian, had this to say: “He really does think that WikiLeaks is going to change the world… [H]e constantly expects that it will achieve change through telling the truth.”
If that’s true, then Assange shares an idealism common to investigative reporters everywhere, the belief, however naive, that the truth will set us free — and help us remain free.
So is he a terrorist? Of course not!
Is he a journalist? The day we let the U.S. government decide who’s a journalist and who isn’t, democracy is screwed.
The question we should be asking ourselves is, “Is the information in these leaks true?”