For the past several weeks, public has been treated to a spectacle that has swung between national security calamity and out-and-out farce.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has many talents and interesting qualities. His computer hacking skills are the stuff of legend. He is a master at media manipulation. His secrecy, his mysterious travel habits, his theatrics and his fear of assassination by U.S. government hitmen have given him a Jason Bourne-like quality.
So who is Julian Assange and, more importantly, what does he want?
Prior to getting into the Screw-the-Man game, Assange had created minor waves by publishing Scientology manuals and Sarah Palin’s personal e-mails on his site. Then he hit the motherload when he released “Collateral Murder,” a 17-minute video of an Apache airstrike in Baghdad. Edited by Assange and his team in Iceland, one of his bases of operation, the video went viral and generated weeks of discussion and debate (details about the clip’s production were detailed in a recent New Yorker profile of Assange). What disturbed many about the clip were the converstations between the soldiers reminiscent of the gallows humor familiar to “Law and Order” devotees. But missing from the video was a crucial element: Context. No background was given on what happened prior to the strike, why the pilots were given the green light to fire or how intense the insurgent activity activity was prior to the strike. To his credit, Assange released the raw unedited footage along with the edited clip.
Assange’s latest grenade came in the form of tens of thousands documents leaked to the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel a month prior to making the documents public on his Web site — a time when Assange was supposedly a Jason Bourne-like fugitive running from U.S. government assassins. Assange had already created a minor drama by having his people leak the news that this spring Australian authorities had confiscated his passport in Melbourne. What was left out of the breathless story was that the passport was taken after Assange was told it was worn out, a totally routine practice, and returned 15 minutes later. At one point while collaborating with the papers on their stories Assange was sleeping on a New York Times reporter’s couch. Some manhunt.
Assange’s recent document dump launched Assange into the publicity stratosphere. Initially the information contained in the documents was greeted with excitement, then a collective yaw. Upon closer scrutiny, however, the press discovered that some of the documents published on WikiLeaks contained a ticking bomb: The names of Afghan informats and their families as well as GPS coordinates of their locations. Initally Assange’s position was that he would “deeply regret” any harm caused by the disclosures. Gradually criticism of Assange’s decision to potentially endanger the lives of the Afghans started getting more intense and Assange began attempting to flee the kitchen. In a clumsy attempt to maintain the moral high ground, Assange told the press that many informers in Afghanistan were “acting in a criminal way” by sharing false information with NATO authorities. He added that the White House knew that informants’ names could be exposed before the release but did nothing to help WikiLeaks to vet the data. He insisted that any risk to informants’ lives was outweighed by the overall importance of publishing the information.
Assange’s claim that the White House was to blame for the exposure of the informants was a bit rich. He had already publicly blasted the New York Times for running their story by the White House before publication.
Assange is now involved in an amusing back-and-forth with the Pentagon. He has asked that the Pentagon help him review the remaining 15,000 documents he allegedly has in his possession. The Defense Department has responded by requesting that Assange return the documents. Perhaps they missed the memo about horses and barn doors. More to come.
The serious potential damage to the U.S. done by these documents is one of trust. If an Army private with a history of indiscreet behavior can allegedly steal documents so easily, turn to accomplices for assistance and then blab about his deed, what does that show our allies about the U.S.’s ability to keep secrets? How do we regain the trust of Afghans who risk their lives to assist NATO forces? The intelligence overall may be old. The headaches are new.
So should Julian Assange fear for his life? Consider his history. He travels on a run-of-the-mill Australian passport. Since launching WikiLeaks there have been no reported instances of Assange being denied a visa. He has traveled around the world unmolested. He has never been questioned, detained or jailed. There has been no extradition order issued by any country. He has not been kidnapped or, obviously, bumped off. He participates in panel discussions and, when he has something to promote, makes frequent media appearances. After the documents leaked he surfaced in London, where following his press conference he gave back-to-back interviews for several days. No car chases, no multiple passports with false identities, no shootouts. He’s fairly out in the open for a man on the lam. Either he’s an escape artist whose talent surpasses Houdini’s or the assassins should bone up on their skills by watching a few episodes of 24. Or maybe the whole episode has been a bit exaggerated. Whether he winds up in jail, or even charged with any crime, remains to be seen.
For a total transparency absolutist, Assange is mighty secretive about his operation. Maybe somewhere there’s a bright, hungry young journalist doing some digging. Maybe he or she will launch a Web site revealing Assange’s travel intinerary, his visa information, the GPS coordinates of his mother and son, the names and addresses of his paid and volunteer staff, a complete list of donors and his and WikiLeaks’ bank records. If that happens it’ll be interesting to see Assange’s reaction.