Does Assange really embody the democratic ideal?

As the late Tony Judt wrote in a New York Review of Books essay on Henry Kissinger, “‘secrecy’ [is] an inevitable component of policymaking in any sensitive area, and one for which there are appropriate and legitimate institutional structures.” Judt goes on to differentiate between secrecy, which is necessary, and deception, which is reprehensible. This distinction is at the heart of the debate over WikiLeaks.

It is natural to be excited about the idea of WikiLeaks after eight infuriating years of lies and duplicity from the Bush administration. Certainly, the concept of an organization dedicated to exposing a government’s hidden misdeeds – keeping it honest – is a valuable service to any liberal democracy. But the reality of WikiLeaks is more complex than this simple notion.

There are essentially two issues of concern: the idea of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange himself.  Some have claimed that attacking Assange personally carries no weight in the debate. Of course, using his alleged sexual offenses as an argument against WikiLeaks is ad hominem – but not all criticisms are. Assange has stated, “I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier and all the rest.” This megalomaniacal declaration, if accurate, makes Assange and WikiLeaks the same issue.

The existence of WikiLeaks appears to be defined by Assange’s one-man show. What is the first thing you see when you go to the WikiLeaks website? Assange, looking earnest and absorbing. This is a personal project. Over a dozen employees have left the organization recently, citing Assange’s autocratic methods as the reason. Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Assange’s former number two, was suspended for disagreeing with his boss, and subsequently left. Citing internal backlash over the unredacted Afghan leaks, which many WikiLeakers disagreed with, Domscheit-Berg told The Times (London), “It has stifled the necessary discussion about roles and responsibilities. Our raison d’etre is transparency, yet we were not transparent ourselves.”

Assange however, does not seem to like it when the shoe is on the other foot, walking out on more than one interview for receiving an unwelcome question and throwing a fit when his police report was leaked to The Guardian; he also derided all of WikiLeaks’ internal whistleblowers: “these are not consequential people.”

The common defense is that WikiLeaks has a team of pro journalists who vet the info before releasing it. But who are they?  The public has been allowed no names or backgrounds of these “professionals” – we don’t know who they are. The irony of course, is that Assange and WikiLeaks are incredibly secretive – the excuse being to protect their security (sound familiar?). The naivety in believing only what WikiLeaks says about itself is an exercise in denial – one assumes that this abandonment of critical thinking is out of hope that WikiLeaks is what it claims to be.

But the reality belies this. True, they have been more careful with redactions for the diplomatic dump, but the fact is that in the Iraq and Afghan lot, sensitive names were included, not to mention the social security numbers of U.S. soldiers and details of equipment designed to save soldiers’ lives. Assange and his supporters have claimed that these kinds of leaks are nothing new (the “But mom, everybody’s doing it!” defense), but that does not absolve them from moral responsibility. Also, it’s not for nothing that Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have contacted WikiLeaks to complain – organizations not known to tow the U.S. government line.

The simple fact is that WikiLeaks has decided to pick a fight with the United States.  Their next project is allegedly a batch of documents from the Bank of America – this, after the consecutive Iraq War, Afghan War and the State Department leaks, shows a pattern.

The irony of it all of course, is that the massive quantity of diplomatic cables shows American diplomats doing their job quite well. In the same essay, Judt makes clear that “in a democracy the government is not only obliged but is also well advised to give a running account of what it is doing and why.” Given that the cables revealed that the United States has been doing what it’s been saying it’s doing, it seems that the Obama administration is dutifully fulfilling this responsibility. To use Judt’s dichotomy, the necessary secrecy remains, but deception is in short supply.

However, many political analysts have pointed out that the leaks could severely damage international diplomacy. Those who rejoice in the decline of American power must still accept that the U.S. remains a prevailing diplomatic powerbroker – maintaining peace, in Israel/Palestine, North Korea, Iran or Saudi Arabia, requires American diplomacy to be at the top of its game. Considering the potential damage to diplomatic nuance, and the fact that no corrupt, conspiratorial evil was uncovered, the good of the leaks did not outweigh the bad.

Yet many of Assange’s defenders remain petulant and uncompromising, characterizing every criticism as an all-out assault on free speech. But they are defending the idea, not the reality. The idea, to serve as a worldwide whistleblowers’ platform, “became a problem as soon as we started to take sides,” says Domscheit-Berg.

Assange should not be thrown in jail for his organization – anyways, he is simply a publisher; Bradley Manning is the actual leaker. Assange is not, as so many in the U.S. have called him, a traitor. Being a traitor requires betraying a pledge of allegiance to something. Nor is he a journalist. Julian Assange is an activist, and a decidedly anti-American one. Now, for his fellow anti-Americans his veneration makes sense; but for advocates of democracy, free press and transparency, deifying the man is foolish. As Domscheit-Berg has stressed, WikiLeaks has chosen to become simply an enemy of the U.S. to the detriment of its raison d’etre.

Assange, in an interview in Der Spiegel, declared simply, “I enjoy helping people who are vulnerable. And I enjoy crushing bastards.” A fair enough statement, though it could have easily been said by an American neoconservative. Far from being a democratic organization made up of checks and balances, faithfully adhering to a collective ideal, WikiLeaks is an organization that “targets,” and the targets are whomever Assange deems a bastard.

Of course, WikiLeaks should be supported as a purveyor of democratic transparency, but only if that’s what it is, and only if it is this collective idea driving the organization, and not Assange’s own self-importance. WikiLeaks ceases to be an independent concept if it exists merely as Assange’s own personal fiefdom. Ultimately, it is either Assange’s soapbox or the worldwide whistleblower it was conceived to be – it cannot be both.

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