In an age of non-state players, “leaking” government secrets to the Web plays the same role that traditional espionage played in the Cold War.
If Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had lived in the 21st century, they would have given atom-bomb secrets to Julian Assange, not the Soviet Union.
Fury is now being directed at Assange due to the lack of a tangible nation-state opponent in this case. Someone has to fill the role of “bad guy.” But the public’s anger is misdirected. Julian Assange is not the source of the leaks; he is simply the mechanism through which they have been publicized. Bradley Manning is the real villain here, since he is the one who violated his oath to protect and serve his country, and to guard national secrets. Assange has never sworn to protect the United States; not only is he not in the U.S. military, but he was never given access to classified documents, and he’s not even an American citizen. Consequently, he has no allegiance to the United States, nor should we expect him to respect our laws or defend our national interest.
Nihilism Is Not a Crime
It’s not that I like Julian Assange or have sympathy for him; in my opinion, he’s an anti-American political nihilist who takes adolescent pleasure in tearing everything down just for the fun of it. But that doesn’t mean I think he’s committed a crime. Is he malicious? Certainly. Unethical? Probably. But criminal? Not so much.
As much as I hate his politics, I can’t bring myself to zero in on Assange as the supervillain here. He is simply a name we have affixed to a tactic — the tactic of disseminating information on the Internet. As you may know, by now there are innumerable “mirrors” of the Wikileaks files — identical duplicates put online and hosted by sympathetic anarchists and hackers all over the world. Even if Julian Assange and Wikileaks had never existed, the same information would have been available on the Internet; all Assange provided was a brand name and publicity. If it had not been Assange putting the leaked documents online, it would have been someone else. Once the information is leaked, it has been leaked — the horse is out of the barn. There’s no point in chasing it around the field, because you’ll never be able to catch it; nor will you be able to build a new enclosure fast enough and big enough to capture it. Nor do you curse the field for playing host to the horse. Just assume that once the horse is out, it’s gone. Instead, try to find out who left the barn door open in the first place, to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And (if the news reports are true), that person is Bradley Manning.
To borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan: Julian Assange is the Wicked Messenger, the man who takes glee in bringing bad news. Yet despite his ill-intent, his sanctimonious attitude, and his undeserved attention, he is in the final analysis just a messenger. We may hate him and hate his message and hate the pleasure he derives from delivering it, but he did not create the message. He should be dismissed from the stage and quickly forgotten.