Though he started his career as a computer hacker, Julian Assange may be the most prolific journalist of our time. He also might be the most dangerous terrorist since 9/11. It depends on whom you ask: If it’s the U.S. government fielding the question, the answer would be the latter.
In a recent development with broad-reaching implications for freedom of the press in the United States and abroad, Assange may have discovered how arbitrarily the U.S. government decides who is and is not a journalist, and how the government is privatizing information to make it far more difficult for legitimate journalists to report on government activities. Mix in an accusation of a global insider-trading scheme, and the definition of journalism becomes as transparent as a well-organized spy ring.
Precisely what the founder of the website WikiLeaks has done to deserve his U.S. Department of Justice-sponsored leap from journalism to terrorist is far from clear. Ask an investigative reporter what they think about Assange’s organization obtaining and releasing more than half a million reports from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, plus thousands more secret messages between U.S. and foreign diplomats, and chances are you’d receive a sympathetic response.
If keeping the government open and its doings accessible to the people is journalism, then Assange is a journalist. Ask the government the same question, and it will say he should be arrested for it.
On Feb. 27, Assange found out the intentions of U.S. prosecutors: They want to indict him. They may already have done so — dating as far back as December 2010, according to information from the Australian embassy in Washington, D.C. — though that indictment has yet to be released officially. But the news of Assange’s alleged secret indictment didn’t come from the mouths of crusading journalists. It came from the hacker group Anonymous.
Anonymous allegedly stole an email from the private research service Strategic Forecasting Inc., also known as Stratfor, that was sent by an Australian government official. The subsequent release of the email was reported upon by the Sydney Morning Herald on leap day, indicating that a sealed indictment had already been drawn up for Assange, though precisely what crime he would be charged with remains unclear.
The company from which the email was stolen also has an interesting relationship with journalism. Stratfor publicly positions itself as a research and information firm, ostensibly for media purposes, frequently contracting with the U.S. government. Considering the role of journalists as the “fourth branch” of government — keeping the government in check through improving transparency — having a media company under contract with the government would seem to be a massive conflict of interest.
WikiLeaks, partnering with 25 other media outlets across the globe, has been working to expose Stratfor as not a media outlet, but rather a spy corporation that infiltrates and monitors public activist groups. It may also be using inside connections to obtain information that it then uses to manipulate the stock market and currency markets, Assange said.
“It is using this paid information from insiders in order to invest in what it calls a wide variety of geopolitical financial instruments,” Assange said at a press conference on Feb. 27 in London. “This makes News of the World look like kindergarten.”
Assange said Stratfor’s type of relationship with the government is becoming more common, pointing to recent moves by governments to contract intelligence work to private firms to avoid transparency.
“Intelligence organizations increasingly are privatized, and once privatized they’re taken out of the realm of the Freedom of Information Act, and of U.S. military law, so they’re often used by governments who want to conceal a particular activity,” Assange said.
The end result is a government that makes journalism, to a grave degree, illegal. Enter WikiLeaks and Anonymous again. They’re accused of operating as illegal hacker groups, but they do journalistic work, which they release to the public for free. In America we are explicitly our own government, but tacitly at the government’s mercy when we ask to know what it’s doing. WikiLeaks and Anonymous are being branded as terrorists for putting that information in the public spotlight. We should be far more terrified of the dark.