WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange committed the worst possible crime, but it’s not the one that the U.S. government wants to prosecute him for. His most serious offense isn’t the theft or publication of thousands of documents, but the loss of face he has caused for some very powerful people.
Hillary Clinton has vowed to vigorously investigate and prosecute those responsible, but who is really to blame? Julian Assange published the documents, and it may be possible to prove he had some complicity in the theft, but he has no responsibility for the lapses in security, and he certainly wasn’t the author of these documents.
Australia’s foreign minister has said the US is to blame for the release of thousands of diplomatic cables on Wikileaks, not its Australian founder, Julian Assange. He went on to say that these leaks throw into question the state of American security. Mr. Rudd certainly isn’t the only one who feels that WikiLeaks is being used to divert attention from those who should be taking at least some of the responsibility for this diplomatic disaster. There appears to be at least as much support for Julian Assange as for those trying to prosecute him.
Attempts to shut down WikiLeaks only resulted in thousands of mirror sites taking over, and companies cutting off WikiLeaks’ funding saw their sites targeted. The American authorities, not surprisingly, labeled those responsible as criminal hackers. Others see their actions as a legitimate protest against government control.
It’s convenient to keep the focus on Julian Assange, and away from American liability or criminal wrongdoing. There is a concerted effort to label these leaks as a foreign attack, and even an act of terrorism, but is this an accurate interpretation of the facts, or simply face-saving spin by an embarrassed government?
Julian Assange makes a convenient scapegoat, as a foreigner and head of an organization that operates outside of the United States. American authorities would love to make him the sole villain in this affair.
Is there any reality to the idea that this diplomatic fiasco is entirely the work of a foreign terrorist organization? It is at best a shaky premise. The idea that Julian Assange is a professional spy, who infiltrated American security agencies to make off with thousands of classified documents, is hard to swallow. Branding a website that merely publishes whatever embarrassing information that comes its way a terrorist organization only makes U.S. officials look silly (or desperate).
The actual theft resulted from a combination of ineptitude and an insider with a grudge. Pte. Bradley Manning had little trouble hacking into government computers to steal classified information that he shouldn’t have had access to. The government’s case against Mr. Assange hinges on the degree to which he may have instigated the theft. Being actively involved in obtaining classified information is much more serious than simply publishing it.
Now U.S. authorities are reputedly offering Mr. Manning a plea bargain in return for implicating Assange in the theft. Considering the seriousness of the charges faced by Manning, it will be difficult for him to refuse some sort of deal, but will the world see this as justice?
The American government already looks bad enough. If the rest of the world sees the prosecution of Julian Assange as nothing more than a show trial with trumped-up evidence, designed to blame foreigners for something that is really more a domestic issue, then mild resentment over the contents of the documents could turn into real hostility.
There is a big difference between American authorities making a legitimate attempt to defend against foreign attack, and using brute force, as the world’s most powerful country, to launch a witch-hunt, for no other purpose than to divert attention from themselves. If the Justice Department succeeds in convicting the head of WikiLeaks of espionage, and putting him in jail for a long time, will the rest of the world see this as democracy in action, or the long arm of a vengeful Uncle Sam?
Important, powerful people don’t appreciate being made to look foolish, and need their revenge. If this is the real reason for the government’s aggressive pursuit of Julian Assange, and they are willing to go to any lengths to prove that this whole affair can be pinned on foreign agents, then the result could prove more humiliating than the contents of the documents.
American relations with other governments have suffered serious setbacks from these leaks. Politicians have a God-given talent for making bad situations worse, and are well on their way to turning embarrassment into diplomatic disaster.