December 8, 2010

Julian Assange: 2010's Scapegoat of the Year

A UK police van transports WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to court

In his latest commentary regarding WikiLeaks, prominent conservative Max Boot unsurprisingly struts the GOP line by calling for Julian Assange’s head. More surprising is how Boot welcomed conspiracy theorists with open arms. After denouncing the White House’s “farcical” response to WikiLeaks, Boot suggests that the Espionage Act be amended to punish future “cyber-vandals” and non-U.S. leakers like Assange.

“We can’t rely on the Swedish courts to lock up Assange for rape - not when the apparent facts of the case appear to be as bizarre as they are.”

Whether Assange’s actions are “constitutional” remains unclear. Many U.S. officials and pundits, along with a sizable segment of the public, believe they aren’t and favor new laws if they are. The remaining populace, along with those outside of America, are far less certain that Assange has committed any real wrong doing. Few view Sweden’s sudden re-ignition of his “rape” case without a healthy degree of skepticism, believing that U.S officials need time to author a new law.

The absolute certainty: Washington is scapegoating Assange with an effortless linguistic switch.

U.S. officials and the obedient mainstream media argue that WikiLeaks’ latest diplomatic revelations damage U.S. foreign policy. Although some truth is buried within this claim, the full truth is that WikiLeaks revealed a damaged foreign policy. Aware of this, Washington embarked upon an immediate spin campaign to scapegoat Assange while ignoring the information he actually disclosed. U.S. policy errors in Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen have been dumped on him - as if this would fool attentive observers.

Consider The Wall Street Journal’s outlook
, which speaks for a good portion of America (many commentators have raided it for their own purposes). First the WSJ argues, “In most cases, of course, the leaks merely pull back the curtain on disputes and the character of global leaders that are already widely known.” It then blames Assange for revealing two widely known “secrets”: U.S. duplicity in Yemen and attempts to secure Pakistan’s weapon-grade nuclear fuel.

“The cables expose this fiction,” the WSJ writes of Yemen, as if it were hidden, “and now may jeopardize that cooperation, even as the terrorist threat from Yemen has increased.”

The WSJ, of course, favors escalation regardless of the political and social consequences inside Yemen.

Similarly, Pakistan’s “revelation will play as an affront to national sovereignty inside Pakistan” - as if Washington doesn’t offend Pakistan’s sovereignty at any given moment. The WSJ has personally led charges to delegitimize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. And why is Assange at fault for the countless millions seeping out of Afghanistan through its officials’ briefcases?

Because the WSJ adamantly supports the war - just like the U.S. government.

Furthermore, Assange is being held accountable for Washington’s careless storage of classified U.S. information, of which thousands of government employees had access to. Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd came to Assange’s aid by declaring, "The core of all this lies with the failure of the government of the United States to properly protect its own diplomatic communications.”

On top of whitewashing an errant foreign policy stands Washington’s real objective, as the WSJ accurately explains: “One lesson is that it is much harder to keep secrets in the Internet age, so our government is going to have to learn to keep fewer secrets and confine them to fewer people.”

As a by-product of his fight against government secrecy and unaccountability, Assange has accelerated information control into the 21st century. Having waited for justification to expand its control, Washington is now squeezing WikiLeaks for all its worth.

Dragging out Assange’s legal process offers no additional benefits. His extradition to Sweden or America is shaping up to be a protracted fight due to legal ambiguity, heightened media attention, public sensitivity. Assange is scheduled for a December 14th court appearance, although not much is expected from his hearing as Western officials continue formulating their options.

But the U.S. government is foolish to keep Assange in the spotlight and WikiLeaks dripping. WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson Tweeted on Wednesday, "We will not be gagged, either by judicial action or corporate censorship... WikiLeaks is still online.”

And random groups will join the fray, lured by a common cause.

In a statement released by Anonymous, a network that hacked Amazon, Mastercard, and Visa, the group claims, "While we don't have much of an affiliation with WikiLeaks, we fight for the same reasons. We want transparency and we counter censorship... we intend to utilize our resources to raise awareness, attack those against and support those who are helping lead our world to freedom and democracy."

Despite their differences, WikiLeaks and Washington’s position is roughly the same: past the point of return. While dangling Assange makes for poor politics and easy propaganda, Washington now faces the challenge of finishing him off. No weakness can be shown at this point, even if an overbearing policy further weakens America’s credibility and image.

Assange isn’t being treated in a vacuum - the ground from which leakers spring forth must be salted too.

The WSJ calls for such an attack: “At a minimum, the Administration should throw the book at those who do the leaking, including the option of the death penalty. That would probably give second thoughts to the casual spy or to leakers who fancy themselves as idealists.”

But since when have idealists be discouraged by punishment? While the U.S. government has no choice except to clean up multiplying leakers, it should shift its internal focus to cleaning up a dirty foreign policy. The WSJ expects people to believe that Assange is committing, “a hostile act against a democracy that is fighting a war against forces bent on killing innocents.”

Part of people’s skepticism stems from the reality that America kills its share of innocents and covers up, that it suppresses democracy to aid friendly authoritarian governments.

Although the WSJ’s tone is overtly styled in war rhetoric, Assange has provoked an infowar aimed at restraining U.S. hegemony. Writing for The Huffington Post, Josh Mull raises the valid point that, by defining WikiLeaks as a “war,” the U.S. government is fed the necessary justification to declare self-defense. Assange was simply performing a journalistic act after receiving classified documents with Bradley Manning, and qualifies for freedom of speech.

Assange’s enemies want to define his actions as “warfare,” and himself as a “terrorist.” Thus Mull concludes: “Stop giving the government an excuse for repression.” A point well taken. Unfortunately Mull’s draws upon a primitive concept of “war."

“The problem is that war is real,” he writes. “Terrorists don't leak cables, they murder people. Insurgents don't campaign for legislation, they kill the foreign soldiers occupying their lands and the puppet governments working for them. It's not cool to be in their shoes, it's terrible, the worst thing you can imagine.”

This definition is classic third-generation warfare, when WikiLeaks represents the full glory of fourth-generation warfare: the blurring of military and non-military. A terrorist or insurgent isn’t limited to killing, but wields an arsenal of political and media tactics to control the flow and perception of information. Nor is warfare limited to terrorists and insurgents. Non-state actors practicing asymmetric warfare - often activists or hackers - is exactly the type of warfare expected in the 21st century.

This is real war.

Not every war aims for, “the complete destruction of society and basic human decency.” Especially fourth-generation warfare, which aims to break an enemy’s political will rather than destroy his territory. Fourth-generation warfare competes for information, for truth, and Wikileaks is locked in such a war with Washington. A war of politics, psychology, and technology.

A blame war - one that Assange is currently winning.


  1. Now they are chasing cyber ghosts. :-)

  2. The hacking community is a bad hornet's nest to provoke, but Washington can't back down now. It has to go all in regardless of the collateral damage. Its blinders are super-glued on.

  3. One point: dragging out proceedings against Assange not only gives US officials time to try to conjure a basis for prosecuting him under US law, it also consumes mass quantities of Assange's and Wikileaks' time, energy, and financial resources, doubtless making them less effective than they'd otherwise be.