- Assange and WikiLeaks - was what was on ‘the label’ what was inside ‘the can’?
- Was Assange and WikiLeaks a whistleblowing journalistic agency interested only in free speech and government transparency?
- Leaks have sparked a continuing and needed debate about intelligence oversight in liberal democratic states
A Charles Sturt University (CSU) intelligence and security expert argues that the legacy of Julian Assange (pictured left) suggests that not all ‘whistleblowers’ are promoting freedom of speech, but use this important principle of democracy instead for their own self-promotion in ways that might damage democratic institutions.
Associate Professor Patrick Walsh (pictured top), Intelligence and Security Studies, in the CSU Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security (AGSP&S) argues that the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London on Thursday 11 April provides an opportunity for all parties, including Assange himself, to argue the case for and against charges now against him.
“The UK has charged Assange with effectively skipping bail after he failed to present at a court hearing on extradition charges by Sweden based on alleged sexual assault charges in 2012,” Professor Wash said.
“More significantly, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia has charged him with a single charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.
“They allege that he assisted Chelsea Manning (then Private Bradley Manning) to break a password to a classified US government computer.”
This breach resulted in the October 2010 release by WikiLeaks of some 391,832 classified documents on its website, related to US military forces in Iraq during the period January 2004 to December 2009.
Another batch of some 250,000 US State Department messages (cables) sent by US embassies abroad was also released in November 2010.
“Notably, the US court, perhaps seemingly in part concerned about press freedom issues have not at this point charged Assange with any offence under the Espionage Act,” Professor Walsh said.
“This potentially would carry a longer sentence than the projected five years imprisonment anticipated if he is extradited from the UK and found guilty in the US of the single count of conspiracy charges.
“Assange’s lawyers will now no doubt be filing a defense against any extradition to the US, which may take years to settle if it goes all the way to the US Supreme Court. In the meantime, he will be held in custody in a UK prison until formal sentencing on the bail skipping charge.
“But his arrest is a good time to reflect on Assange and WikiLeaks, and whether what was written on ‘the label’, so to speak, was ever what was inside ‘the can’.”
Professor Walsh poses the question, was Assange and WikiLeaks ever, as promoted, a whistleblowing/journalistic agency interested only in free speech and government transparency?
“I think maybe at the start of WikiLeaks this might have had some truth to it,” Professor Walsh says.
“But the online website soon became hijacked by Assange’s anti-US agenda, one not focused on critically evaluating sourced information or identifying the moral implications and consequences of his actions, and more on reckless indifference and the desire to cultivate a cult following.
“For example, when some of the early Pentagon material was posted, Assange seemed indifferent − even compared to some of his other colleagues − about any consequences of publishing names of sources that might have cooperated with US intelligence agencies.
“You have to wonder whether unbridled or unadulterated free speech in these kind of instances is necessary, let alone moral or good journalism.”
Professor Walsh notes that while back in 2011 many eminent journalists wrote a letter to the Obama Administration arguing WikiLeaks engaged in first amendment (freedom of speech) activity, others held different views.
“One Columbia University journalism professor at the time did not sign the letter as he ‘felt it did not adequately criticize the recklessness and disregard for the consequences of human lives of a massive dump of confidential information’,” Professor Walsh said.
“In addition then to not being a professional journalist, who might weigh all the consequences of what information is published, was he a whistleblower that was driven by a greater moral good to better inform the public about government policy failures and provide alternative approaches?
“The answer again seems to be no.”
Professor Walsh argues that Assange is not in the mould of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
“Ellsberg was a patriot, who sought to end the US engagement in Vietnam and was selective in the release of documents that were sensitive relating to diplomatic efforts to negotiate an end to the war,” he said.
“More recently too, I would say Sergeant Joe Darby an army reservist stationed at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003, was also a true whistleblower.
“Darby handed over to the US Army Criminal Investigation Command a disc containing graphic images of guards abusing prisoners, the release of which blew the lid off interrogation practices and other abuses in Iraq.
“This took a lot of courage, given Darby was effectively turning on colleagues as well.”
Professor Walsh says it’s hard to see how Assange’s brand of ‘whistleblowing’ stacks up to these unselfish acts.
“Unlike Assange’s leaks in both cases, they were not breaches of secrecy for their own sake,” he said.
“His claims of being a whistleblower or journalist interested only in free speech and transparency have become increasingly hard to defend if you also look at his role in publishing Russian hacked emails from the US Democratic National Committee during the last US election in 2016.
“While he has denied that he colluded with state-sponsored Russian hackers to acquire the information, it’s pretty clear that he was happy to work with an undemocratic foreign power to interfere with the US election.
“This action does not seem to be legitimate journalism or whistleblowing, but more a personal vendetta against the democratic presidential contender, Hilary Clinton.”
Professor Walsh says it’s hard to know what damage WikiLeaks might have done over the years to the legitimate activities of our intelligence communities that keep our countries safe.
“It’s probably not that great compared to the much larger damage Edward Snowden did in 2013,” he surmises.
“Both WikiLeaks and Snowden, however damaging to our intelligence communities, have sparked a continuing and needed debate about intelligence oversight in liberal democratic states.
“In Australia, our intelligence community is more actively engaging in these debates and a recent intelligence review recommended to the government that they increase the staffing levels of our main independent intelligence oversight body, the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, by 50 people.
“So some good has come out of these events, but they come at a cost.“However, the Assange legacy reminds us that some actors are not really whistleblowers promoting freedom of speech when events demand it, but use this important principle of democracy instead for their own self-promotion in ways that damage democratic institutions such as elections and security that we all rely on.”