Accused of being ‘irresponsible’ even by a fellow campaigner for transparency in public life, Assange mounts a freewheeling defence in his memoir: ‘It was never my intention to be responsible,’ he says, before proclaiming: ‘We will shine a light into any murky corner…- Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography, The Sunday Times
State secrecy is essential for any nation - certain things must be kept secret for the sake of national security, for the sake of lives, for a proper criminal process. Sure, essential information is vital for a functioning democracy but never at the expense of national security or human lives. Wikileaks does not take into account diplomacy let alone national security or people’s lives. It's not done in the name of transparent democracy, but spilling secrets because they are secrets. It doesn’t help that they release files to make a political point, not for the sake of openness or transparency. Julian Assange admitted as such when he went on the Colbert Report in the aftermath of releasing ‘Collateral Murder’:
Colbert: There are armed men in the group, they did find an RPG, the photographers who were regrettably killed, were not identified as photographers. You have edited this tape and given it a title 'collateral murder,' thats not leaking.. thats a pure editorial
Assange: So, the promise we make to our sources is not only that we defend them through every means we have available.. but we will try and get the maximum political impact..
Colbert: So collateral murder is to get political impact?
Assange: Yes, absolutely...
Colbert: I admire someone who is willing to put collateral murder on the first thing people will see knowing they probably wont look at the rest of it..It's an emotional manipulation. This is "collateral murder" and now watch this objectively
Assange: That’s true, only one in ten watch the whole thing.
Assange has explicitly stated that his aim is to ‘end two wars’ – including the war in Afghanistan which liberated the Afghan people from the Taliban and brought a government that the Afghans want to power. Bill Keller has even written after meeting him that he ‘was openly contemptuous of the American government.’ Aside from leaking things for a political purpose, Wikileaks’ work leads to information being published that potentially and actually harms people. It doesn’t seem to bother Assange, that his information might lead to informants who aid the Afghan-supported American military force being killed. Declan Welsh, one of the Guardian’s writers recalls
We went out to a Moorish restaurant, Moro, with the two German reporters. David Leigh broached the problem [of redactions] again with Julian. The response floored me. 'Well, they're informants,' he said. 'So, if they get killed, they've got it coming to them. They deserve it.' There was, for a moment, silence around the table. I think everyone was struck by what a callous thing that was to say.
This is why Assange’s personal beliefs are important: it means he simply doesn’t care about innocents. The Afghan War Logs were released in coordination with several papers including the New York Times and the Guardian. The New York Times had a clear approach which took into account lives, intelligence and harm to personnel. Bill Keller, the executive editor, wrote
Guided by reporters with extensive experience in the field, we redacted the names of ordinary citizens, local officials, activists, academics and others who had spoken to American soldiers or diplomats. We edited out any details that might reveal ongoing intelligence-gathering operations, military tactics or locations of material that could be used to fashion terrorist weapons
Wikileaks, however, decided to release all the files without redacting people’s names. According to John Burns, another writer for the New York Times ‘several WikiLeaks colleagues say he alone decided to release the Afghan documents without removing the names of Afghan intelligence sources for NATO troops.’ Like normal people, some Wikileaks workers disagreed with what Assange had done. It turned out that they were right to be. They outed hundreds of Afghan informants, including a Taliban defector putting their lives at risk. The Taliban even said they would trawl through the documents, ominously adding ‘we know how to punish them.’
This is a clear example of Assange putting his politics above the lives of individuals (who he says ‘deserve it’). He could have redacted them like the New York Times, The Guardian and Channel 4 – but he didn’t. According to an Afghan official, Assange ‘put in real risk and danger the lives and integrity of many Afghans.’
This chain of events isn’t unique; when it released the U.S diplomatic cables, the BBC noted that they published a document that had ‘long list of key facilities around the world that the US describes as vital to its national security.’ The loss of any of these facilities ‘could critically affect US national security.’ Again, a Jihadist group set up a ‘workshop’ to try to ‘categorize and pinpoint all U.S. interests worldwide.’ Wikileaks even published a map of U.S military bases in Iraq.
And this isn’t limited to the Middle East. In Africa, Wikileaks released a document which showed that Morgan Tsvangirai spoke to U.S officials about the possibility of sanctions against the barbarous Mugabe regime. As a result, Tsvangiri is facing treason charges – a crime for which the punishment is death. More recently, two Zimbabwean generals will also face charges for talking to U.S officials. It’s no surprise that Trevor Ncube, a media mogul, has stated that ‘It hasn’t aided the agenda for democracy or accountability. In fact, it has taken the country back five years.’ In Ethiopia, a reporter has had to flee after a cable revealed that he had spoken to someone from the American embassy there.
In Eastern Europe, Wikileaks’ actions are equally deplorable. Assange passed documents to an anti-semite called Israel Shamir. According to Luke Harding and David Leigh of the Guardian,
Subsequently, Shamir appeared in Moscow. According to a reporter on Russian paper Kommersant, he was offering to sell articles based on the cables for $10,000 (£6,300). He had already passed some to the state-backed publication Russian Reporter. He travelled on to Belarus, ruled by the Soviet-style dictator Alexander Lukashenko, where he met regime officials. The Russian Interfax news agency reported that Shamir was WikiLeaks’ “Russian representative”, and had “confirmed the existence of the Belarus dossier”.
This dossier alleged the Belarus opposition was working with the Americans. According to Jo Glanville of the Index of Censorship, ‘Israel Shamir is using his position to support a dictatorship.’ Shamir then went on to provide the authoritarian regime with cables. Shamir even assisted the autocrat Lukashkeno is setting up his own Wikileaks. James Ball, a former Wikileaks worker, said in the aftermath of all this, ‘For an organisation supposedly devoted to human rights, the apparent lack of concern when faced with such a grave charge was overwhelming.’
In the name of openness, Wikileaks first denied that Shamir worked for them – a claim that has been proven false by an e-mail obtained by the BBC’s Panorama programme in which not only did Assange say that Shamir would continue working for Wikileaks under a different name but that Assange did not find his writings anti-Semitic but after reading a ‘brief sampling’ of his writings found them to be ‘strong and compassionate.’ This is a man who was convicted by a French court for publishing anti-Semitic material and his writings are clear enough.
And its not just government officials and innocent civilians in war zones who have been affected by Wikileaks’ reckless behaviour. Wikileaks published an investigation in Belgium into a child killer, but because they did not redact any files, they left names of witnesses in the case. The ‘dossier mentions names, telephone numbers, addresses and bank details of witnesses and people involved in the investigations.’ Asked if Wikileaks might remove some of the names of innocents and witnesses, a spokesman said ‘That has not been discussed.’
Nor was this the only case involving child abuse. Time Magazine notes that Wikileaks published a file that listed all the websites that the Australian government planned to block. This would have been okay – had Wikileaks minimised the harm caused and not published links to child abuse. I’m not going to link to the cables (as I haven’t throughout this post), but two documents published. Both documents have links to websites which judging by their URLs contain child abuse.
Just a final word on Assange’s defences of his actions. The claim that Assange does enough is baloney: Amnesty International approached Wikileaks to redact names, Assange in response said he needed $700,000. Of course, Amnesty doesn’t have that money laying around – so the documents were published. Assange admitted that ‘if we were forced into a position of publishing all of the archives or none of the archives we would publish all of the archives because it's extremely important to the history of the war.’ According the New York Times, he has even ‘prepared a kind of doomsday option’ where ‘if he was arrested, he would disseminate the key to make the information public.’ Information is released for political or for personal reasons, it would seem.
His accusation against the American government being at fault are similarly dubious. When the New York Times released the diplomatic cables, as mentioned before, it redacted key information. In doing this, it gained a lot of help from American officials:
The administration’s concerns generally fell into three categories. First was the importance of protecting individuals who had spoken candidly to American diplomats in oppressive countries. We almost always agreed on those and were grateful to the government for pointing out some we overlooked... the Obama administration’s reaction was...for the most part, sober and professional.
Wikileaks has put people at risk and in some cases has led to their direct persecution. Assange has deliberately not listened to human rights groups who have asked him to redact names. His employees have aided authoritarian regimes – not brought them down. In the name of human rights. I don’t feel there is any other conclusion one can reach apart from that of James Ball – a writer who left Wikileaks because of its recklessness:
WikiLeaks has done the cause of internet freedom – and of whistleblowers – more harm than US government crackdowns ever could... These cables contain details of activists, opposition politicians, bloggers in autocratic regimes and their real identities, victims of crime and political coercion, and others driven by conscience to speak to the US government. They should never have had to fear being exposed by a self-proclaimed human rights organisation.
What is achieved by outing political dissidents working for freedom, witnesses to a child abuse case, publishing lists of child abuse sites, what government 'lie' is exposed by publish details of military bases, what is essential about lists of civilian sites essential to national security or credit card numbers of individuals - what is the use in all this? There isn't one. Wikileaks has made freedom fighters think twice about talking to nations which can help them. What more could you possibly expect from someone who never intended to be responsible?
Update (04/10/2011): I changed the quote and the top and I'm going to be updating whenever I think there is a story worthy of being shared. Here is one from The Globe and Mail:
Some of China’s top academics and human rights activists are being attacked as “rats” and “spies” after their names were revealed as U.S. Embassy sources in the unredacted WikiLeaks cables that have now been posted online. The release of the previously protected names has sparked an online witch-hunt by Chinese nationalist groups, with some advocating violence against those now known to have met with U.S. Embassy staff.
Also named are some of China’s most outspoken intellectuals, including some known for pushing reform of the country’s authoritarian political system. They may now see themselves painted as “American agents,” their arguments for change shoved further to the margins.
The unredacted cables also give the real names of some prominent Chinese bloggers and Twitter users, who previously were known only by their screen names.