The Undeclared War against WikileaksBy Larry M. ElkinThe U.S. government appears to be waging an undeclared war against Wikileaks and itsfounder, Julian Assange, while media and other business interests either cheer the effort on orrun for cover.This clash is setting some precedents that we may all live to regret.The government is infuriated at Wikileaks release of about a quarter-million secret messagespurloined from the State Department, following earlier disclosures of military material fromIraq and Afghanistan. Some of the leaks, particularly from the war zones, clearly jeopardizedindividuals personal safety or American security interests. Most of the recent disclosures,however, merely confirm and add detail to things we already knew. We did not need Wikileaksto tell us that the Arab states in the Persian Gulf were alarmed at the prospect of Iran obtainingnuclear weapons.Still, the officials responsible for safeguarding American secrets find it outrageous that a self-appointed defender of the publics right to know has usurped their power to decide whatinformation should be released. Nobody in public office likes to have his or her authoritychallenged.But this is not merely about protecting official privilege. Assange probably would not lose anysleep if one of his disclosures got an American intelligence source fired or killed. He is notresponsible for stopping weapons proliferation or terrorist attacks, and his conscience may notbe affected if a lot of people die after such efforts fail. From the viewpoint of officialdom, whatWikileaks is doing actually is outrageous.At moments like this, when emotions run high, we do well to rememberthat there are also other principles and other points of view. The WallStreet Journals editorial page lost sight of this when it essentially calledfor Assange to be assassinated.(1)"If he were exposing Chinese or Russian secrets, he would already havedied at the hands of some unknown assailant," the newspaper wrote."As a foreigner (Australian citizen) engaged in hostile acts against theU.S., Mr. Assange is certainly not protected from U.S. reprisal underthe laws of war."The Journal lost an excellent, dedicated journalist named Daniel Pearl when he was beheadedin 2002 after trying to interview jihadist leaders in Pakistan. Julian Assange is no Daniel Pearl,but he, too, exposes himself to powerful and hostile interests to bring information to the
public. So did most of the 39 journalists that a compilation by the Committee to ProtectJournalists lists as killed this year.The Wall Street Journal, more than any other entity I can think of, ought to abhor extra-judicialkillings of people who disseminate information, no matter what title appears on their businesscards.Meanwhile, Wikileaks technical and financial infrastructure has been under relentless attack,since just before it released the first batch of State Department documents on the night of Nov.28.The organizations Swedish servers were targeted in a "distributed denial of service" attack,typically used by hackers or extortionists who command legions of hijacked "zombie"computers to overwhelm a targeted website. Wikileaks, however, is not a typical commercialtarget; the attack made sense only for political reasons. Similar assaults have been mounted byRussian operatives against former Soviet satellites that ran afoul of the Kremlin.In this case, the party with the obvious motive is Uncle Sam. But, so far, no American or alliedfingerprints have been found. It is also conceivable that another government that wanted toavoid inconvenient disclosures might have staged the attack.Nevertheless, Wikileaks was forced to migrate its servers to a more robust platform offered byAmazon.com. That only lasted a few days, however, before Amazon buckled to politicalpressure in the form of congressional inquiries, notably from Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.Amazons decision "should set the standard for other companies Wikileaks is using to distributeits illegally seized material," Lieberman said in a statement.(2)Suppose someone assembles the State Department documents in book form. Should Amazon,or other vendors, be pressured or prohibited from selling the book if the U.S. governmentargues that the material was "illegally seized?" The First Amendment would prevent thegovernment from outlawing the book, but Amazons reaction shows that pressure may sufficeto get results that the law itself cannot produce.Days after Amazon evicted Wikileaks from its physical home, the organization lost itscyberspace address when another U.S. firm canceled the Wikileaks.org domain name. Thatfirm, Everydns, also came under pressure from Lieberman. Wikileaks became temporarilyinaccessible until it secured a Swiss address, Wikileaks.ch.There have also been concerted efforts to cut off the Wikileaks money supply. PayPal becamethe third U.S. company to run from the organization when it suspended Wikileaks account. Thecompany said in a blog post that Wikileaks violated a PayPal policy that prohibits use of themoney-transfer service to "encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegalactivity." Mastercad and Visa followed suit by cutting off processing for Wikileaks.
Wikileaks has not been found to have broken any law. Of course, the person who leaked thedocuments - suspected to be U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning - may have done so, but ifWikileaks is responsible for its sources disclosures, then so is any news organization. WouldPayPal, Mastercard or Visa cut off The New York Times for reporting on leaked secrets?Not this time. But we have been down this road before, and in other situations, the traditionalpress has had the role that Wikileaks is playing today."Quit making national heroes out of those who steal secrets and publish them in thenewspaper," President Richard Nixon said at the height of the Pentagon Papers controversy. Hisadministration went to court to block The New York Times from publishing the secret Vietnamhistory leaked by Daniel Ellsberg. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called Ellsberg "the mostdangerous man in America," which became the title of a documentary about the case last year.After warning The Washington Posts management that there would be financial repercussionsfor joining The Times in publishing the papers, the Nixon administration orchestrated achallenge to the Posts licenses for five television stations. (The challenge ultimately failed.)The Obama administration is likewise rattling every saber it can get its hands on, for reasonsthat are not entirely clear. The Wikileaks documents have been disseminated electronically toevery corner of the globe. What sense is there in warning Columbia University students not tolink to the documents or comment on them, for fear of not getting hired by the StateDepartment after college? Or instructing federal workers and contractors not to read theWikileaks documents online, because they are still classified? The Pentagon Papers, which areavailable in their entirety, are still classified, also. Are government workers who read the historyof the Vietnam War also subject to punishment?Still, Attorney General Eric Holder regularly intones that the publicationof the Wikileaks papers was illegal, though he cites no particular law onthe subject. There has been some speculation that Wikileaks could beprosecuted for possessing stolen government documents. If Wikileakscan be prosecuted on those grounds, so could everyone involved inpublishing the material Ellsberg leaked.Assange himself is likewise the target of an apparently coordinatedcampaign to bring him to heel. Assange was arrested and held withoutbail in the United Kingdom on a Swedish warrant that, according toAssanges attorneys, relates to sexual relations Assange had with twowomen who purportedly asked him to stop when his condoms failed. While Assange may needto get better at his bedroom skills, it is fair to ask whether these alleged sexual assaults wouldget international attention if Assange had not made so many enemies in high places.A useful principle could come out of all this. If I make something a secret, it is my responsibilityto keep it secret. I dont get to tell it to hundreds of thousands of people, including low-levelArmy personnel who have no need to know any of this, and still make it a crime when the
secrets get out - and especially not a crime for which people that merely learn the secrets,rather than actively take them, can be held responsible.This is the approach that makes journalism possible. Anything else reduces the press to a mereconduit for government statements. This would suit many government officials, but would notsuit any society that calls itself democratic and self-governing.The war against Wikileaks is a war against the press. The press just hasnt realized it yet.