Interviewing a handful of experts about the Wikileaks document dump this morning—a few former State Department employees, an expert in government secrecy, a national security journalist—all agreed that the United States government overclassifies and that this first wave of diplomatic cables contained a number of interesting, though unsurprising, insights. The attitude towards Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was slightly more complicated—most doubted that the Wikileaks founder was interested only in exposing corruption and government malfeasance, for instance. Stay tuned for the forthcoming Reason.tv video featuring the interviews.
But the idea of Wikileaks and greater government transparency should be separated from the vainglorious figure of Julian Assange. There is an emerging consensus amongst the more partisan Wikileak supporters that any criticism of Assange—no matter how much one protests that they support the idea and mission of Wikileaks, just question the group's leadership—must mean that you have a back tattoo of John Bolton or want to turn Kyrgyzstan into a Walmart. But read this New York Times piece and this Mother Jones profile of Assange (and this old column of mine) and you’ll see what I’m getting at.
There are plenty of problems with the way Wikileaks handled the last few batches of material, but the biggest irritant is Assange’s insistence that anyone who questions his methodology is a corporate/government/American/CIA stooge. Take, for example, this forum in today’s Guardian, during which readers submitted questions to Assange. A former British diplomat raises a serious point:
I am a former British diplomat. In the course of my former duties I helped to coordinate multilateral action against a brutal regime in the Balkans, impose sanctions on a renegade state threatening ethnic cleansing, and negotiate a debt relief programme for an impoverished nation. None of this would have been possible without the security and secrecy of diplomatic correspondence, and the protection of that correspondence from publication under the laws of the UK and many other liberal and democratic states. An embassy which cannot securely offer advice or pass messages back to London is an embassy which cannot operate. Diplomacy cannot operate without discretion and the protection of sources. This applies to the UK and the UN as much as the US.
In publishing this massive volume of correspondence, Wikileaks is not highlighting specific cases of wrongdoing but undermining the entire process of diplomacy. If you can publish US cables then you can publish UK telegrams and UN emails.
My question to you is: why should we not hold you personally responsible when next an international crisis goes unresolved because diplomats cannot function.
To which Assange replies :
If you trim the vast editorial letter to the singular question actually asked, I would be happy to give it my attention.
So no, I won’t answer your question—because it was preceded by a statement with which I disagree. And this, alas, is one of the big problems with Assange as spokesman of Wikileaks—a problem acknowledged by some of his former comrades. If he’s going to consider (and refer to) himself as a journalist, he should act more like Bob Woodward and less like Sarah Palin. This is not, as some hyperpartisan bloggers insist, a binary issue—you either like Assange and government transparency or you hate leaks and want him assassinated (or put on trial). These leaks are an amazing resource and contain, so far, an enormous amount of fascinating material. Unfortunately, Assange’s grandstanding and self-righteousness is detracting from the real story.