Unlike many people, I don’t yet hold a definitive position on the recent Wikileaks release of 250,000 government documents to four non-US based newspapers, generally considered credible.
A fifth media player, was the NY Times, who republished content from the Guardian just minutes after the British media company posted. That made them less culpable to any prosecution, but in my view, it added credibility to the reported content.
What I find disappointing, if not surprising, is how rarely “free press” and “free speech” have come into the conversation. Instead. we are hearing onerous terms like “espionage” and “treason.”
Espionage, by definition is clandestine. It usually involves the work of an enemy agent for a foreign country, or more recently a private company. This case was entirely public and the inormation was delivered to the people of the world.
Treason is a criminal betrayal of one’s own country. The term doesn’t really apply to Julian Assange, an Australian citizen who publishes Wikileaks from Switzerland. You can say many things about him, but he just doesn’t qualify for treason in the United States.
Those who claim to be “the true Americans,” have much to say about Assange, most if it is pretty unpleasant. According to Sarah Palin, Assange “should be treated like an Al Qaeda terrorist.” Publishing confidential material may not be commendable, but surely it is different than exploding bombs to kill people at random. Her political ally, Tea Party founder Judson Phillips called “killing Assange acceptable” behavior for any true American–as he defines true Americans and is far closer to shouting fire in a crowded theater than anything we’ve read so far in the Wikileaks releases.
This torch-igniting talk seems to me to be accelerated by government spokespeople who keep saying that lives will be threatened by the release of these documents.
To further complicate the matter, there is very serious question to the integrity of Assange himself.
Two weeks ago, a Swedish court issued an international arrest warrant against the 29-year-old publisher, demanding he return to Sweden to answer accusations of rape. If he is guilty, it certainly reduces any sympathy reasonable people would have for the guy.
But then, my government has a well-documented history of trying to frame people who cause them embarrassment.” Richard Nixon and his gang of henchmen attempt to taint almost all his perceived enemies as either a Communist or a homosexual.
These days, the two terms do not have the impact that Nixon’s masters of smear could muster with either word. Today, rapist is about as nasty as you can get and it has more public outrage connected to it than the other two terms.
Nixon used the terms against political opponents, against Alger Hiss who may or may not have been a spy, against Jack Anderson who leaked government documents revealing Nixon took secret “slush funds from the likes of Howard Hughes and holders of large government contracts. It showed up again as an unfounded rumor about Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other publications who had the guts to print them because the public had more right to know than the government had the right to hide.
The list of name-calling, sexual accusations and patriotic allegiances is long.
In every case of government leaks there are such accusations. None has proven true so far. In every case, the government has sternly warned that it is investigating for criminal charges to be brought. Sometimes, such charges have been brought, most were dropped or the courts refused to hear them.
One other thing is constant. In all these cases–then as now–there are stern warning that lives will be lost, the lives of people friendly to the US. I cannot tell you that it will not happen this time.
But history makes me doubtful. Some have sited that Afghan friends were named among these hundreds of thousands of released pages. I don’t picture the Taliban sitting around and reviewing this material, when our friends get ratted out and killed everyday in the villages of Afghanistan countryside.
What I do not doubt is that the diplomatic applecart is spinning around a hairpin curve. It is entirely embarrassing to our government and its friends. Many of those having unwanted sunlight shined upon them are people of high integrity who are working hard to do the right thing for our country and perhaps the forces of good.
But embarrassment is not treason. And saying someone is a terrorist or should be killed for embarrassing our government is no form of patriotism or public responsibility.
The situation has evolved from another institution who has been shirking responsibility for far too long if you ask me. That is the press.
The traditional media enjoys certain responsibilities, for which it has certain responsibilities. It was never supposed to be their job to simply regurgitate the verbal shovelware of official government or company spokespeople.
It was their job to dig, to challenge, to get the other side of a controversy so that we, the readers, could decide for ourselves. “If your mother says she loves you,” my editor told me when I was a rookie reporter, “then check it out.”
If a government spokesperson tells a reporter that lives could be lost, then it’s the reporter’s job to ask, “who’s life? Which of the 250,000 clips is the one that threatens lives, or national security?”
It is the tradition of the press to find disgruntled employees who will blow whistles on questionable practices of government, enterprise or clergy.
It is their job to ally themselves with a force that has brought down the heads of so many institutions through history. It is called “truth.” Truth is often found in bar rooms and at parties. It is rarely found in its entirety in the public words of official spokespeople.
Wikileaks would never have existed if a vacuum had not been created by a collective media that has long abrogated its job. Neither, for that matter, would the more commendable Publicus.
Is Assange a rapist who has undermined the US and its relationships all over the world. Will innocent people die by the release of more pages than most people will read in a lifetime? Did Iran’s leadership not know that Arab nations didn’t like them. Did the North Koreans not know China was willing to abandon their alliance?
Maybe. Maybe not. I have no clue as to what the answers are to these questions.
I can only think of an observation by TS Elliott: “Only those who will risk going to far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
Personally, I prefer too open to too closed and a press that is too free to one that is not free enough.