Mitchell Chapman: Assange a complex mix of good, bad, terrible
PITTSFIELD — The United States has an ugly history of mistreating whistleblowers, with the prosecution of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden serving as two recent examples, and with his recent arrest, they might just get Julian Assange, the founder of the most famous online platform for whisteblowers, WikiLeaks. However, the federal hostility towards whistleblowers highlights a mindset that fails to recognize the public good their leaks have done, revealing gross abuses of power within our government that might have never been addressed had they not been revealed.
By prosecuting whistleblowers, the U.S. government sends a strong message to the American people: They were sorry that they got caught but not sorry for the misdeeds revealed, and they would prefer to not get caught in the future. The Trump administration has made it abundantly clear that it would prefer to operate unchecked by institutions of journalism that work with whistleblowers to make their leaks public.
Manning is in prison, Snowden fled the country, and Assange, after years of operating his self-described "journalism" outlet, WikiLeaks, has been arrested in the U.K. and faces extradition to the U.S. for one count of conspiracy to hack a government computer, which carries maximum prison time of five years. This comes after his asylum in Ecuador's U.K. embassy evaporated, and about a year after his internet connection was severed by Ecuador. The arrest comes so long after anyone in the general public cared about Assange that many people reading this column might have forgotten him.
ARREST TOO LATE
The U.S. missed its window to prosecute Assange, at least politically speaking, as he has evaded international custody for years for his WikiLeaks activity, and he has fallen out of the spotlight. The two leaks the U.S. can point to as cornerstones for his extradition are also years old, being 2010's Afghanistan leak and 2013's National Security Agency leak.
2010's Afghanistan leak, provided by Manning, revealed gross abuses of U.S. military power in the region but simultaneously failed to redact sensitive information that could have lead to deaths of some Americans undercover in the region, as well as their informants. It is noteworthy, though, that there is no evidence proving that Assange's 2010 leaks directly led to the deaths of anyone, as Politifact found out when it was fact checking the late U.S. Sen. John McCain's 2017 assertion that "The Taliban went after and murdered" people who the leak named. According to Politifact, they "could find no evidence the Taliban acted on these threats. [Politifact] scoured court documents, congressional hearing transcripts and media reports, and [they] found that the government has not named a single individual who was killed because he or she was named in the leaked files."
2013's NSA leak, provided by Snowden, revealed a sprawling, costly operation in which the U.S. government abused the broad powers provided by the Patriot Act to spy on the American people. And it's noteworthy that with these two major leaks, and the central argument of prosecuting Assange in general, has been that he compromised national security, and through the continued operation of WikiLeaks, continues to be A threat.
This line of thinking, however, ignores why it was necessary to leak that information and the public good Assange has done by revealing misuses of power that otherwise would have been swept under the rug. There is an argument to be made that keeping the misdeeds Assange revealed under wraps would prove to be a greater threat to national security, as it would protect several individuals from being held accountable for their actions, actions the general public would not even know about had they not been leaked.
All of this does not mean Assange's hands are clean — far from it — but prosecuting him from a national security perspective is a weak one. The real evil of Assange is his reckless endangerment to innocent people who have been caught in the crossfire of his leaks. The Associated Press found that due to his lack of curation, WikiLeaks has released the personal information of some of society's most vulnerable citizens, including "sick children, rape victims and mental health patients." If you want to prosecute Assange, there is a clear case to be made that he has been recklessly negligent of people's personal data, as he has leaked medical histories, credit card information and social security numbers.
Assange is a complex figure because he and his organization has done a lot of good for the world, but also they have done their fair share of bad. His past is clouded by a Swedish rape and molestation case that drove him into Ecuador's U.K. embassy in the first place, and he has been branded a narcissist many times over. As John Oliver puts it: "Julian Assange is not a likeable man. Not even Benedict Cumberbatch [who portrayed Assange in the film 'The Fifth Estate'] could make him likeable."
I say if Assange claims to be a journalist, hold him to established standards of journalism, including standards of negligent practices in regards to private individuals that he has violated.
WikiLeaks, despite its incompetencies, has a great deal of trust from the general public. In an era of frivolous fake news accusations, it is extremely remarkable that despite a myriad of debates about the ethics of WikiLeaks publishing confidential information, the site has never gotten a serious challenge as to whether or not the material it publishes is real. Databases full of thousands of documents are also extremely hard to convincingly fake, and it helps that WikiLeaks' findings are almost always verified by backlash reactions from the parties they leak from, and they have the benefit of having their documents confirmed by credible news outlets.
The U.S. government wants to eliminate the word "whistleblower" from its vocabulary, but it's fighting a hydra. As long as it continues to commit wrongdoings, there will always be a Manning or a Snowden who will leak word of those abuses of power, and there will always be a person like Assange who will make sure those secrets are revealed to the public. Hopefully in the future, they are curated by someone a bit more careful.
Assange is in no way a perfect martyr, and he should be held accountable for his negligent practices and past crimes, but he has brought to light a reactionary U.S. government whose first response to leaked wrongdoings is to attack the messenger rather than correct the problems revealed. Whistleblowers will always be necessary to ensure that powerful institutions are held accountable, and it is time that our government understands that.
Mitchell Chapman is an Eagle staffer and occasional op-ed columnist.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.