Julian Assange’s extradition trial in London got off with a bang yesterday when James Lewis, the lawyer representing the Trump administration, told the court that Washington "is aware of sources, whose unredacted names and other identifying information was contained in classified documents published by WikiLeaks [and] who subsequently disappeared."
With that, he touched on a problem guaranteed to send a chill down the spine of even the most ardent WikiLeaks supporter. Exposing government misdeeds is one thing. But disclosing the name of a translator or dissident who then falls into the clutches of a death squad, a terrorist cell, or the political police is quite another. Can disclosure go too far? Should Assange be held to account when WikiLeaks disclosures cause harm?
On one level, the answer is yes. All of us are responsible when our actions hurt innocent people, WikiLeaks included. But on another level, the picture grows more complicated. For one thing, no one has been able to establish a loss of life, and, as Lewis immediately added, "…the US can’t prove at this point that their disappearance was the result of being outed by WikiLeaks."
But even if he could establish that somewhere, somehow, a harm had ensued, the charge, ethically speaking, would still have to be balanced off against two things: the good that WikiLeaks does by exposing government wrongdoing and the government’s boundless hypocrisy in advancing such allegations.
Consider, for instance, an Afghan interpreter named Sakhidad Afghan who applied to emigrate to US after receiving anonymous death threats. After helping the US military, he figured that the military to help him in return. And why not – that’s what any fair-minded organization would do, isn’t it?
But after his application languished for three years according to a report in Smithsonian Magazine, one of his brothers got a call in 2016 informing that his photo had appeared in a Facebook post. It showed the body of the 24-year-old after being tortured, killed, and left by the side of a road. A letter bearing the image of a Taliban flag warned three of his brothers that they would suffer the same fate if they continued working for pro-US forces. Two of them went into exile while a third had no choice but to stay put since he is his family’s sole support.
Or consider thousands of other translators and US employees in Afghanistan and Iraq who are likewise in limbo because Washington refuses to help. Under Trump, the number of new visas has fallen nearly to zero, which means that growing numbers of lives are in danger. Yet this is the same government that accuses WikiLeaks of behaving irresponsibly by disclosing the identity of US sources.
Then there are benefits that flow from enhanced transparency. When WikiLeaks release nearly 400,000 US Army field reports in November 2010, it revealed that as many as 15,000 Iraqi civilian deaths had gone uncounted. The result was yet another public-relations disaster that caused public support in the US to plummet all the more, thereby reducing the chances of another such misadventure occurring anytime soon. Every war that is prevented means thousands of lives that are saved – which surely offsets whatever harms such disclosures may theoretically have caused.
One could go on, but the pattern is clear. WikiLeaks has done an immense public service by exposing official wrongdoing while the government is guilty of an immense double standard – as, needless to say, are individual politicians and journalists who have played along. "Collateral Murder," an eighteen-minute classified video of a 2007 Baghdad airstrike that WikiLeaks released in April 2010, caused a sensation when it showed two US Apache helicopters opening up on about a dozen civilians, including two Reuters photographers, with a 30-millimeter cannon. Not only does it show crewmen mistaking telephoto lenses for weapons, but the accompanying dialogue is even more shocking. "Hahaha, I hit ’em," shouts one. "Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards," responds another. "Look at that. Right through the windshield," someone shouts when a shell pierces a van. A crewman wisecracks about the two wounded children inside, "Well, it’s their fault for bringing kids into a battle." "That’s right," chimes in another.
Yet New York Times editor Bill Killer accused WikiLeaks of foisting "a work of antiwar propaganda" on the public while the Wall Street Journal complained that WikiLeaks "do[es] not reveal the hundreds upon hundreds of cases in which American forces refrain from attacking targets precisely because civilians are in harm’s way" – which is rather like criticizing a cop who tickets you for running a red light without noting all the times you’ve stopped.
While the military defended the attack as consistent with the rules of engagement, the only person prosecuted in connection with it was Chelsea Manning, the military intelligence analyst who disclosed it to WikiLeaks along with some 750,000 classified or sensitive military and diplomatic documents.
The government playbook is thus to exaggerate the harms that WikiLeaks may theoretically cause so as to prosecute violations of official secrets to the hilt. Hence, the more disclosures mount up, the more the official rhetoric goes shooting through the roof.
When WikiLeaks released more than a quarter of a million confidential diplomatic documents in November 2010, then-Vice President Joe Biden denounced Assange as "a hi-tech terrorist" while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the release was "not just an attack on America’s foreign policy," but "an attack on the international community, the alliances and partnerships, the conventions and negotiations that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity." The New Yorker took the occasion to denounce Assange as a "super-secretive, thin-skinned, megalomaniacal leader" whose "stated ambition is to embarrass the US," while Senator Dianne Feinstein, the liberal California Democrat, attacked him as "an agitator intent on damaging our government, whose policies he happens to disagree with, regardless of who gets hurt." Not to be outdone, Republican Congressman Peter King of New York called on the Attorney General to designate WikiLeaks as a terrorist organization and to prosecute Assange for espionage.
But why stop there? Why not accuse him of war crimes or perhaps infanticide? After all, if the government’s goal is to beat Assange into submission and silence any would-be leakers, then truth takes a back seat.
Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics. He writes a weekly column for Antiwar.com. He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le Monde Diplomatique and blogs about the Constitution and related matters at Daniellazare.com.