WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange comments on his motivation:
Asked what his “moral calculus” was to justify publishing the leaks and whether he considered what he was doing to be “civil disobedience,” Assange said, “Not at all. This organization practices civil obedience, that is, we are an organization that tries to make the world more civil and act against abusive organizations that are pushing it in the opposite direction.”
“We don’t have targets,” said Assange, “other than organizations that use secrecy to conceal unjust behavior … That’s created a general target.”
Pushing back against “abusive” organizations—publishing evidence of criminal or blatantly immoral actions—sounds just, and indeed it would be, if that’s what WikiLeaks was doing.
But it isn’t. In the last three major information releases WikiLeaks has made, what crimes, or clearly immoral actions, have they released evidence of? None, as far as I can tell. The worst revelations from the Iraq war release are that the U.S. was aware of torture committed by the Iraqi government—and while this is certainly bad, it’s difficult to hold the U.S. responsible for not doing anything about it besides what we already do: training Iraqi forces to respect human rights and encouraging Iraqi leaders to prevent torture. The Iraqi government is a sovereign government. We cannot enforce our will absolutely1.
The State Department cables released this week reveals even less. Mostly, it confirms things we already knew—Arab nations are just as afraid of a nuclear Iran as Israel is, for example—and is thus little more than gossip for people involved in politics. The only real revelation is that American diplomats at the U.N. are instructed to collect personal information on officials from other countries.
This, of course, isn’t exactly surprising (spying on other countries, even allies, is just reality). But if this is all WikiLeaks can dig up—that the U.S. is using diplomats to collect information about foreign diplomats at the U.N.—their claims that they are trying to push back against abusive organizations is—excuse me—bullshit.
They aren’t providing evidence of any terrible crimes, which would be a benefit to us all. What this release does do, however, is damage the U.S.’s credibility with the world. This release shows candid statements by foreign leaders, things that were said only because they thought it was in confidence. Honest discussions between nations is necessary for nations to work together and solve crises, and these discussions depend on trust between the two parties that their statements will remain private. This release may undermine our ability to hold honest discussions with other nations for fear their statements will be released.
Intelligence sharing between nations, too, depends on this trust. If we can’t prevent leaks, then countries simply won’t share intelligence with us. If this shakes other nations’ trust in our ability to keep secrets, and reduce how much intelligence they share, our ability to fight terrorism, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and prevent any number of other negative things from happening will be eroded.
What this amounts to, then, is an erosion of our credibility with other nations, and thus an erosion of our power. I don’t think that’s an accident—rather, I think that’s the goal. Assange intends to bring down governments across the world, the U.S. being one of them.
Assange laid out his political goals in 2006. He wrote:
To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.
Firstly we must understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove. Secondly we must develop a way of thinking about this behavior that is strong enough carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity. Finally must use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling, and effective action.
This is from a piece titled “Conspiracy as Governance,” where he first argues that authoritarian regimes (the U.S. being a fine example for Assange) use conspiracy as a central means of planning for maintaining and strengthening their authoritarian power, and then lays out a theory of how conspiracies work so they can be defeated.
Conspiracies depend on communication among the conspirators, Assange writes, and modern communication technologies have made them much more efficient. So what better way to eliminate their ability to conspire than to chill their ability to communicate?
Assange isn’t saying that the U.S. has committed crimes, and those responsible should be brought to justice (which releasing documents—”whistleblowing”—would help do): he’s saying that the U.S. government is an authoritarian regime, and thus must be defeated.
This puts a strikingly different spin on what WikiLeaks is doing. They are not releasing documents to try to bring criminals to justice and reform the system (their documents don’t provide evidence of any substantial crimes, or more specifically, breaking the law as fundamental policy), but rather to try to bring the system down altogether. WikiLeaks is waging war on government.
That sounds crazy, and that’s because it is. Assange’s goal is to bring down the government because he sees it as unjust. Since it is not wholly transparent, as he believes organizations should be, it must be defeated.
That’s worrying. This isn’t the work of someone who is simply concerned with shining the light of world attention on crimes committed in secret; this is the work of someone who’s trying to destroy our very institutions.
Whether he will succeed or not is an entirely different question. He will—already has—do substantial harm to the U.S.’s credibility, and in diplomacy, that’s important. His plot will not succeed, because it doesn’t weaken our government’s ability to operate enough. But this means he should be treated differently. Assange is not merely a civilian utilizing his individual rights to point out crimes; he is an enemy of the U.S. using the rights granted to him to attempt to destroy the very institution which protects those rights.
He is not a truth-teller, he is not a hero. He is a man attempting to use stolen information to re-make the world in his own ideological image. He is not Woodward and Bernstein, revealing crimes; he is closer to the Joker, pushing buttons just to see what happens.