Julian Assange in the crosshairs: Is he being unfairly vilified?

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange seems to be on just about everyone's hit list in Washington. But there are some who call for restraint, saying the legal issues are murky at best.

Paul Hackett/Reuters
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks to the media outside the home of his friend, journalist Vaughan Smith, in Norfolk, England Friday. Assange said on Friday that he was the target of an aggressive U.S. investigation and feared extradition to the United States was 'increasingly likely.'

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is pretty unpopular in the United States at the moment. The Justice Department likely has a secret grand jury considering whether to indict him. Some members of Congress have called for the US to neutralize Mr. Assange – implying that the CIA should snatch him off the street, or worse.

Assange himself isn’t trying to smooth things over. On Friday he darkly implied that all his legal troubles are the result of an international conspiracy and said that the US investigation of his actions is “illegal.”

But even paranoids have real enemies. Is Assange in fact being unduly vilified in Washington?

House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers of Michigan, for one, thinks he is. Representative Conyers used that phrase – “unduly vilified” – in regards to Assange on Thursday when he called to order a hearing on the constitutional and legal ramifications of WikiLeaks’ recent actions.

“When everyone in this town is joined together calling for someone’s head, it’s a pretty sure sign that we might want to slow down and take a closer look,” said Conyers.

Conyers, a liberal Democrat who will lose his chairmanship when Republicans assume control of the House in January, said it remains unclear exactly what laws Assange and WikiLeaks may have violated, for one thing.

All the discussions over whether the 1917 Espionage Act applies to this case, or whether Assange can be charged with conspiracy for helping alleged leaker Pfc. Bradley Manning, shows that the legal context here is in fact very confusing, said the Judiciary panel chairman.

For another thing, it’s unclear what the distinction is between WikiLeaks and traditional media, said Conyers. And Assange’s actions take place in the context of a system of US government secrecy that’s out of control.

“We’ve got low fences around a vast prairie [of secrets] because the government classifies just about everything. What we really need are high fences around a small graveyard of what’s really sensitive,” said Conyers.

Number of 'Wikimyths'

Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive and a witness at the House hearing, agreed with Conyers that the US has so much classified material that it’s hard to protect it all.

Furthermore, the WikiLeaks case has been dogged by a number of “Wikimyths,” according to Mr. Blanton.

For instance, WikiLeaks’ recent release of US diplomatic cables is routinely described in the press as a “document dump,” but it’s been nothing of the sort, said Blanton. Only about 2,000 cables have been made public – and those were published by mainstream news organizations that attempted to judge their newsworthiness.

Nor has there been an epidemic of leaks, said Blanton. All of WikiLeaks’ most important source material appears to have come from one person, alleged to be Manning. He’s already been arrested by the Defense Department, so that leak is plugged, as far as the government is concerned.

“They’re not terrorists,” said Blanton of WikiLeaks.

Of course, not being a terrorist is a pretty low bar to clear. Other experts take a dimmer view of WikiLeaks and Assange.

Assange appears to have no compunction about releasing such things as the names of Iraqis who work with the US military, pointed out the Judiciary panel’s ranking Republican, Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas.

Safety of US personnel

“This isn’t simply about keeping government secrets secret. This is about the safety of American personnel overseas at all levels, from the foot soldier to the commander-in-chief,” said Representative Gohmert.

In fact, WikiLeaks has displayed so little regard for its actions, and has employed such sophisticated Internet technology to acquire and disseminate its information, that it might be said to have created “Leaks of Mass Destruction,” or LMDs, said Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, at the House hearing.

These are “leaks so massive in volume and so indiscriminate in what they convey, that it becomes very difficult to assess the overall harm, precisely because there are so many different ways in which that harm is occurring,” said Mr. Schoenfeld.

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