There is no evidence that the US is interested in extraditing Mr. Assange, of course, and it's unclear what he could be charged with if they ever did. But when Assange's WikiLeaks started dumping US diplomatic cables all over the Internet two years ago, frequently without redacting the names of people who could be put in harm’s way by the releases, a number of American politicians figuratively called for his head.
Among them was Darrell Issa (R) of California. In Jan. 2011, as he took the reins of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the congressman told Fox News that the US should immediately prosecute Assange, that “the world is laughing at this paper tiger we've become," and that the release of private diplomatic cables severely damages the ability of US diplomats to operate.
Mr. Issa called for new laws to make it easier to prosecute leaks of State Department information "so the diplomats can do their job with confidence and people can talk to our government with confidence."
Well, that was then: Issa, whose committee has wide-ranging powers to oversee the US government, decided on Friday to release more than 160 pages of State Department memos and diplomatic cables from Libya . It was part of his effort to prove Obama administration malfeasance leading up to the murder of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in Benghazi in September.
None of the released information was strictly "classified," but it all would typically have been kept private for years. Much the same could be said for most of the hundreds of thousands of cables released by Assange, which Issa so ardently opposed.
To be sure, Issa insists he's only interested in the truth, and there's no politics behind his efforts. But the tone of his statements might argue otherwise.
"Obama administration officials and their surrogates are clearly reeling from revelations about how the situation in Benghazi was mishandled and are falsely politicizing the issue in a last ditch effort to save President Obama’s reelection effort. To see such prominent officials as Sen. John Kerry, Sen. Dick Durbin, Sen. Carl Levin, Rahm Emanuel, and Obama Senior Adviser David Axelrod paraded out over to weekend to make false charges about the Oversight Committee putting Libyans in danger only shows their desperation to hide the truth."
Well, "desperation to hide the truth" may be a bit much, but they're certainly engaging in the same political game Issa is playing from the other side. As for Issa's specific point – that it's no big deal that Libyan women's rights activist Wafa Taher Bughaigis was identified as talking privately to diplomats – well, if he says so….
But the criticism of Issa's decision was over the revelation of names in general. While an anonymous "administration official" did single out that particular revelation in a comment to Foreign Policy, that wasn't the point of the commenter or the slew of past and former State Department critics. A number of other Libyans were named as privately talking to US officials, some of whom were providing intelligence. Their names are now available to anyone who wants them.
In a worst-case scenario, that could lead to their targeting by the same sorts of people who attacked the Benghazi consulate. But well short of that, it sends a message to every Libyan that if they talk to US officials, their private conversations could soon end up on the Internet for all to see.
Even when the contents of a conversation with a diplomat are banal, an Islamist militia, for instance, might not see it that way. That's why this was such a bad idea, and merely the latest in a string of evidence that partisan games are being played over Benghazi (including strange semantic discussions of when Obama "knew," that it was terrorism, as if this irrelevant question holds the key to preserving US interests).
All this makes it very hard for people to talk to the US government with confidence, or for US diplomats to do their job with confidence.