Is Julian Assange a hero or criminal?

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The release of Afghan war documents by Julian Assange’s organization Wikileaks has prompted many from-the-hip comments and accusations, but also has stimulated thoughtful (and long overdue) dialogue about expanding government secrecy. In this Al Jazeera video, journalists debate the legality and morality of WikiLeaks’ disclosure of classified information, and discuss the potential impacts on whistleblowing and journalism.

The video also includes a clip of Assange carrying a notebook computer as he steps up to the podium at a press conference. What brand of computer, you may ask, does a man on the run trust with his secrets? Answer: an Apple.

The how and why of whistleblower smears

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A brouhaha on Saturday has many people wondering if Julian Assange, founder of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, is the target of a U.S. government smear campaign.  A week after WikiLeaks disclosed that it was preparing to release more Afghan war documents–a move expected to embarrass and enrage the U.S. military, and amidst a battle of words over redaction of the documents, a Swedish prosecutor issued an arrest warrant charging Assange with rape of an unidentified woman.  A Swedish tabloid newspaper disclosed the rape charge plus a charge of molestation by a second unidentified woman.  Assange, who immediately denied the charges, said he learned of them from the newspaper.  Within a few hours, the Swedish Prosecution Authority had rescinded the warrant.

There certainly is no shortage of precedents to be found.  Many individuals who exposed waste, fraud and abuse have been the subject of smear campaigns–slammed with untruths, half truths and inuendoes.  Smears, if successful, cast doubt on the whistleblower’s credibility, thereby casting doubt on the worth of the whistleblower’s claims.  Public attention becomes focused on the whistleblower rather than organizational wrongdoing that might affect millions of lives.  The prospect of one’s life being run through a public wringer discourages other witnesses from coming forward.

Even a personnel file filled with good appraisals is no protection from smears, as the case of Kernan Manion, illustrates.  Any potentially embarrassing information, including health records and other personal information covered by privacy laws, may secretly find its way into the hands of reporters.  The journalism profession’s inclination to hide the identity of sources without regard to the source’s motive sometimes undermines the public interest by allowing managers of corrupt organizations to retaliate with impunity.

In following whistleblower cases, one sees the same methods appear again and again, and frequently the same perpetrators, too.  But, that important context is rarely mentioned when whistleblower cases are reported in the press.  Depriving the public of that information makes it difficult to accurately assess the credibility of those behind the accusations, creating an uneven playing field for the whistleblowers. Of the handful of people who do blow the whistle, few obtain relief due to another uneven playing field:  the legal system.

Some very important disclosures have been threatened by smear campaigns.  Had those efforts succeeded in the following examples, millions of people today would be less healthy, less safe and less secure.

  • Jeffrey Wigand –  Exposed dangerously fraudulent practices of the tobacco industry.  Investigators hired by Wigand’s former employer, Brown and Williamson, “fanned out across the country looking for anything they could use to discredit the whistle-blower,” interrogating family and friends.  From their reports, B&W assembled a smear file chargingWigand with “a multitude of sins from fudging his resume to making a false claim three years ago for ninety-five dollars and twenty cents for dry cleaning.” (CBS 60 Minutes interview)
  • Frank Serpico – Exposed corruption in the New York City police department.  “Before Serpico publicly exposed payoffs to his Bronx plainclothes unit 40 years ago, the police department had painted him as a malcontent, a nut, a weirdo, with long hair and hippie friends. That’s what agencies do to whistleblowers.” (Huffington Post)
  • Daniel Ellsberg – Disclosed the Pentagon Papers report, revealing how government officials mislead the public about the Vietnam war.  On September 9, 1971, “President Nixon’s ‘Plumbers’ unit, tasked to plug media leaks from administration officials and outsiders to the media, burglarizes the Los Angeles office of psychiatrist Lewis Fielding to find damaging information on Daniel Ellsberg, the former defense analyst and patient of Fielding who leaked the “Pentagon Papers” to the media.” (History Commons)
  • Russell Tice –  Reported that a former co-worker appeared to be spying for China and later reported warrantless domestic surveillance.  His bosses at the National Security Agency used his security clearance as a ticket to the ultimate smear – a psychological evaluation conducted by a TSA-paid psychiatrist who labeled Tice “paranoid” and “psychotic.” (Sherrie Gossett, CNSNews)
  • Ralph Nader – As the consumer advocate was preparing an investigative report on the auto industry, General Motors reportedly hired private investigators to shadow Nader, harass him with threatening phone calls, and interrogate acquaintances about his personal life, and also used “attractive girls” to try to lure him into “compromising sexual escapades” (TIME).
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Wikileaks: The Witch Hunt Begins

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In “WikiLeaks: The National-Security State Strikes Back” (Harper’s, August 3), Scott Horton predicts the government’s reaction to the disclosure of 91,000 documents from the Afghan war.  The reprisal will begin with “an information war targeting WikiLeaks,” in which the intelligence community gins up fear that the disclosures “imperil the safety of American forces on the ground, America’s allies, and thus every American citizen sitting at home.”

Next, Horton writes, the government will make an example of the leaker through “harsh and heavy-handed prosecution or court-martial,” to discourage others from blowing the whistle.  Finally, destruction of the main target, WikiLeaks, will further deter others in the government from making disclosures.

Indeed, as I noted in March, long before these leaks, the Army Counterintelligence Center had prepared a 32-page secret plan to destroy WikiLeaks. The memo notes that the American intelligence community has valuable allies in the struggle against WikiLeaks—China, North Korea, Russia, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe. It recommended emulating the tactics used by these tyrannical states. [Horton]

White House officials say the leaked documents threaten national security. But, no concrete evidence of that has been provided. Horton argues that suppression of embarrassing information is itself a threat to national security.

If information can be routinely suppressed because it is embarrassing to political leaders or would undermine the arguments they make to the nation, then our democracy is faltering. In the wake of these disclosures, Americans should carefully judge the conduct of those who claim that suppressing the leaks is in the interests of national security. Are they upholding national security, or are they betraying American democracy? [Horton]

The question of how much secrecy is good for the country will likely be settled in a courtroom.  But, in the history of American witch hunts, from Salem to the present, fair and open trials have been nearly as rare as unicorn teeth.

National Security at a Crossroads

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Tom Devine, Legal Director for the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, has worked on 5,000 whistleblower cases.  In an op-ed for the Washington Post, he describes the dilemma of conscientious national security employees who are forced by dysfunctional agencies to choose between leaking anonymously to the media or blowing the whistle internally, an act of “career suicide.”  Whether the whistle is blown internally or externally, increasingly, the government is responding with criminal investigations and prosecutions.  “No wonder so many remain silent,” Devine writes.

When government shoots the messenger, all Americans pay a price in weakened defenses against terrorism and other national security threats.  Amending the dysfunctional Whistleblower Protection Act to cover FBI and intelligence employees and give all government employees solid protections would give government agencies strong incentives to take a more constructive approach to whistleblowing.  But, pending legislation that would do that has come to a halt in the Senate, where “lawmakers have not overcome repeated secret holds by opponents,” says Devine.

The public could demand an end to the Senate logjam.  Will you?