On Sunday night, the 7th of October, the film ‘Underground: the Julian Assange Story’ will be screened on TV. The film deals with a hacking incident from Julian Assange’s youth, which is topical at present due to the WikiLeaks scandal. The advertising for the film over the previous month presented the viewer with questions such as: “Criminal? Crusader? Patriot? Anarchist? You decide.” Clearly these questions relate to the current situation, which this past incident may shed some light on.
Julian was born and grew up in Australia and was a hacker-activist in his youth, before becoming a computer programmer and then becoming internationally renowned for his work with WikiLeaks. On the 28th of November 2010, WikiLeaks began releasing some of the 251,000 American diplomatic cables in their possession, of which over 53% are listed as unclassified, 40% are “Confidential” and just over 6% are classified “Secret”. The following day, the Attorney-General of Australia, Robert McClelland, told the press that Australia would inquire into Assange’s activities and WikiLeaks. The Federal Police inquiry, however, found that he had not committed any crime.
Bradley Manning, the US soldier whistle blower and source of the leaked documents to WikiLeaks, has since been arrested on suspicion of supplying the cables to WikiLeaks. Assange and WikiLeaks have been formally designated as “enemies of the United States” by the U.S. Defence Department, and the United States Department of Justice is still investigating whether Assange can be prosecuted. Since December 2010, Assange has been subject to a European Arrest Warrant in response to a Swedish police request for questioning in relation to a rape and sexual assault investigation. Since the 19th of June 2012, he has been residing in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has since been granted diplomatic asylum. The British government intends to extradite Assange to Sweden under that arrest warrant if he leaves the embassy, which Assange says he fears may result in his subsequent extradition to the United States of America to face charges over the diplomatic cables case. On the 6th of December 2010, the Swiss bank Post Finance announced that it had frozen assets of Assange’s totalling 31,000 euros, because he had “provided false information regarding his place of residence” when opening the account. Master Card, Visa Inc., and Bank of America also halted dealings with WikiLeaks. Assange described these actions as “business McCarthyism”.
The US denies that it has any plans to extradite him, however emails leaked by WikiLeaks show discussions surrounding a secret grand jury indictment. Later, a media organisation received declassified diplomatic cables that confirm a secret indictment exists. The documents go on to state that Australia has no objection to a potential extradition of Julian Assange to the United States. The Australian government confirmed the possibility of extradition but stated that it wasn’t unusual as there was an ongoing investigation about Wikileaks. They point out that the United States may not be intent on extraditing Assange.
This is the current state of affairs, and the reason why the network screening ‘Underground’ hope that it will be a ratings winner. We, the public, are left to decide whether Julian Assange’s actions are ethical or not. By using the terms ‘Crusader’ or ‘Patriot’ in the Film’s advertising what is implied is that Julian’s actions as editor and chief of WikiLeaks, in releasing secret government documents, can be interpreted as done in the best interests of humanity, bringing to light the truth that had been deliberately concealed by powerful governments responsible for such actions as the invasion of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. From this perspective Assange is a small and vulnerable David, fighting the Goliath of the CIA and FBI on our behalf by giving us the chance to know the truth, given that what had been officially presented to us was only a partial truth covered in spin so as to justify the actions and decisions of the US government. We have the right to know because these actions and decisions have affected all of us. We have been asked to accept the decisions taken by our government in sending troops to support the US in these theatres of war without knowing all the facts of what was the real agenda of the US or Australian governments. In that sense Julian Assange is a patriot because he has stood up for our right to know what our elected heads of state have decided on our behalf, especially when they have not given us the full story. We may, after all, have agreed to these decisions only because we believed the spin, but had we known the truth we may not have been supportive of their course of action. Branding Julian Assange’s actions in releasing these documents a crime is itself spin presented by governments who fear the backlash of public opinion when the truth of their questionable activity has been brought to light.
The alternative way to interpret Julian Assange’s actions is to brand him an ‘anarchist’ or ‘criminal’ implying that bringing such truths to light was irresponsible. That doing so has damaged or threatened to damage international relations by the exposition of sensitive material. International politics, in such a view, requires careful diplomacy. Some information can be inflammatory and the result may be to put national security or the security of troops fighting on foreign soil in jeopardy. Just as we don’t openly say all that we think to each other in our everyday relationships due to the sensitivity of some of this material that can damage those relationships, so too, in the world of international politics, especially when lives are at stake, such disclosures are not appropriate and do not have the national or international best interest in mind. In this view, Julian Assange is acting in his own personal interest and putting lives at risk in the process.
The question, then, is that of the true motives for the WikiLeak’s disclosures. Has Julian Assange acted with integrity or irresponsibility? Julian’s own philosophy, as stated by him, is: “To radically shift regime behaviour 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.” In his blog he wrote, “the more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie…. Since unjust systems, by their nature, induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.”
The underlying principle Julian Assange confronts us with is that if the US government has acted with integrity, then what does it have to hide? He seems to reject the point that bringing the truth to light can sometimes cause more harm than good. Do we always have the right to know the truth? What about privacy? What about national security?
Currently privacy is a very topical area for legislation. In the development of US legislation, due to the sensitivity of some government information and private interests, it was considered that certain types of government information should remain secret. Therefore, the US Congress attempted to enact a Freedom of Information Act in 1966 that would effectively deal with requests for government records, consistent with the belief that the people have the “right to know” about them. The Privacy Act of 1974 additionally covered government documents charting individuals. The normal run of things is that, acknowledging both the people’s right to know as well as the sensitivity of some material, that classified documents do become public, but after a period of time when their release will not put lives or national security in jeopardy.
However, there are exemptions to solicitation of information under these acts that include National defence or foreign policy; Trade secrets and commercial or financial information; personal medical files; Related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency; etc. The Australian Government has similar legislation in place.
So it is the balance between our right to know the truth versus people’s right to privacy. A key principle regarding people’s right to privacy of information is that it can be suspended in the case of criminal or terrorist activity. If this is true for the privacy of individuals, then does it not also apply to Governments? Julian Assange would probably say that this is precisely the point.
In terms of the question of irresponsibility of the WikiLeak’s disclosures, WikiLeaks withheld some 15,000 incident reports from those files disclosed for “safety reasons.” However, thousands of documents in the Wikileaks Afghan war log do identify Afghans by name, family, location, and ideology. The Taliban issued a warning to Afghans, alleged in the log to have worked as informers for the NATO-led coalition, that “US spies” will be hunted down and punished, indicating they will investigate the named individuals before deciding on their fate. The Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen said, “Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is, they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.” Julian insisted that any risk to informants’ lives was outweighed by the overall importance of publishing the information. Assange also claimed it was ‘ironic’ of US officials and military leaders to accuse him of having blood on his hands.
In December 2010, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank LaRue, said that Assange or other WikiLeaks staff should not face criminal charges for any information they disseminated, noting that “if there is a responsibility by leaking information it is of, exclusively of the person that made the leak and not of the media that publish it. And this is the way that transparency works and that corruption has been confronted in many cases.”
[Note: The bulk of the information on Julian Assange’s history and the history of the 2010 WikiLeaks’ disclosure, US government response, etc. was all taken from the Wikipedia article on Julian Assange.]