In an earlier post (“Enormously Pompous, Infuriatingly Self-Righteous, and Waging a War on America”) on this blog, Mr. Yost remarked that this column (“The WikiLeaks War on America”) was “perhaps the best profile of Julian Assange” he had seen to date.
Unfortunately, Jonathan Foreman, the author of the column, seems to have a poor understanding of what WikiLeaks actually does. For example, he repeats the falsehood that in November WikiLeaks released 250,000 embassy cables (in fact, it is now January and WikiLeaks has released less than 1% of the 250,000 cables). It seems that having a basic understanding of WikiLeaks’s most controversial leak is not a prerequisite for boldly calling WikiLeaks anti-American.
What evidence does Foreman use to support his thesis that WikiLeaks is waging a war on America? (dashes separate Foreman’s evidence from my commentary)
- Firstly, a portion of a speech Assange gave in Oslo, where he compares the slogan the US has in front of Gitmo (“Honor Bound To Defend Freedom”) to “work brings freedom,” a slogan used by the Nazis. — Amnesty International has called Gitmo a “human rights scandal” and “the gulag of our times.” Is decrying human rights abuses anti-American? The YouTube video of Assange’s speech currently has 398 likes and 2 dislikes. Are virtually all viewers of Assange’s speech also anti-American?
- The focus WikiLeaks had on leaks relating to the United States in 2010 — Assange has repeatedly said that WikiLeaks is committed to publishing every secret document it obtains of ethical, historical or diplomatic importance (after appropriate harm-minimization procedures).
- “Assange’s ruthless insistence on publishing the Afghan War Logs without redacting names and other personal details” — In fact, WikiLeaks made plenty of redactions to the Afghan War leak. For example, WikiLeaks withheld 15,000 sensitive-looking documents, with Assange saying they’d be reviewed “line by line” to remove the names of “innocent parties who are under reasonable threat.” It is true that apparently WikiLeaks failed to redact some innocent names. But this error was caused by limited resources. In more recent leaks WikiLeaks has been more careful: the recent release of embassy cables has been a slow trickle.
- The “departure of key WikiLeaks team members in September of 2010″ — Foreman uses this as evidence that Assange “looks like someone who might engage in dissimulation in order to mask a secret agenda.” To me, it looks like Assange’s management style did not appeal to a few members of the organization. There’s no need to construct an elaborate conspiracy theory.
- The 2008 publication of a report on US countermeasures against IEDs – To his credit, Foreman qualifies this point: “WikiLeaks’s defenders asserted that by the time the report was released, technology had moved on, and U.S. forces in the field were largely using newer jamming devices. Still, even the anti-censorship campaigner Steven Aftergood [...] lambasted Assange for publishing a secret that could get people killed. In response, Assange told a journalist at Wired.com that he had been justified in doing so because ‘U.S. soldiers are not happy that literally billions have gone on these jammers, with apparently little thought going into how soldiers are going to communicate after they have been turned on.’” I think it’s important to keep in mind that this was a very small leak relative to other leaks WikiLeaks has released.
I hit most of Foreman’s main points there. Now, here is Foreman’s conclusion:
Assange seems to suffer from a more extreme version of a phenomenon common in anti-war circles in Britain and America: the absolute unquestioned certainty that American forces have been and are continuing to be guilty of terrible crimes because of their very nature. It is a form of knowledge that requires no evidence or certainly no confirmation by a court of law. And in Assange’s case, it apparently means that the Americans are now and always have been the bad guys. [...] [Assange has] paranoid fears of ruthless, hyper-powerful Western states capable of wiping out all truth and justice unless their actions are exposed by people like him
I suppose American hubris combined with attribution bias (psychologists have found that people unconsciously tend to attribute problems to the personality of others; this classic observation has been used by many scholars to explain irrational foreign policy) makes Foreman jump to the conclusion that WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are anti-American. This is what I hypothesize because in his long column Foreman certainly does not provide sound evidence for his conclusion.
WikiLeaks’s mission (as described in its About page) is to publish information that “leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies” around the world. Assange has complimented the US Constitution:
United States has an enviable Constitution on which to base its decisions. And that Constitution comes out of a revolutionary movement and has a Bill of Rights appraised by James Madison and others that includes a nuanced understanding for the balancing of power of [the] states in relation to the government.
Here is how Assange describes his view of the United States:
The U.S. is, I don’t think by world standards, an exception, rather it is a very interesting case both for its abuses and for some of its founding principles.
Finally, Assange has said that he is not in general anti-war. The correct conclusion is simple. Does Assange think America is a bad guy? Nope. Does Assange think America has some bad guys? Yes.
Two more points
First, it’s odd how the falsehood about WikiLeaks releasing 250,000 cables has been in so many news reports and columns about WikiLeaks since late November. Why has it persisted, when the Wikipedia page on Cablegate and the WikiLeaks website have long highlighted that it’s not true? I think it says a lot about standards of reporting. My pet theory is that since both the Democratic Obama administration and most Republican leaders oppose WikiLeaks, there has been little incentive for the falsehood to get corrected.
Second, why does Foreman, like many others including Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart, jump on the fact that WikiLeaks is not transparent? The justification for transparency is that it’s necessary to prevent powerful institutions (such as government bureaucracies, which use the public’s tax dollars, write laws and can act extra-judicially) from abusing their great power. On the other side of the spectrum, the justification for privacy is that it’s necessary in order to prevent citizens from arbitrary government (or perhaps corporate) harassment. Privacy and transparency both derive their justifications from the fact that power corrupts.
WikiLeaks is a small non-profit organization (as of January 2010 they had five full time employees). After government leaders decided to declare that they were involved in illegal activity, WikiLeaks had no choice but to see corporations like PayPal, Mastercard, Visa and Amazon shut them down. Clearly, WikiLeaks deserves privacy, not transparency. Yet Foreman says:
Apparently Assange is not so keen about transparency when it comes to his own organization. There it seems that secrecy is necessary for the greater good [... T]he irony of this escapes him
Foreman is plain mistaken.
Wikipedia’s Information published by WikiLeaks
The Guardian‘s article on “Collateral Murder”