Who would have ever thought an Australian computer hacker with a penchant for ferreting out state secrets would become either the greatest muckraker in years of the greatest threat to the national security of the United States since the fall of the Soviet Union? Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is attacking the status quo of state secrets and not surprisingly, the state is striking back.
I haven’t made up my yet what I think of Assange, but I’m finding it kind of hard to cheer this guy on as a crusading whistleblower.
Setting the rape allegations aside (difficult, but I’ll try), I don’t mind Assange is pulling back the curtain to show how the pigs gets slaughtered and the sausage gets made, but I don’t think he’s acting out simply from a wish to punk America by pulling its pants down in public. Assange seems to want to really stick it to this country, twist it and break it off.
I’m not going to side with Mitch McConnell and others who suggest Assange is a terrorist, but neither do I see him as a crusader for truth, justice and certainly not the American way. Assange is a hacker, not a journalist and the bulk of his info dumps have been directly aimed at exposing corruption and pointing out the embarrassing hypocrisy and inconsistencies of the foreign policy pursued by the United States.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has burned up the phone and adding to her frequent flier miles trying to assure America’s allies the leaked documents are not meant as an attack on their governments. Clinton has said WikiLeaks “puts people’s lives in danger” but they always say the same thing about every reveal of information that makes the government look bad from the Pentagon Papers to the Abu Gharib photos.
To use a tired phrase, the national security of this country is too important to be left to the personal morality of a whistle blower who may be more of a traitor than a patriot. Not every whistle blower wants to right a wrong. Some only want to stir the pot, start some drama and yes, even get someone killed. Even if there are motivations that are true, honest and well-intentioned, the ramifications of exposing certain information can have terrible consequences that our friend the whistle blower will not personally suffer.
If it had not been for someone like Sherron Watkins, the criminality of an Enron might have taken years to come to light if at all. When Daniel Ellsberg handed the Pentagon Papers over to the Washington Post, government officials shrieked little girls how much harm and likely death would come to American citizens due to the revelations. No such thing went down. Governments always scream when what they do not want to be known is found out.
However, like most things, WikiLeaks has to be evaluated on a case-by-case to learn how much damage has been done. There are plenty of faces red with embarrassment and anger at the State Department, but many of these revelations are gossip more than shattering revelations.
Whistleblowers on balance are an asset to a free society and assuring it stays that way, but you can’t hang the halos of angels or the horns of demons on them indiscriminately.
The job of a journalist is to tell the hard and unpleasant truth and if it should happen to embarrass and anger the politicians and the powerful, so much the better. Discomforting the comfortable is what “speaking truth to power” is all about. That should be a job for the press, but too many of them are more fascinated by Kim Kardashian and her latest temporary sex thing instead of what is being done in the supposed interest of the people.
The public’s right to know is a sacred tenet of journalism, but that has to be tempered by what harm may be done by the public knowing?
We should not want to know everything. The orbit of our spy satellites and who they are listening in and watching over is not something necessarily to share with the public. If some high-ranking official from Uzbekistan is boinking his secretary, I really could not care less.
But if the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence Agency is playing footsie with the Taliban, I am very interested in that, especially when Pakistan receives $11 billion in unconditional aid from the United States. Where are my tax dollars going and is any of it being spent to help kill other Americans?
We don’t have to know anything, but if we don’t know anything about what matters the easier it is to be led around by the nose blissful in our ignorance and blindly assuming everything is under control and is being handled and too late we come to the realization nothing is.
The U.S. government brings much of this grief upon themselves. Too many documents are classified secret and too much of the people’s business is conducted privately. There needs to be more openness in government, not less and while this a principle the Obama Administration said it believed in, the reality hasn’t matched the rhetoric.
The public’s right to know can not always supersede the ability of a sovereign nation to conduct its diplomatic affairs with a degree of confidentiality. Unfortunately, too often the default position of the majority of governments is all of their business is a state secret.
Whenever a government decides only it knows what is best for its citizens, those citizens should be asking what is it they are not supposed to know and why. Democracy hinges on constantly reminding the government who it was that gave them their power and who it is that can take it away.
Maybe if nothing else Assange deserves some credit of reminding us of our responsibility to be vigilant in watching the watchers.