The Strange Mr. Assange

It was a nerve wracking time. His mother and I exchanged reassurances through the weekend, on Sunday morning as I left for worship, then each morning before I left for work and each evening when I came home.

He had been ready to leave Afghanistan for several days, waiting only for paperwork and transport. Promotion and a combat medal would come later. He texted faithfully each day, letting us know he was okay. Then the texts stopped. His mother sent messages. There was no response.

We got word that his Marine base in Helmand province had been attacked by infiltrators in Afghan uniforms. Marines had died.

We told each other, then told each other again and again, that he was probably en route out of Afghanistan and that he could not communicate. It would be only a matter of hours.

But Saturday went to Sunday. Monday came with no word. Tuesday, then Wednesday. My pleading with God became urgent, and then even angry. It finally came to me that I was praying for a horrible tragedy to hit other families, as it would hopefully pass us by.

On Thursday, we got his text message. He was okay.

In the time since he came out of immediate danger, there have been many attacks, of course. Our reaction has a new quality since that fearful time. We have learned that our capacity for empathetic grief is greater than we had once imagined. It is a grief that has left room for gratitude to people we will never know.

Attacks that have killed and maimed have been joined by attacks prevented, attacks that have been stopped before they began.

The flow of information about planned attacks, on battlefields and in cities far away from combat, information intended to prevent that violence, showed a marked increase in the months following the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. The most reasonable speculation seems to be that ordinary people in danger zones, people who knew they faced dramatic danger if they cooperated, were more willing to trust the administration of a new President a vast ocean away in America.

Terrorist attacks in combat areas, and in Western cities and towns, continued, but more were discovered and prevented than ever before. Terrorists continue to kill, but more have paid the price themselves.

We can only imagine the courage it must have taken for ordinary citizens in Afghanistan to have warned authorities of coming Taliban attacks and al Qaeda targets. As always, it took the promise of anonymity where possible, and of protection where needed. That guarantee became more credible for those who saw Barack Obama as evidence of an America that keeps its promises.

Still, the courage had to be staggering.

Hard as it is to imagine that courage, it is harder still to imagine the sense of betrayal when identities of many of those brave souls were published internationally by Julian Assange in 2010. There had been some moves to redact many of the names. But the redaction had been careless. Some names were published. Identifying information on others – street names, occupations, other data – made thousands of actual names unnecessary. 77,000 such documents were released.

Dozens of those working with Mr. Assange were stunned. They had hoped to document unethical, often brutal, and too often fatal incidents of war crimes. They knew the danger to vulnerable people could be significant. They had planned extensive review of the documents before their release. Julian Assange abruptly bypassed that review, and identifying information on vulnerable individuals went international.

The Taliban announced they would be examining the leaked documents carefully to identify anyone whose loyalty was now in question. Targeted killings soon spiked. The targets included not only those whose identities had been revealed, but families as well.

Internet communications within the Assange organization were angry and intense. One exchange in particular was remarkable. Daniel Domscheit-Berg of Germany became a sort of spokesman for those outraged that so many lives had been put into needless danger.

Julian Assange was also outraged. With no sense of irony, he expressed his anger at what he called a “serious security breach.” He was unconcerned about putting innocent people into danger. Rather, he was furious that word had leaked out of dissatisfaction with his decision. He promised to investigate, and he began suspending his critics, beginning with Domscheit-Berg.

Soon after those 77,000 documents revealed the identities of those who had cooperated in Afghanistan, Assange announced the release of another 390,000 documents, over 5 times as many. This new flood of documents dealt with Iraq. US authorities scrambled to notify hundreds Iraqis that they had been named and were suddenly in mortal danger.

We need not ignore the bright, polished surface of secret information made public. Terrible incidents of wartime brutality have been exposed. Many of the guilty have been revealed. The dark dirty underside should have been acknowledged far more than it was.

To be sure, the consignment of the innocent to the easy category of collateral damage, a regrettable but necessary sacrifice of other humans to a noble cause, is not a practice unique to Julian Assange.

Associated Press reporters on the hunt for a major news story revealed a British spy who had infiltrated al Qaeda. The spy had supplied information that stopped plans to use a new kind of bomb in order to destroy an airliner filled with passengers.

The hope was that the risks taken by this undercover agent might continue, that more incidents of terrorism would be stopped, that more lives would be saved.

But Associated Press published the story. That ongoing spy mission, the mission that had saved those passengers, now had to be halted so that the spy could be rescued.

Fox News revealed to the world that a high level source in the North Korean dictatorship had provided information about nuclear research and plans to use that research. There is no way to know the fate of that high placed individual, once the report was published.

In a new perverse sort of journalistic ethic, reporters and their publishers were outraged that investigators would aggressively search for, and find, government employees who had met with reporters to reveal the classified information with which they had been entrusted.

It is going to make whistle blowers, and people that might leak, regular sources…you know, I’ve had different conversations with people over the last week who are sitting there, not quite, not quite comfortable having certain conversations on the phone. I mean, it just completely, and maybe that’s the intent. I can’t think of any other intent of why they’re going about this in such a broad harassing sort of way.

Chuck Todd, MSNBC, May 22, 2013

Occasional recklessness sometimes extends into more visible areas of government. We all now know of a string of Secretaries of State who used private email accounts. One even received minor scheduling notifications without noticing some parts of two of them had been erroneously marked as classified.

Occasionally, legislators have more carelessly revealed, before television cameras, CIA secrets. One even assured viewers that a committee was going into classified session to prevent disclosures of … and then revealed the top secret topic of discussion. That clumsy disclosure put lives in danger. Thank you Mr. Issa.

But Julian Assange has, more recently, gone beyond Issa-type carelessness. The group now says that even their early nominal efforts to protect the privacy of innocent people was a mistake:

It was strategically a very wrong thing to do, although at the time it seemed tactically wise. It was wrong and we regret it.

Wikileaks, via Twitter, November 24, 2013

And they explain why.

Strategically redaction legitimizes the false propaganda of “information is dangerous”, confining moves. Gains are only tactical.

Wikileaks, via Twitter, November 24, 2013

Since the original revelation to terrorist groups of the identities of those who had helped thwart their plans, Mr. Assange has been quite forthcoming in his reasoning. He no longer hesitates in revealing the names of teenage rape victims, or gay people in countries where such information can be deadly. The addresses of divorced women have been published. Those who have escaped sexual abuse by employers now find their names, addresses, and passport numbers published.

This has not been a devolution. There is no downward spiral of a noble cause into reckless disregard of deadly damage to innocent people.

Julian Assange was never a crusader against government coverup of misdeeds.

He was at the very start, as he is still, an anti-privacy activist. We know of such people, the sort whose spam we have learned to delete before we lose our credit information to some teenage thrill seeker.

The difference is Mr. Assange is older than that teenager. He does not steal from vulnerable people.

He kills them.

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1 thought on “The Strange Mr. Assange”

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