Julian Assange: Enemy of the States

From the start, there has been a general lack of coherence in the response to Julian Assange and the activities of Wikileaks. Many critics of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were pleased to frame Assange’s leaks of U.S. government documents as “whistle blower” activity, a currently common label for Assange, who, in fact, was awarded the 2010 Sam Adams Award, an award given for whistle blowing activities, by the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence, a movement of former CIA employees. Accordingly, Assange has been cast by some as being in the mold of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers.

It is important to recall the Ellsberg characterized his own behavior as an act of conscience within a system of laws the authority of which he accepted, however much he saw clearly the unvarnished nature of state power. He comported himself as a civil disobedient.

I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.

Ellsberg thus acted in a tradition that had recently included Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, and that extends back to Socrates. Many people, including, perhaps, Ellsberg himself, who has been a vocal supporter of Assange, overlook this aspect of the Pentagon Papers history and focus instead on the skepticism of state authority. Ellsberg said also,

The public is lied to every day by the President, by his spokespeople, by his officers. If you can’t handle the thought that the President lies to the public for all kinds of reasons, you couldn’t stay in the government at that level, or you’re made aware of it, a week. … The fact is Presidents rarely say the whole truth—essentially, never say the whole truth—of what they expect and what they’re doing and what they believe and why they’re doing it and rarely refrain from lying, actually, about these matters.

Well, as I and plenty of other people write about often, the entire political class lies; lying has been accommodated as a characteristic of political discourse. There are corrupt and abusive lies, self-serving lies, the general run of bullshit, and there are the white and some government lies that many accept as a feature of reality, in which, at times the truth can be harmful. How one feels about living with these features of reality is a deeply personal adjustment to the character of the world and the course of life. It is an existential decision that may vary widely in widely divergent circumstances – differences in the political life of nations, for instance – and there is no one way to respond with integrity. One must first acknowledge, however, to oneself, the nature of the question one is confronting and the rationale one offers oneself for one’s response to it.

Julian Assange does not act as a civil disobedient. He not only seeks to evade any systematic responsibility for his acts through Wikileaks, but he avowedly holds himself above any system of law, anywhere, that might seek to hold him accountable. I offer again, at the bottom, the video of Assange’s appearance on The Colbert Report from earlier this year, because it was particularly revealing. In it Assange asserts that the rights of the press are superior to law, because legitimate systems of law, like “real politics” and “real diplomacy” flow from unfettered information and knowledge.

I won’t unpack all that is bundled together there, except to note first that Assange has completely altered the notion of a press – of course, to include what he himself does – to embrace any dissemination of information not universally accessible. If you steal my personal diary and open it up on a table at the company cafeteria, congratulations, you are now Edward R. Murrow. One also longs to learn Assange’s definition of “real” in “real politics” and “real diplomacy,” or what tradition it is in diplomatic activity he refers to when he suggests that the real kind is open. But observe how supremely well Colbert spies Assange’s hypocrisy. Assange pretends to have one mission: the free flow of information. But Colbert notes the prejudicial title of the Apache helicopter video release: “Collateral Murder.”

“You have edited the tape and given it a title, ‘Collateral Murder.’ That’s not leaking; that’s a pure editorial.”

That was for “maximum impact,” Assange says.

Replies Colbert (in very close to these words), “” I admire someone who is willing to put ‘Collateral Murder’ at the start knowing most people probably won’t  go on to read the rest. That way you have manipulated the audience.”

Watch Assange’s face: he is taken aback by how shrewdly Colbert has caught him out.

Still, Assange will insist he is doing the work of “the press.” As we learn from the Sydney Morning Herald, however,

Wikileaks, [Assange] says, has released more classified documents than the rest of the world press combined.

”That’s not something I say as a way of saying how successful we are – rather, that shows you the parlous state of the rest of the media. How is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of the world press combined? It’s disgraceful.”

Assange identifies the role of the press as definitively one of releasing to the public “suppressed” information. He does not offer how a proper press comes to obtain the suppressed information it releases, but we know how he does it: he induces the violation of law, in any state, above which he holds himself and any individual who breaks such codified law, if their purpose is the unfettered flow of information. There is no space here for fundamental considerations of privacy and legitimate secrecy, but certainly Assange’s “suppressed” (repressed, oppressed) implies, without qualification as to circumstance or kind, that undisclosed information is always illegitimately withheld information. You might, when considering your medical records, comfort yourself that Assange’s target is the power of the state, unless, of course, like any individual identified in the hundreds of thousands of documents obtained so far, your personal privacy recedes before the higher calling of exposing state policy, say in healthcare legislation.

It is actually quite remarkable how ill-considered is the activity that Assange has chosen to make the defining work of his life. Until now we have had him cast a wide net in explaining his notion of a press; here, he goes strikingly awry in seeking a model of what he envisions.

[Assange] said journalism needed to work towards making more primary source material such as this available online, arguing that this was the standard process for scientific investigations and that it should be the same for journalism.

You can’t publish a paper on physics without the full experimental data and results, that should be the standard in journalism.

You can’t do it in newspapers because there isn’t enough space, but now with the internet there is.

Of course, we should always be happier the more openly sourced reportage is, but anyone without an idealist’s eye for the heavens and a missionary’s zeal understands why we often have unsourced reportage. In scientific inquiry at its ideal best – which it ain’t always – there is no benefit, and every disadvantage to secrecy. In reportage on the multifarious world, without secrecy there is often, paradoxically, nothing to report. Consider, though, that Assange is not an opponent of all secrecy, such as the secrets Wikileaks keeps about its own activities, including, frequently, Assange’s movements and whereabouts, concerning which, interestingly, he has security concerns.

It is not clear how many of those who respond in a kind of visceral political sense to Assange – iconoclastic gadflies who challenge the authority of state power hold a power over certain dispositional imaginations second only to the power the state wields over the actual world – understand that his mission is not one only of opposing what they believe to be misguided or morally wrong wars – that what Assange advances is an anarchic assault on the authority of the state itself. It is often so, though, that missionaries assume a personal authority no less absolute and self-justifying than that of the state.  Since the release of the first Afghan documents, Assange has been questioned about the potential human cost of his unfiltered releases (which he has since offered to review, in future releases, for potential harm, thus acknowledging some level of acceptable secrecy – the one Assange judges appropriate). Here are some of his responses the Guardian.

When I try to question him about the morality of what he’s done, if he worries about unleashing something that he can’t control, that no one can control, he tells me the story of the Kenyan 2007 elections when a WikiLeak document “swung the election”.

The leak exposed massive corruption by Daniel Arap Moi, and the Kenyan people sat up and took notice. In the ensuing elections, in which corruption became a major issue, violence swept the country. “1,300 people were eventually killed, and 350,000 were displaced. That was a result of our leak,” says Assange. It’s a chilling statistic, but then he states: “On the other hand, the Kenyan people had a right to that information and 40,000 children a year die of malaria in Kenya. And many more die of money being pulled out of Kenya, and as a result of the Kenyan shilling being debased.”


Not everyone agrees. There’s a school of thought, to which a leading article in the Times gave voice, that he is playing a dangerous game. He says he hasn’t read it, so I quote a chunk: “The sanctimonious piety of the man is sickening.”

“Oh sure,” he says. “Because it would be better to be a ruthless media mogul just in it for the money. That would be then be acceptable. We can’t actually have people doing something for moral reasons. It’s only acceptable if we do it just for the money.”


What about these named sources? Might he have endangered their lives?

“If there are innocent Afghans being revealed, which was our concern, which was why we kept back 15,000 files, then of course we take that seriously.”

But what if it’s too late?

“Well, we will review our procedures.”

Too late for the individuals, I say. Dead.

“Well, anything might happen but nothing has happened. And we are not about to leave the field of doing good simply because harm might happen … [Emphasis added]

In the first instance, Assange cold-bloodedly rationalizes the cost of his actions no differently than a Bolshevik or Maoist did, or even any Bush administration official did the cost to the Iraqi civilian population of the Iraq war. In the second we see that he justifies himself, and any similarity in his behavior to those he opposes, because he is, simply, a better person. And that last – we are not about to leave the field of doing good simply because harm might happen do not such words rationalize the very wars Assange opposes? Perhaps it takes a sensibility less computational and political than Assange’s to have seen in life how often the zealous adversary is a mirror of that which he opposes.

All this has been to stitch together, from the various strands, a coherent vision of the incoherence of Assange’s philosophy, and the sympathies he engenders in some quarters. The release now of the U.S. diplomatic cables, which governments other than the U.S. are condemning, places a frame around it all. The newspapers that are publishing the cables – no doubt, in part, not to be upstaged, outdone, and outshone, by their own lights, by Wikileaks – are now caught in the same sticky web of self-regard and self-interest. No longer do we have justifications of conscience and public obligation arrayed against allegedly deceptive, immoral, or illegal wars. Now we have this justification from The New York Times.

The Times believes that the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match.

About what otherwise not publicly accessible government documents at the administrative, diplomatic, military, and law enforcement levels could this statement not be made? These are not historical papers of which the Times writes, but current documents relating to the ever sensitive communications between governments. To publish according to this flimsy standard is to acknowledge no authority whatsoever on the part of the government to protect its important communications and to execute its policies with the care and by the measure of its own, elected leaders’ judgments. Such an act does not challenge in conscience the excesses of the state; it works to undermine any coherent conception of an appropriately authoritative and effective state.


The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Exclusives – Julian Assange Unedited Interview
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election Fox News


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2 thoughts on “Julian Assange: Enemy of the States

  1. Sorry to say, I’m only now catching up on your columns, but this is an amazing piece. I hadn’t seen Assange’s quote about the Kenyan election violence. I only knew about Michela Wrong’s book on Kenyan corruption which Assange pirated.

    Don’t know if you saw these two articles which discuss Wrong (among other things), but here they are:



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