Counter-point: Assange’s actions are a dangerous precedent

Admittedly, when I first heard about WikiLeaks, it happened to be when I got burned by it. Back when I was involved in partisan politics, I ran a training seminar on campus activism for conservatives. A member of OPIRG slipped in, lied about her identity, tape recorded the session and posted it on WikiLeaks. Some things said by the speakers were exaggerated or made in jest, but that didn’t stop a stampede to hysteria caused by out-of-context sound bites used by the media in what must have been a slow news week. And so it became a national story. I was pretty pissed, but I didn’t blame WikiLeaks. I blamed the person who committed fraud in an attempt to embarrass my association.

Since that time, WikiLeaks has transformed into a hobby horse for socially awkward anarchists with political agendas, like its founder Julian Assange. Recently, tens of thousands of documents were released pertaining to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and 250,000 American diplomatic cables were leaked, in what is possibly one of the largest U.S. security breaches in recent history. How such material was leaked with such ease is quite disturbing, but the reality is with technology these days it’s easier now than ever before.

While I am attached to my classical liberal predisposition to limited government, I cannot deny the realities of diplomacy and conducting foreign affairs. The world is a tinder box and the conduct of foreign policy is uglier and messier than any of us can imagine. Diplomacy is crafted behind closed doors for a reason; governments confront the dilemma of wanting to compromise while simultaneously needing to save face publicly to avoid angering their constituents back home. Broadcasting the intricacies of diplomacy will make this impossible and force governments to entrench their positions.

A prime example of this is Kennedy’s negotiations with Khrushchev to end the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy got him to back down in exchange for dismantling NATO missiles on the Soviet Union’s doorstep in Turkey. This was kept secret to allow Kennedy to save face in front of a public that while afraid of war, did not want the United States to compromise in the face of what was seen as unprovoked aggression. Had this deal come to light in the midst of crisis, I don’t doubt negotiations would have been called off. World War III would have been a distinct possibility.

The reality is the public collectively does not have the ability to rationalize or pay any attention to a story beyond the superficial level. They are then easily swayed by fear spurred by a media driven in the pursuit of sensationalist headlines. There is a reason politicians communicate in sound bites. Efforts to actually explain the merits of an issue are deemed ineffectual in political campaigns. I think it is a tragedy that this is the case but it is an uncomfortable truth.

Public pressure does not force governments to think critically; in fact it is quite the opposite. When the stakes as high as they are with foreign affairs; when failed negotiations can lead to war and cost thousands of lives, this is unacceptable. Diplomats need to have the ability to do their jobs without fear of their words being taken out of context and plastered over newspapers across the globe. WikiLeaks and the unrestrained releasing of classified materials makes this impossible.

In addition to the possible impact WikiLeaks could have on diplomacy, it also is clear that there are national security implications for the United States – WikiLeaks has no filter and its founder has a stated vendetta against the United States.
Assange and WikiLeaks do not operate with the same accountability mechanism as traditional media sources. The latter refrain from publishing information that could compromise lives out of fear of losing sources close to the government. Assange, on the other hand, is free to extort governments by threatening the release of information if they take any effort to interfere in his organization’s operations. He has already released a list of vulnerable infrastructure sites around the world critical to U.S. national security; amounting to a wish list for any lunatic terrorist that can construct a simple homemade bomb with fertilizer.

What would happen if Assange got his hands on U.S. battle plans in the event of war? Or a list of American intelligence agents abroad? There is a very real concern that unrestrained distribution of leaked materials could cost lives, particularly when Assange is accountable only to his massive ego.

The most tragic thing about this whole case will be the aftermath. The United States government, among others, will learn lessons from this. Government agencies will no longer share information as easily, undermining many of the reforms made after 9/11 and will compromise their ability to operate efficiently – it’s hard enough as it is. There will also be backlash, causing the government to retrench and increase secrecy beyond what is actually necessary. Access to information is about finding a proper balance between public knowledge and the ability of the government to operate. WikiLeaks may well end up destroying this balance. Assange will undermine precisely the cause he claims to promote.

The truth is that getting rid of Assange will not solve the problem. When he falls, and he will fall, there will be another crusading anarchist to replace him. There is an army of hackers out there that can and will be bought by foreign governments and non-state actors to suit their own agenda. The United States needs to be more vigilant in guarding against security breaches and forms of cyber-terrorism, while providing a balance with the need to keep the public reasonably informed. This is, without a doubt, a challenge and it remains to be seen if the U.S. government is up to it.

Read Opinion Columnist Shagun Randhawa defend Assange and WikiLeaks here.