Assange and Wikileaks: Time to Ask the Impertinent Questions

I’m badly out of step with my media brethren, since I find the fate of Wikileaks and its besieged founder, Julian Assange, a truly compelling story. Other media don’t agree. The pressure on Assange, who has taken sanctuary in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, is to them fringe stuff, a quirky faceoff involving a spectral, white-haired weirdo most journalists disdain, who spilled secrets that annoyed officialdom and which U.S. media mostly ignored anyway.

True, the story’s got sex, since Sweden wants Assange extradited to answer complaints of bedroom wrongdoing in Stockholm. But even sex can’t give it the boost it needs, and Wikileaks gets nowhere near the attention lavished, for instance, on the imbecilic U.S. Senate candidate from Missouri who believes women have an inbuilt capacity to keep from being impregnated by rapists.

I think the real Wikileaks story is a very big deal and has been preposterously underplayed and under-reported by the U.S. media. Wikileaks, the global anti-secrecy network Assange founded, exploded into the headlines worldwide in 2010. It had been aggressively posting documents from foreign governments and private entities—exposing corruption in Kenya, tax avoidance by a British bank, toxic waste in West Africa, internal Scientology documents.

But Wikileaks became world famous in April 2010 when its leaks involved the United States. First was the release of gunsight video showing a U.S. helicopter massacring people on a Baghdad street, among them civilians, Reuters journalists and a child. That was followed by war logs first from Iraq, then from Afghanistan, thousands of U.S. military documents, and by a third trove—U.S. diplomatic cables, more than 250,000, covering some 100 countries, published by a makeshift cooperative of four leading news organizations.

It was the most stupendous assault ever on official secrecy.

The counterattack has been steady and effective. The U.S. arrested an Army data clerk named Bradley Manning for leaking and held him for almost a year under brutal conditions. He has nowbeen behind bars for more than 800 days, and faces 52 years in prison. It’s assumed he’s being pressured to implicate Assange as a conspirator.

Then the companies that processed the money that Wikileaks relied on suddenly decided to stop. Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, Western Union, Amazon and Bank of America mumbled something about “indirectly facilitating” illegal behavior, and Wikileaks’ income plunged by 90 percent.

And in late 2010 came allegations of sexual abuse against Assange from two Swedish women. The details are murky, but what’s important is that Assange—though he’s charged with no crime—has been treated with a determination usually reserved for fleeing war criminals, and until he sought asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy had been under house arrest while fighting extradition. Assange says the real plan is to get him to Stockholm because he can then be extradited to the United States more easily.

Now, he’s hunkered down in Ecuador’s 10-room embassy, but apart from occasional pictures of the spectacularly overblown police presence around the corner from Harrod’s—some 50 officers, costing $80,000 a day—the story is stagnating.

“Considering he made his name with the biggest leak of secret government documents in history,” Seumas Milne observed in The Guardian, “you might imagine there would be at least some residual concern for Julian Assange among those trading in the freedom of information business.”

Milne was bewailing the British media’s loathing for Assange; in the U.S. the problem isn’t hostility, it’s indifference. As a result, big questions go unanswered:

First, what precisely is he alleged to have done in Sweden—and how are such accusations normally handled? Are the targets of similar allegations always treated like top-drawer international fugitives, or is Assange unusually privileged? And why can’t he simply be questioned in London, as he has offered repeatedly?

Second, what is the Washington connection? Have U.S. officials urged the Swedes to get him to Stockholm? Does the United States have plans to seek his extradition? Has any reporter asked? (And while we’re at it, what pressure did the administration bring to bear on the money handlers who cut off Wikileaks’ flow of funds? Has anybody asked?)

Third, has Assange been indicted in the U.S.? It’s reported that a sealed indictment exists, and since he is resisting extradition because he already assumes that to be true, it’s hard to see why it should remain under seal.

Finally, and most important, isn’t it time for a dispassionate assessment of Wikileaks’ impact? It has been two years since the massive leaks of military and diplomatic data. The moment is ripe for an accounting. Did the leaks do harm or do good? Did Wikileaks demoralize dedicated officials and expose trusting intelligence assets to risk and reprisal? Or did it blow whistles that needed to be heard, embolden dissidents worldwide, fuel the Arab Spring, encourage lackluster news media to defy official controls, help chase despots from power?

But none of these answers will come from media that don’t even recognize the questions as worth asking.

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9 responses to “Assange and Wikileaks: Time to Ask the Impertinent Questions

  1. I like it. It may deserve a follow up focused more speculatively on the sociology and economics of American media that keep them away from the story.

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Richard McHenry

    Good topic! My guess…reporters will not touch this story for fear that they may anger their usual sources and be denied access to “more important” info on other stories in the future. What has happened since the “leaks “? I really do not know.
    This reminds me of the “death threats” made years ago against Salmon Rushdie (sp?) by Iran. Big flap..he hides..nothing more…

  3. Media organizations are reluctant to follow the Assange story too closely for fear of being seen as advocates. When Wikileaks first began dumping documents, news organizations couldn’t get enough of it. The Guardian, The NY Times and Der Spiegel were quick to praise Assange for his boldness. But as Assange’s idiosyncrasies and his blatant anti-American attitudes became evident, media organizations (and their ombudsmen) began to express buyers’ remorse for getting to close to someone whose motivation for Wikileaks was less journalistic than partisan. Those same media may still admit that Assange performed an important service to their readers, but I sense they now prefer to watch from a discreet distance.

  4. Congratulations on your article about the questions US Media aren’t asking – pretty good I thought!
    Maureen Lister

  5. I find it sickening that your article was removed from Bradenton Herald.
    However google news still shows it there.
    There is a global movement to neutralise assange – and it is mostly working.
    Sweden should man up and go question Assange in London already!

  6. Eddie Tyrendarra

    Never let the Americans get their hands on Assange because they have every reason to prosecute him for all manner of so-called crimes. Treason has been mooted by some which is indeed ludicrous. You cannot be tried anywhere for treason if you are not a citizen of the country because treason is a crime which relates to your “violation of allegiance to your sovereign or your state”. As Assange is not a citizen of the USA then he owes them no allegiance.

  7. Richard McHenry

    Good angle on the “treason” issue. I never thought of that. How then can this country pursue “pilfered” Internet files? Please do not suggest a “World Court” answer!

  8. Pingback: What exactly was Assange's crime?

  9. Pingback: 08/26/12 | This Day in WikiLeaks

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