Assange: The good and bad


Julian Assange, who was hauled out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London after nearly seven years of self-imposed confinement, is now in UK custody, charged by the US Justice Department with conspiring with a former American soldier in around 2010 to hack into a government computer. Assange may also have to face authorities in Sweden as it considers whether to reopen an investigation into rape and sexual assault allegations against him. But the US will have a much harder time of extraditing the founder of Wikileaks and trying him in court on charges of espionage. And therein lies the rub, the question that has always followed Assange: Is he a hero or a villain?

The US knows that a charge of espionage will be difficult and so has gone for the lesser but surer charge of hacking. The US seeking Assange’s extradition in relation to one of the largest ever leaks of government secrets is another story because the legal terrain as well as public perception is so shaky.

There is no doubt that Assange and his WikiLeaks have published some of the most dramatic leaks of the past decade. These include documents exposing American wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan (including larger estimates of civilian casualties in Afghanistan than previously reported, and video footage of an indiscriminate attack by an American helicopter in Iraq) in 2010. The same year it released a trove of over 250,000 juicy American diplomatic cables. In 2016 WikiLeaks was the conduit for Russian-hacked emails from the Democratic Party that may have swayed the course of America’s presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.

In the case of Assange, are his actions against the US treasonous? Didn’t he do what the journalism profession requires of him in a democratic society? By revealing the secrecy and the wrongdoings of the US government, Assange is, according to some, fulfilling his journalistic duty and thus is a service to society.

His case is not a simple one. The decision about what is in the public interest is, ultimately, subjective. As it stands, it is not clear that Assange was behaving in ways other than what thousands of journalists do every day. He was contacted by a source with potentially useful information, and then, in partnership with publications of note from across the globe, he published what he deemed to be of national and international importance.

The secret military and diplomatic documents that Assange uncovered and published contain embarrassing information about false claims of weapons of mass destruction that led to the Iraq war, torture at Abu Ghraib prison, war atrocities and the espionage activities of the US against friendly countries, France, Germany and others.

So, if the tenet of journalism is the truth, then Assange has fulfilled his journalistic obligation to the public. As a citizen journalist, Assange is not a traitor, but a watchdog.

But Assange has also endangered lives of secret service agents by putting a mass of sensitive information into the public domain. He allowed himself to become the conduit for material stolen by one foreign power to destabilize another. He has dumped vast oceans of documents, unedited and unredacted, careless to the consequences. He has shown a lack of editorial discretion when releasing these thousands of documents at once, and more importantly, without sufficient analysis.

The US government’s indictment, which carries a relatively light sentence of five years, does not charge Assange with publishing government secrets. The US is apparently using the pretext of the computer crime charge to extradite Assange with the intention of filing espionage charges against him when he eventually arrives in the US. Until the case comes to court in the US - a process that could well take months, if not years - Assange remains a patriot to some, a traitor to others. Is it possible to be both?