WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange is under pressure from the U.S. and other governments he embarrassed with his leaks of American diplomatic cables, but at least his “hactivist” disciples are behind him.
With Assange in custody in Great Britain, facing possible sex-crime charges in Sweden, his hactivists have launched cyber counterattacks against his perceived enemies, including MasterCard and Amazon, and now even mama grizzly Sarah Palin is claiming she’s been hactivized.
It’s the most bizarre story of the year, with enough chatter about Assange to fill a cheap novel, which surely is being written.
To some, Assange is a champion of the anti-American left. Meanwhile, many conservatives want to see him convicted of espionage and sent to prison or worse.
Though I’m a First Amendment absolutist, I wouldn’t have published those stolen U.S. State Department cables. Still, he and others have the right to publish the news.
But Assange — or the newspapers that published the documents — don’t have the right to pretend there are no real consequences.
“WikiLeaks has a four-year publishing history. During that time we have changed whole governments, but not a single person, as far as anyone’s aware, has been harmed,” Assange wrote in a hubris-filled op-ed piece Wednesday published in The Australian. “But the U.S. with Australian government connivance has killed thousands in the past few months alone.”
It sounds very much like a big speech from a Hollywood movie. The big speech, usually delivered by some craggy-faced actor, involving the need for sunshine to illuminate government secrets otherwise hidden from a free people.
But once the big speech is over, and you’re driving home with popcorn on your breath, you might be tempted to think logically about what happens next.
Sure, WikiLeaks and the newspapers have redacted some details, but the clues are there. It’s safe to assume that all those documents on the website have been downloaded by the intelligence services of every country on Earth. Not just enemy or rogue states, but friendly nations as well.
That means Russia, China, France, Iran, Germany, Spain, South Africa, Israel and more — allies and antagonists — are studying the documents from WikiLeaks. Their analysts aren’t wringing their hands over whether they should be studying the secret cables. They’re just studying. They have computers. And their analysts do what analysts do best — connect the dots.
Analysts aren’t interested in the well-known names, the public names, the official names. They’re interested in the names hidden between the lines. And they’ll find them. These smaller dots aren’t famous. They’re foreign nationals. They could be clerks and janitors and such. They have names and friends and families. And soon, one dot is tied to another dot is tied to another dot.
Once they’re connected, a door is kicked in by the security forces. The dot is put into the back seat of the car, then driven to a place where sunshine does not illuminate anything. And nobody notifies Assange about what became of the dot or its family.
By then, they’re not dots anymore. They’re not abstractions. They’re real people. Or they were. And that’s something that Assange — who reasons like a child — pretends not to understand.
This debate isn’t new. Since I’m writing for the Chicago Tribune, I should tell you what happened on June 7, 1942, during one of the most important battles in all of World War II, the Battle of Midway in the Pacific.
The Tribune under Col. Robert McCormick published a front-page story under this headline: “Navy Had Word of Jap Plan to Strike at Sea.” It reported that the Navy had advance knowledge of the size and movement of the Japanese fleet. The implication was clear: The Navy had cracked the Japanese code.
President Franklin Roosevelt, who loathed McCormick, wanted to try him for treason. Some historians have written that Japanese intelligence did not fully comprehend the impact of the Tribune story. The Navy clearly did not want a trial, for fear of drawing more attention to the issue.
So after five days of secret hearings, a federal grand jury in Chicago refused to indict.
Did McCormick have the right to publish? Of course he did. The First Amendment is quite clear.
But as a retired Army officer, he surely knew that such published information could put lives in jeopardy. He had a choice. And as a grownup, he must have understood the consequences.
And that’s something Assange and his hactivists — prattling childishly about sunshine and how nobody’s been hurt “as far as anyone is aware” — pretend not to understand.
— John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.