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Assange v. Obama


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is calling on President Barack Obama to resign. But I've got a better idea. It's time for Assange himself to go.

After all, if he truly believed in the original mission of the controversial site, he'd remove himself from the glare of international attention and let the clear light of day shine brilliantly on the government secrets WikiLeaks has exposed.

But Assange won't go. As he told a recent interviewer, “I’m a combative person. It’s personally deeply satisfying to me.” And it's now clear that his main goal is to discredit - and indeed, bring down - the administration of President Obama. As the sole face - the judge and jury of WikiLeaks - he's clearly operating on the premise of releasing what he considers the most damaging documents to the Administration.

WikiLeaks has certainly done good things during its short existence, and I am not in favor of punishing speech in any way (or, in the parlance of our insane right wing, assassinating Assange). I do not support informal Washington pressure on commercial interests to create a back-door to banning WikiLeaks; shame on Amazon and PayPal. Nor do I think an international manhunt is in order. I'm in favor of fewer government secrets and far more transparency in how government is run.

But I don't believe Assange is the harbinger of a new and better age. And I no longer believe that Wikileaks acts in the interests of societies of goodwill.

This pains me. It puts me squarely at odds with many of the progressive voices I know and respect, including James Wolcott, Al Giordano, Glenn Greenwald and Micah Sifry (who I shall quote in a moment). But there it is. 

At the risk of being labeled a tool of the government or an old media sap (I've been called worse), I don't think WikiLeaks advances the cause of more accessible government or international justice. While I don't favor U.S. sanctions against Wikileaks (speech is speech even if once-classified), I have abandoned personal support for the organization. I'm also distressed at so much of the American progressive support for Assange against our own democratic institution, imperfect as they may be. I think Wikileaks is resolutely anti-engagement, anti-development, anti-cooperation, and anti-peace.

And virulently to its very DNA, anti-democratic.

Here's how Assange reacted earlier this year to a request from international human rights groups, including Amnesty International, worried that WikiLeaks' Afghanistan trove would cost the lives of aid workers in that war-torn land: "I'm very busy and have no time to deal with people who prefer to do nothing but cover their asses. If Amnesty does nothing I shall issue a press release highlighting its refusal."

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Taliban was reviewing WikiLeaks' release for the names of anyone who dealt with American forces, including international groups working to advance women's rights. Erica Gaston, program officer for the Open Society Institute's Afghanistan-Pakistan regional policy initiative told the Journal: "Our concern was that the Taliban had announced it was going through the data looking for names and that it would begin targeting that. It's a very real threat that they're making. They have demonstrated over and over that if they have the name of someone that has in any way been affiliated with the international community, they will find them, they will kill them in most cases."

Then there's the admittedly longish question from the "former British diplomat" during this week's Q&A with Assange in the Guardian, which essentially boiled down to "why should we not hold you personally responsible when next an international crisis goes unresolved because diplomats cannot function?" It was a serious question. Assange's answer:

If you trim the vast editorial letter to the singular question actually asked, I would be happy to give it my attention.

This is the new hero of so many in the open government movement.


In a scathing post lambasting the Obama Administration for considering action against Wikileaks, Personal Democracy Forum co-founder Micah Sifry quoted Secretary of State Clinton, drawing from her speech earlier this year on Internet freedom:

"...the issue isn’t just about information freedom; it is about what kind of world we want and what kind of world we will inhabit. It’s about whether we live on a planet with one internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors."

Exactly. The key value being "one global community," with all the responsibilities and human failings that entails. Too many have come to worship at the altar of pure information, and to embrace Assange as some sort of anti-hero.

Accountability matters too. Our republic, flawed though it is and always shall be, is accountable to us. That mechanism may be slow and - at times - seemingly non-existent. But it's there. We elect our officials. We approve our budgets. We determine the national course, the state course, the local course. We speak.

We are only a "hierarchical, top-down, closed fortress organization" - as Sifry called the Federal government - if we give up our constitutional rights, or spend our time paying no attention.

Wikileaks is secretive, non-transparent, and answerable to no one - indeed, Assange seems to argue that status as a virtue. It is not. Who funds this organization? Who runs it? What are its guiding principles? How is it governed? How does it attempt to represent a social good that entitles it to pay no taxes? How does Wikileaks satisfy its accountability to the social commons? Where do we the people, plug in?

One of the founders of WikiLeaks, who now runs cryptome.org, another online depot for leaked documents, New York architect John Young, told Cnet this summer that he thought the organization had lost its original focus. 

I don't want to limit this to Wikileaks, but yes, they're acting like a cult. They're acting like a religion. They're acting like a government. They're acting like a bunch of spies. They're hiding their identity. They don't account for the money. They promise all sorts of good things. They seldom let you know what they're really up to. They have rituals and all sorts of wonderful stuff. So I admire them for their showmanship and their entertainment value. But I certainly would not trust them with information if it had any value, or if it put me at risk or anyone that I cared about at risk.

While arguing eloquently that Wikileaks should not be shut down by government or commercial intervention, Clay Shirky makes an important additional point: "Over the long haul, we will need new checks and balances for newly increased transparency — Wikileaks shouldn’t be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to."

If WikiLeaks' supporters on the left didn't believe in representative government, in public engagement, in the role of a central Federal actor in the well-being of a nation - or in the orderly interaction of nations in the pursuit of world comity - I would understand their praise of a rising new leader, their embrace of a new world order based on digital distribution, free of the annoying friction of law and social convention.

But I don't think that's what they believe.


The British writer David Allen Green, who I first encountered through my friendship with Labour MP and government techie Tom Watson, wrote a short consideration of liberalism in the light of WikiLeaks and his view is very close to mine:

...But transparency is not the only liberal value. There are others, and these are important, too.

For example, there is the value of legitimacy: those who wield power in the public interest should normally have some democratic mandate or accountability.

However, no one has voted for WikiLeaks, nor does it have any form of democratic supervision. Indeed, it is accountable to no one at all. One may think that this is a good thing: that with such absolute autonomy WikiLeaks can do things that it otherwise might not be able to do. One could even take comfort that WikiLeaks represents the "good guys" and is "doing the right thing".

Be that as it may: one must remember that such self-assumed moral authority is conceptually indistinguishable from the vigilante. If transparency is important, then so is accountability.


WikiLeaks remains a powerful but undemocratic and unaccountable entity that shows a general disregard for both the rule of law and the practical need for certain communications and data to be confidential. So, from a liberal perspective, there is a great deal to commend WikiLeaks, but there is also a lot that should cause a liberal to be concerned.

The latest "release" is clearly designed to be a threat to the United States and the Obama Administration: a secret memo listing critical infrastructure facilities around the world compiled by the U.S. As the brilliant government technology reporter Nancy Scola notes in New York magazine this week, Assange is deliberately telling a specific story to maintain interest.

This isn't an open government purist releasing information to the world - it's a narrative, a campaign, an agenda on open display. "For all that high-minded self-seriousness, he and WikiLeaks are now demonstrating a Gawker-like willingness to go for the gut reaction," writes Scola.

And Assange (the solo voice on WikiLeaks) is clearly taking aim at Obama. In a 2006 essay entitled "Conspiracy as Governance," Assange talked about forcing regime change through the mass distribution of a vast cloud of information: "An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think efficiently cannot act to preserve itself." In other words, he's going for Obama's political Achilles tendons.

Yes, the President's reputation with progressive Democrats is low right now, but I think it's a mistake to side with Assange against the Administration. And I tend to agree with commenter Hunter S. Tingly on Jay Rosen's excellent Public Notebook blog, where a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion is lighting up the wires:

What people don't realize is that the fallout from all of this isn't going to be a more transparent gov't, or a change in foreign policies that are "good" or "just". The fallout from this is that the current administration (sucky, but less sucky than the previous one) is going down. Obama & Clinton probably wont step down (as Assange is calling for), but Obama won't be re-electable. And the replacement isn't going to be something wonderful, the replacement is going to be the Hawks. The replacement is going to be the rightwing extremists that think they have a mandate from god to do _anything_ they need to in order to make the world fit into the four-corners of the box they call "good".

On his Rebooting the News radio show this week,  Rosen talked over Wikileaks and what it means to journalism and government with Dave Winer. It was an interesting back and forth. "I know we're being manipulated," argued Winer. Rosen said that there's "an anarchist element to what Assange is doing" but suggested that perhaps we need more anarchy.

That's a point of view I've got plenty of sympathy for. Hell, we need more radicals. We need an institution like WikiLeaks to reputably and freely publish material provided by whistleblowers - but a WikiLeaks with structure, governance, public participation, and real transparency of its own. Toward the end of the show, Jay broke into song. "Whose side are you on?" he crooned in a creditable folkie tenor.

And I thought, in the battle of Assange v. Obama, that's an easy one. After all, I voted for one of them.

UPDATE: Good additional reads and comments below.

Allison Fine: "Cablegate isn’t whistleblowing, it isn’t righting a wrong, unveiling unethical or immoral behavior. It is the theft of regular communications that makes it nearly impossible for the State Department to function."

Digby: "Right now the only people besides Wikileaks who have access to all the cables are the newspapers they've partnered with."

On Facebook, the estimable Dennis Perrin (one of my favorite bloggers) says I'm overly soft on Dems. Maybe so.

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