Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
Egomaniacs, Traitors and Crackpots
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, August 21, 2012 --
The WikiLeaks case is full of strange characters. Yet the strangeness of activists does not invalidate their cause.
When Julian Assange defended Bradley Manning in a speech on the balcony of the besieged Ecuadorian embassy in London, a long and bizarre tale took another step toward the surreal. A white-haired former-hacker stood under diplomatic protection of an eccentric Latin American leftist leader to declare that an imprisoned American soldier with gender-identity issues is a "hero".
His Eva Peron-style speech on the iron balcony next to a giant South American flag would have been reminiscent of 1970s Argentina, were it not for his Aussie accent and the bunch of checkered-hatted British bobbies in the foreground. You just can't make this stuff up.
The diplomatic standoff in London comes after Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who ordered a default on the country's "illegitimate" foreign debt in 20081 and said comparisons between George W. Bush and Satan are unfair to the devil2, granted political asylum to Assange last week.
Assange had recently lost a fight against extradition by Britain to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over two rape cases -- cases whose appearance shortly after WikiLeaks enraged the United States give cause for suspicion. His imminent extradition led Assange to seek asylum from the anti-Western leader of Ecuador, because he says he fears once in Sweden he will be extradited to the United States.
This is where the spy novel-like story begins to fall apart. While it is true that Sweden has an extradition treaty with America, Britain has one, too. Assange's defenders say (unconvincingly) that Swedish authorities are more likely to give him up to America than British authorities. A simpler explanation is this is a legal and rhetorical gambit to save Assange from facing prosecution in Sweden.
Now that he has been granted asylum, is appears unlikely that he will be sent to Sweden or America against his will. Even if Britain remains steadfast in its refusal to allow him safe passage to Ecuador, so long as Assange is willing to stay in the small embassy, it will be politically difficult for any future Ecuadorian or British leader to hand Assange to prosecutors. Only by remaining in the embassy until the late 2020s would Assange surpass the 15 year record for seeking refuge in an embassy set by Hungarian Cardinal Mindszenty during the Cold War.3
Unfortunately, Assange's self-serving antics embarrass the cause of openness that his WikiLeaks organization advances. And it isn't just Assange who is embarrassing. The organization, along with an allied group called the Bradley Manning Support Network, rally behind the soldier who gave diplomatic files to WikiLeaks. The latter organization says it paid $14,800 to plaster Washington, DC's subway stations with posters claiming Manning, who is jailed nearby, is in fact a hero.4
Few Americans are likely to find the posters convincing. Manning claims to have leaked the files because he disagreed with U.S. policy, saying in an online chat about the leaks, "[I]t's important it gets out -- it might actually change something."5 But the same record is also clear that he was disgruntled at the military over his treatment in his gender identity crisis.6
Whatever his real motivation for leaking the files, there is no doubt that he violated his legally binding promises to keep the information secret. What's more, the information revealed, while upsetting to America and its allies, did not uncover any war crimes or equally important information. In short, it is hardly the kind of stuff that can justify betraying a promise to keep it secret.
As a result, Manning will likely get what he expected when he said, "I wouldn't mind going to prison for the rest of my life."7 And while a life-long sentence may be extreme, it's hard to make the case that he doesn't deserve some punishment.
That Assange, Manning, and Rafael Correa are not squeaky-clean poster boys for information openness should not surprise anyone. Dissidents are typically complicated characters. Soviet dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was long accused of being anti-Semitic, while Andrei Sakharov was a key figure in building the Soviet empire's huge nuclear arsenal.
Yes, Julian Assange is a selfish egomaniac. Yes, Bradley Manning is crazy and betrayed his superiors. And yes, Rafael Correa is a crackpot leftist. But make no mistake: the eccentricities of these characters doesn't mean that WikiLeaks' fight against government secrecy isn't a just cause. Governments claiming to represent free citizens have no business keeping large volumes of secrets from the governed.
WikLeaks fights the good fight against government misdeeds. In return for this service, the world can stand to endure a little drama along the way.
Related Web Columns:
embarrassing-indeed.html Embarrassig Indeed, December 10, 2010
1. BBC, Ecuador Defaults on Foreign Debt, December 13, 2008
2. New York Times, Clinton Woos a Leftist President, June 8, 2010
3. United States Embassy in Hungary, Personal Reminiscences About 1956 and Cardinal Mindszenty, as posted August 21, 2012.
4. Bradley Manning Support Network, as posted, August 19, 2012
5. Wired, Manning-Lamo Chat Logs Revealed, July 13, 2011