Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What exactly was Assange's crime?

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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 sought sanctuary in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, is fringe stuff, a quirky faceoff involving a spectral, white-haired weirdo whom journalists disdain who spilled secrets that annoyed officialdom and 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 still, it gets nowhere near the attention lavished 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 story is a very big deal and has been 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 co-operative of four leading news organizations.

It was the most stupendous assault ever on official secrecy.

The counterattack has been steady and effective. The United States arrested an Army data clerk named Bradley Manning for leaking and held him for almost a year under brutal conditions. He has been 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 WikiLeaks relied on suddenly decided to stop. They all mumbled something about "indirectly facilitating" illegal behavior and WikiLeaks' income plunged by 90 percent.

In late 2010 came allegations of sexual abuse against Assange from two Swedish women.

The details are murky, but what's important is Assange has been treated with a determination usually reserved for fleeing war criminals, and until he sought asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy he had been under house arrest while fighting extradition. Assange says the plan is to get him to Stockholm because he can then be extradited to the U. S. 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 -- 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 United States 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 those facing similar allegations treated like top-drawer international fugitives, or is Assange unusually privileged? And why can't he be questioned in London?

-- 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 asking, what pressure did the administration bring to bear on the money handlers who cut off WikiLeaks' flow of funds?)

-- Third, has Assange been indicted? It's reported 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 blowing, 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 ask the questions.


Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.

-- The Miami Herald.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 J11

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