When Julian Assange talks about transparency and our right to know about our government, he has at least a fighting chance of winning over a skeptical public. He stakes out a difficult but righteous position: that the media deserve special latitude to expose government secrets.
But when the WikiLeaks leader and his acolytes threaten perceived enemies, fail to condemn cyber attacks, and take on messianic airs, they surrender the high ground and hurt the cause of freedom of information they so vehemently champion.
In other words, leaker-people, make your business about the leaks, not your leader. Focus on holding the world's governments accountable for their actions. Don't waste your time correcting every slight and bludgeoning every foe.
Most commentary on the extraordinary WikiLeaks case has tumbled into caricature. The mysterious Assange comes out as either the traitor who must be locked up or the savior who must be defended at all cost. How about another view: that Assange and his organization have provided worthy information about how the U.S. conducts its foreign policy, but they need to be judicious about how they release delicate information and to stay focused on their mission, not their victimhood.
An Assange stalwart told the New York Times this week that the information-transparency movement follows in the footsteps of America's civil rights protesters. But history's freedom fighters accepted that their civil disobedience would come at a price. Time behind bars seemed a modest sacrifice, in exchange for a place at the lunch counter and the front of the bus.
But the 39-year-old Australian did not turn his jailing this week into a teachable moment. Mirroring the civil rights evangelists, he and his supporters should have been talking about nothing but how he would face jail and other obstacles to achieve the greater good of a more transparent foreign policy. (Assange has been charged with sexual misconduct, allegedly involving two Swedish women, while the U.S. government considers an espionage indictment.)
Instead, the Assangists made threats or let others make them on their behalf. They insisted that the secretive Web publisher played no role in trying to cripple the websites of its foes — including Amazon, PayPal and Mastercard. But a WikiLeaks spokesperson would "neither condemn nor applaud the attacks."
And Assange, even before being jailed in London, warned of future "poison pill" leaks that could come, not in the name of the public's right to know, but in vengeance for any harm he might suffer. Assange's attorney described a giant trove of secret documents, "a thermonuclear device effectively in the electronic age," that will be released if Assange seems in danger of imprisonment or death.
The hyper rhetoric and guerrilla warfare tactics don't exactly focus the debate on what WikiLeaks would like to be about — conducting the public's business in public. This super-heated atmosphere clouds the cables themselves and what they show.
As of Friday, only 1,269 of the 251,287 dispatches had been posted. (The public has been able to find them principally on "mirror" sites that have jumped up to replace WikiLeaks.org, which has had trouble finding sponsors in the Internet world.) But with five major mainstream newspapers already reviewing the rest, we already have learned many things.
The cables showed that some Middle Eastern leaders so disdain Iran they secretly support U.S. bombing there. They suggest that China's long-standing support of North Korea may be weakening, if only by a measure. The cables reveal how the leaders of Yemen supported — and even took responsibility for — secret missile strikes against suspected Al Qaeda terrorists, attacks actually launched by the U.S.
Foreign diplomats sometimes reveal themselves to be more malleable or pro-American than they feel safe to disclose on the home front. There's also been, as I wrote last week, a sweeping view that American foreign diplomacy appears to be doing mostly what we expect it to do. The embarrassments can't be dismissed, but no major scandal has stained the U.S. foreign service. With over 250,000 uncensored memos on the loose, that's quite a revelation.
The breaching of government secrecy will never be a clean, entirely blameless exercise, nor one that most of the public will readily accept. It's hard to contradict career foreign affairs officers who have said the release of the cables will force them to repair torn relationships and work hard to restore trust.
So the press needs to make a careful balancing of the potential harm and gain, publishing not anything it can but the specific things that enhance our worldview while minimizing harm. That is not an easy call. And it does not mean eliminating any possible risk.