The arrest of Julian Assange has predictably brought forth a torrent of overwrought, misguided, and sometimes downright ridiculous commentary. Even after years of exposure to his anti-Americanism, his anti-Semitism, and his raw personal corruption, people still seem to believe he performed some kind of service. They still compare him to journalists and reporters rather than seeing what he was — a petty, biased, hostile foreign actor who vomited onto his website reams of unvetted information that often shouldn’t have been published but almost always harmed the targets of his vile spite.
Yesterday Dinesh D’Souza tweeted this:
Think of all the stuff we wouldn’t know without Assange. He was our media when we had no media to speak of. And we still don’t! Give the man a medal @wikileaks
— Dinesh D'Souza (@DineshDSouza) April 11, 2019
Even serious thinkers, like USA Today’s Jonathan Turley, have defended him. Turley describes him as “first and foremost a publisher.” Over at the Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Micah Lee have gone so far as to describe Assange’s alleged attempts to help Bradley Manning log in to classified systems under a different user name as something that journalists are “ethically required to do: take steps to help their sources maintain their anonymity.”
Yet no journalist is ethically required (or even permitted) to try to hack a password to allow his source to continue his illegal work undetected. The active participation in the hacking itself makes the alleged “journalist” a part of the hacking scheme. This isn’t just receiving a stolen document; it’s actively assisting in the theft.
He’s not a member of the media. He’s nothing like a responsible journalist. And he’s not a true publisher. Instead, in the words of CIA director Mike Pompeo, he’s the leader of a “non-state hostile intelligence service.” He’s a tool of Russia that is aimed directly at Russia’s chief geopolitical rival.
When a responsible journalist receives classified information, he doesn’t immediately make a PDF of it and put it on the Web. He evaluates it and determines in good faith whether the benefits of disclosure outweigh the harms, including potential harms to human life and harms to national security. He understands that he is both a journalist and a citizen of this country and that risking human life for no meaningful purpose is not the aim of his profession.
In a definitive 2011 piece in Commentary, Jonathan Foreman exposes Assange’s vindictive conduct when publishing American military secrets. He describes how even WikiLeaks volunteers were “disturbed by Assange’s ruthless insistence on publishing the Afghan War Logs without redacting names and other personal details to protect the lives of those mentioned in them.” He was dismissive even when human-rights organizations “pleaded” for the redactions.
But Assange was malicious even before the Manning leaks. Here’s Foreman again:
The idea that Assange is engaged in a campaign against the United States is supported by a 2008 leak that had little or no justification on the grounds of transparency in the public interest — of a classified 2004 report that included details of the workings of the U.S. Army’s Warlock system for jamming the homemade bombs called IEDs set off by cell phone or radio transmitter. The report concerned the problematic way the jammers interfered with regular military communications. But its publication ensured that anyone anywhere in the world who wanted to figure out how to defeat the Warlock now had the means to do so.
This isn’t what the “media” should do, unless you think the media should publish sailing schedules of troop transports in the face of a submarine threat — or that the media should publish military plans on the eve of an offensive.
Moreover, as someone who read thousands of reports like those Manning leaked and Assange published, I find it plainly obvious that the primary value of those reports was to the enemy, not the public. Assessments of how different kinds of IEDs harm different kinds of American military vehicles is valuable information to a jihadist. Descriptions of American tactics and force composition in small-scale military engagements is similarly valuable to jihadists, less so to taxpayers — especially when those are taxpayers’ sons and daughters in the line of fire. What Assange did was not unlike handing over a classified American hard drive to al-Qaeda.
And don’t think for a moment that he was an equal-opportunity offender, a non-biased “publisher” and advocate for transparency who merely sought to reveal hidden truths. No, his disclosures were like guided missiles aimed at his enemies and helping his friends. And his friends helped him. Vladimir Putin has defended him, the Kremlin has paid him, and its agents have allegedly supplied him with the very information he used to disrupt the 2016 election. As the New York Times noted in an extensive analysis of Assange’s ties to Russia, “Whether by conviction, convenience or coincidence, WikiLeaks’ document releases, along with many of Mr. Assange’s statements, have often benefited Russia, at the expense of the West.”
Because our courts should protect the right of actual media outlets and true journalists to publish classified information when appropriate, the Trump Department of Justice made a wise choice to prosecute Assange for hacking, rather than for publishing Manning’s stolen documents. It is better to go for the cleaner prosecution than to bog down a trial in an extensive analysis of Assange’s Russian ties and an extensive debate over the true purpose of WikiLeaks.
Prosecute him for his crimes. Condemn him for his corruption. But do not call that vile man a journalist.