In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Julian Assange, the director of WikiLeaks, was asked if he would ever refrain from releasing information he knew might get someone killed. The question was not just hypothetical: a year and a half earlier, Assange had published a study that detailed technical vulnerabilities in actively employed U.S. Army countermeasures against improvised explosive devices.
There was no conceivable benefit to publishing the information. The Army needed no extra pressure to address the vulnerabilities — it was already desperately searching for new countermeasures to protect its soldiers. The only beneficiaries were insurgents, who, using Assange’s gift, could better murder U.S. servicemen.
In response to the interview question, Assange was blase. Yes, he admitted, there might be some “blood on our hands,” some “collateral damage, if you will.” But unlike the journalistic world at large, he didn’t feel it was his duty to weigh and pass judgment on the value of the information he made public. Transparency, the WikiLeaks founder obstinately insisted, would create a better society for all, and we must be willing to break a few eggs to make the omelette.
As he hides behind this reasoning, Assange has released the Social Security numbers of U.S. military personnel, opening them up to identity theft. He has revealed the names of Afghan civilians who collaborate with U.S. forces, a move that was greeted with joy by Taliban commanders, who quickly promised to hunt down and execute those named. He has betrayed the identities of human rights activists and journalists who, at great risk to themselves, passed information on their conditions to U.S. diplomats. In discussing one source, a diplomat pleads: “Please Protect,” and for good reason — with the informant’s identity now known, there is a serious risk that this the poor woman who trusted the United States will be whisked off to prison or worse.
Assange has billed this as some journalistically significant reveal, but if the recent cable releases reveal anything at all, it’s that what the U.S. says in public and what it does in private are remarkably well matched. We’re working hard to secure loose nuclear material. We’re worried about terrorism. We’re trying to unwind Guantanamo Bay. Nothing that is said about foreign powers in the cables is very surprising. Russia is no longer a democratic country. Some elements of the Pakistani government cannot be trusted. China is launching cyber-attacks against the United States. Assange — a computer hacker, not a policy wonk — may be ignorant enough to consider cables novel, but they reveal very little of use, and most of the information (without the harmful details) has already been purposely leaked by the government itself. There is no big lie, no grand hypocrisy, no Chomskyan or Mearsheimeran conspiracy afoot. If this was a whistle-blowing operation, who was the whistle being blown on? Much as it was with the Iraq and Afghanistan leaks, the results were a big yawn. And like revealing the frequencies that our IED jammers work on, Assange immensely damaged U.S. efforts, but added little to the discussion.
The greatest irony is that by proving transparency can be used for evil as well as good, Assange hasn’t just harmed our national security, he’s poisoned the very movement he purports to lead. After 9/11, we worked hard to tear down the walls between agencies and encourage a free flow of information that would better help us connect the dots on issues such as terrorism. It is likely that in the aftermath of WikiLeaks’ attack, our government will return to its Cold War ways, silo-ing information, reducing what it writes down, and securing itself against releases, good or bad.
Mr. Assange and his conspirators tell us they are part of a “New Journalism,” unmotivated by profit or partisanship (never mind their past attempts to auction off their finds or the unabashed ideological spin that accompanies their leaks). But the truth is that their motivation is as old as time itself; like small children playing with fires, fascinated with their own power to destroy, Assange and company are setting the world aflame merely to watch it burn. They are not crusaders for a better society. They are nihilists. They are anarchists. And they are enemies of the United States.
Under U.S. law, we have the authority to stop them. Members of WikiLeaks are almost certainly in violation of the Espionage Act, and when it comes to espionage, it does not matter that they are foreign citizens (see U.S. v. Zehe), nor does it matter if we violate the sovereignty of another country in abducting them (See U.S. v. Verdugo-Urquidez).
Even if WikiLeaks had a legal defense, the first obligation of our government is not to defend some vague conception of international law — it is to defend the citizens of these United States. WikiLeaks represents a grave threat to our national interests. It endangers our troops, our allies, and ultimately, our people. To obsess over the legal exegesis of prosecuting its founder is to misunderstand the moral obligation that the U.S. government must have to prioritize the welfare of its citizens over those of foreign nationals such as Assange. WikiLeaks must be stopped by whatever means necessary.
The first step is to stop WikiLeaks from disseminating any more information. President Obama should direct the National Security Administration to cripple the WikiLeaks network, to overwhelm its servers with traffic and false documents to prevent them from obtaining or releasing any further state secrets.
Next, we should help expedite Sweden’s request for an international arrest warrant on Assange (he is wanted on two rape charges in that country), and, with all possible speed, indict Assange and the rest of the WikiLeaks executive team in federal court and begin extradition procedures to bring them to the United States to stand trial. If foreign governments are reticent, we should pressure them with the full weight of our diplomatic power. If they refuse, we should ignore their protests and snatch Assange by ourselves — we do not need the permission of foreigners to defend our country.
Finally, the U.S. needs to develop a long-term capability to infiltrate and disrupt criminal networks such as Assange’s. We have plenty of success stories to model our capabilities off of — witness the FBI’s masterful penetration of DarkMarket, a former online financial crime forum. We must work hard to rebuild the trust of our allies, to guarantee that their life-and-death secrets are safe with us and will never again find their way into the hands of fanatics like Assange.