The Two Sides of the Assange Indictment

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been re-indicted with violations of the Espionage Act. Journalists reacted to this, predictably, with worry that it will portend more charges against journalists for publishing classified information that it’s in the public’s interest to know. The intelligence community and state department types reacted, again predictably, pointing out that WikiLeaks was willfully negligent in publishing, failing to protect sources and methods at all.

The answer lies in the middle, of course. Assange is utterly condemnable. WikiLeaks beside him. Both for their poor showing of integrity, and for their assistances of foreign governments to the detriment of reason and democracy. Meanwhile, the long-standing traditions of the First Amendment are not so easily abandoned. Bad actors, acting in bad faith, to do bad things, are still afforded the protection of that hallowed law.

While there should be obvious civil liabilities for publishers that do real harm to individuals, the bar for criminality must remain set at active participation in the illicit gathering of classified or otherwise private materials. While the indictment of Assange indicates the prosecutors believe there are instances of that, and they should be able to seek to convict on those counts, the acts of mere publication, however unwise, should be protected.

The fact of a despicable individual not having a book to be thrown at them does not grant them even a modicum of redemption. However much one may hold bloodlust for the deserts menu to be trotted out, however vengeful the public attitude, and however blueballed it may find itself, the facts of a person’s character remain unchanged. A scoundrel is not more so for wearing an orange jumpsuit, and many innocents have worn them or the stripes.

The integrity of Julian Assange depends upon him alone. The integrity of the First Amendment, infinitely more important and more valuable than Assange, depends on the collective effort to see it used as wisely as possible, but to see it defended against the overreach of prosecutors under any and all circumstances.


The governments of the world, employing confidential and covert sources and methods, would do well to properly compartmentalize that information so that no organization or individual could meaningfully corrupt their capabilities. The technical capabilities to mask documents and databases, to keep informants and operatives safe, must be taken as seriously as possible (including against the corrupt interests of a lunatical president and a pliant attorney general).

As damaging as the WikiLeaks releases have been (alongside other acts of espionage against the nation), they could have been far less so if the government and military did more to protect identities.

Inertia: Chains You Can Believe In

President Obama recently said, in discussing the alleged leaking of marked-protected documents by Pfc. Bradley Manning:

People can have philosophical views about [these things].  But look, I can’t conduct diplomacy on an Open Source [basis].  That’s not how, you know, the world works.

He went on to discuss more directly the law with regard to such disclosures.  But I’m not writing today about the law or the allegations against Manning or his treatment while in detention.

This post is about the inertia that Barack Obama has chained himself to in the time since he took office.  It hasn’t been wholesale.  Progress has been made on some fronts.  But on major fronts, the status quo keeps on pulling us down.

The biggest areas are the following:

  1. Foreign policy
  2. Energy policy
  3. Fiscal policy
  4. Social Health policy

In these four key areas (though there are others that are less obvious, and all of these have overlap too) we haven’t seen the change that’s needed.  In these areas there are entrenched interests that preclude the change that’s needed.

Obama says, rightly, that diplomacy isn’t conducted in the light of day.  But he gets it wrong saying that he can’t change that.  He can’t change it by not changing it, but if he moves to change it, it will change.

All systems seek equilibrium, and by changing any aspect of any system you introduce further changes toward that equilibrium.  If you can’t swim, and you’re alone in deep water, you’ll drown.  But if you introduce a floatation device, like a life preserver, then the equilibrium shifts, and you won’t drown.

What should happen in this situation, if Obama does want change, is to speak up about that.  “I would like to have a higher burden of the health care system be carried by Registered Nurses, Nurse Practitioners, and the like, to lower costs and increase access, but the current system’s inertia makes that hard to enact.”  And then he would have those classes of workers (RNs and NPs) on his side to help push for the change.  He would have patients that want better care and better pricing saying, “Yes, I know a few nurses and they could handle more responsibility.”

Open Source Diplomacy would mean that everyone has the same information, and therefore, there’s no strategic advantage to lying or subterfuge.  It would mean that if a Middle East leader can’t stomach telling his people what he’s doing, he shouldn’t be doing it.  It would mean that we wouldn’t find ourselves in wars without a cause.  If the world can’t work that way, then I don’t see why the hell we’d bother at all.  But of course it can work that way.

It works that way all the time.  Just not in the circles that Presidents and Congresscritters run in.  Every day the software that powers the internet is developed in that way.  The stack that the likes of Obama and all of these other chained leaders are depending on to improve their productivity isn’t created in secret, behind closed doors.  Their own computers may be running the equivalent of a closed door, but the servers are overwhelmingly running software that anyone in the world can download, compile, and hack on.

People that go to school aren’t told, “you aren’t allowed to apply this knowledge without prior written permission,” and then forced to get their Algebra teacher to sign off when they need to do a calculation.  Learning in such an environment would be impossible.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a right and wrong way to handle the open sourcing of diplomacy, and as I’ve indicated with the nursing example, there’s a good way to mitigate inertial effects when seeking change.  Things don’t need to change overnight.  But we do need change, not chains, and if Obama wants to be that leader, he needs to start standing up for the cause and be honest about it, not just spit another can’t in the face of the world.