WikiLeaks and the state

2010-12-28 00:00

"Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people." Theodore Roosevelt, two-term president of the United States, said that, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange quoted him in a manifesto he wrote four years ago, adding: "The more secretive or unjust an organisation is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership …"

By that criterion, how is the U.S. government doing after a year that saw first Pentagon and then State Department documents published by WikiLeaks in the tens of thousands?

In truth, none of the "secrets" that Assange has revealed are all that momentous. Defence Secretary Robert Gates was right when he said: "Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest." Yet some of his cabinet colleagues verge on the hysterical.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared on November 29: "This disclosure is not just an attack on America — it's an attack on the international community … There is nothing laudable about endangering innocent people, and there is nothing brave about sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations."

It's puzzling. Some parts of the U.S. government seem quite relaxed about Assange's actions, while other parts seem determined to put him in prison for the next few decades. "We are talking about one of the most serious violations of the Espionage Act in our history," said Attorney General Eric Holder. "To the extent that we can find anybody who was involved in the breaking of American law … they will be held responsible."

How can someone who isn't an American citizen, and wasn't in the U.S., have broken an American law? No way, technically, but the U.S. might still be able to get a close ally like Britain to hand him over if it could argue that Assange was actively spying on it. That will be hard, since he almost certainly wasn't. He had good legal advice when he set up the "dead letter box" where the leaks are collected, and it is designed not to reveal the sources of the leaks even to WikiLeaks itself. Indeed, Assange says that he never heard the name of the person whom the U.S. accuses of being the leaker, 23-year-old army Private Bradley Manning, until he read it in the newspapers.

The U.S. cannot make a case for espionage against Assange unless it can plausibly claim that he encouraged and helped Manning to steal the documents. Given that it probably isn't true, it can only do that by forcing Manning to say that it is true. That may not be impossible, because he has been held in solitary confinement for the past seven months.

He has so far refused to say what his interrogators want, but he is facing 52 years in prison if he is convicted of leaking the documents. He is entirely alone 23 hours out of 24, and even his hour of exercise takes place in an empty room where he walks figures-of-eight.

"It's an awful thing, solitary," as John McCain wrote of his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. "It crushes your spirit." And once Manning is a pathetic wreck of a human being, they will offer him a plea bargain: a much-reduced sentence for his own actions if he will also incriminate Assange.

Then the U.S. could lay a charge against Assange that might result in his extradition — although that is far from guaranteed, since nowhere do political crimes lead to automatic extradition. But does the U.S. government really want to go all the way down this road?

The usual suspects out in the backwoods are howling for blood, so domestic politics demands that at the moment the administration must make a great show of outrage and vengefulness. On the other hand, the grown-ups in the government know that the way to get through the WikiLeaks drama with the least damage internationally is just to ignore it.

That is why Vice-President Joe Biden could say on December 16 that "I don't think there's any substantive damage" from the WikiLeaks episode — and then on NBC's Meet the Press the following day, accuse Assange of being a "hi-tech terrorist" who is putting lives at risk. It's called "talking out of both sides of your mouth", which is what politicians have to do a lot of the time.

Which side should we believe? Barack Obama's people probably don't know that themselves yet. Domestic politics will decide.

• Gwynne Dyer's latest book, Climate Wars, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

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