Thursday, December 16, 2010

Julian Assange, Traveling Man

WikiLeaks founder and media figure Julian Assange, granted bail in London today on sex crime charges filed in Sweden, has promised not to flee the English country estate of one of his rich friends for parts unknown while he appeals a Swedish extradition request. In the past, Assange has been something of a nomad, but now the former computer hacker - best known for releasing stolen Pentagon and U.S. State Department documents to the news media and posting them online - says he's staying put. He will wander no more. We'll see.

I have no idea whether Assange is innocent or guilty of the alleged sex crimes, leaving that for the courts to decide. The charges may, as Bianca Jagger, Michael Moore and other show-biz and media supporters claim, political in nature - retaliation for his WikiLeaks actions. Or not. In any case, his well-heeled supporters paid the $310,ooo USD bail, after publicly complaining that he was incarcerated in brutal conditions. Imagine, the U.K. authorities didn't even allow Assange to use a laptop in his cell! The gulag must be next.

Something that is much more certain is that Assange, a globe-trotting Australian who claims to be a journalist, has caused a good deal of harm by releasing classified documents that include names, Social Security numbers and other sensitive information about individuals who worked with U.S. officials around the world. Harm can come not just to secretive U.S. government policies, but to flesh-and-blood people who may have been sacrified to an abstract ideal of total transparency. Sometimes secrets are there for a reason.

Whatever else Assange may be, he is no journalist. Take it from a long-time practitioner of the form, he is not even close. Journalists don't just deal in leaked documents - justified in some circumstances - but also do research, i.e., reporting. They talk to a variety of people, including people whose viewpoints may conflict with their own, cross-reference information from diverse sources, and try to organize and present that information without predetermined conclusions. Assange and his loose network of borderless computer mavens do none of these things.

Assange may be an information-wants-to-be-free Internet idealist, or he may be, as angry U.S. officials charge, an attention-seeking opportunist motivated by anti-U.S. animus. News reportsindicate the U.s. may charge him under the Espionage Act. For now at least, he isn't suffering too greatly, as indicated from this account in today's Washington Post:

"He was then driven off an an armored vehicle by Vaughn Smith, the London restaurateur and former war correspondent who will host Assange at his 600-acre Ellington Hall estate northeast of London under what the British press has dubbed 'mansion arrest.' Before heading to the country, Assange stopped off for a celebratory martini with friends and well-wishers in central London.''

Ah, the martyr's life: Mansions and martinis.

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