Julian Assange creates problems.
The Wikileaks founder does it not only by releasing stolen documents, but also by his own release from the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Assange enjoyed Ecuador’s diplomatic protection, because he feared the British would send him to the U.S. to be tried for releasing secret documents. The former Ecuadorian president shared his dislike of the U.S. His successor differed and had Assange expelled.
Bradley (later, Chelsea) Manning was an American soldier who stole documents and passed them to Wikileaks, an online news group aimed at embarrassing governments by exposing their secret communications. The theft was illegal and Manning, subject to military law, was imprisoned.
But the revelation itself of government secrets is a function of the free press, guaranteed by the Constitution. Was Assange’s action protected by freedom of the press? Could he be arrested for receiving documents he knew were stolen?
A free press can keep an independent watch on government. It represents the public, which cannot exercise control of supposedly democratic institutions if it lacks information on what its leaders are doing.
In a mass democracy, government often sees itself as separate from citizens, not subject to them. A free press tries to help the public control their government, especially if that means revealing matters officials would prefer to keep secret.
Of course, there must be limits on what should be published. For example, the media should not directly cause the death of people or reveal actions under way that directly affect national security.
Assange’s supporters see him as a member of the free press. To hold government accountable, they find it acceptable to publish stolen documents. Otherwise, government could shield itself behind a claim of secrecy.
The father of the concept that people have the right to break the law for a higher purpose was Henry David Thoreau, a Massachusetts man who inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He accepted that, if caught in a violation of law, a person might have to pay the penalty, even going to jail.
The federal government has not charged Assange with a crime for publishing secrets. Instead, he is charged with assisting Manning in breaking the law by stealing documents. His supporters believe that even that action is protected by freedom of the press. Assange believes he cannot get a fair trial in the U.S.
The legal war in London about turning Assange over to American justice may continue for years. If he faces a court in the U.S., the system will be tested to see that he gets a fair trial.
But there’s more. Assange strongly dislikes the U.S. and Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate. As an independent journalist, he is certainly entitled to criticize and embarrass both.
American intelligence agencies and the media have found that Russia tried illegally to influence the presidential election, favoring Donald Trump and opposing Clinton. The Russians hacked the computers of the Democratic National Committee and obtained information that could harm the Clinton effort.
The Russians, well aware of Assange’s opinions, turned the information over to Wikileaks. That organization knew that it was relying on a source trying to undermine the American system of government, but published the hacked emails.
Assange and Wikileaks allowed their status as independent news providers to be exploited by knowingly helping the Russians’ anti-American moves. At that point, they shed their independence and became weapons in a war by one government against another. In doing so, they may have lost their right to be considered journalists.
It remains unclear if Assange will ever be held accountable for assisting the Russian scheme. If his actions are rated as just plain old journalism, public confidence in the media, already battered, will suffer even more. Loss of independent scrutiny of government is a serious danger to the American system of government.
Faced with groups like Wikileaks, the government and others, like the Democrats, must also show greater discipline. Electronic communication is not absolutely secure and may never be. People must recognize that any electronic message may find its way to the public.
Of course, there will be real secrets that need to be better protected. How?
Commit less to writing. Use more voice communication and faxes, which are far more secure than the Internet. Avoid unimportant electronic communication, because what may seem trivial could turn out to be sensitive or open to distortion.
Above all, Americans should insist that their leaders disclose more and not hide behind the walls of secrecy they build. But they will always need a free and independent press.