Now, more than ever, we live in a world rich with information. Some of it is public, some of it private. And some information is secret. Is some information’s secrecy so important, it’s worth killing people to keep it hidden?
This topic started developing more for me after the recent DNC email hack, and then after seeing this video, which includes a lot of little clips describing what should be done to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for his role in leaking classified US documents:
Obviously, given the source, there is an agenda here. Assange has a vested interest in making himself look victimized, and WikiLeaks gives him an excellent platform for doing so. I am no particular fan of Assange’s, but the clips speak for themselves. Assange is called a “terrorist” who is engaged in “warfare.” It’s suggested that he should be killed: shot, assassinated via drone, the method doesn’t seem to matter. Somewhat more reasonable voices call for him to be extradited and tried here, though there are still others who call him a “traitor” (seemingly not cognizant of the fact that Assange isn’t and has never been an American citizen).
These people calling for his death aren’t nobodies, either. They’re politicians, pundits, intellectuals, journalists–people with national and global media reach. This sort of language is, at best, totally irresponsible. At worst, it describes a culture that devalues human lives and privileges the protection of information over basic humanity.
To get one question out of the way, I don’t think there is any doubt that Assange has violated US laws. By accepting classified and other sensitive information leaked by American sources, he is engaging in what is obviously illegal behavior. However, none of this behavior rises to the level of making him an “enemy combatant”–an already dubious designation used by the George W. Bush administration in order to avoid abiding by international laws in the prosecution of the War on Terror.
He also can’t be a traitor, since he owes no fealty to the US. His actions may certainly upset American leaders and the intelligence community, but that’s not the same as treason. Even Americans prosecuted for leaking documents to Assange–such as Chelsea Manning–were neither charged with nor convicted of treason. Indeed, whistleblowers in the US have been prosecuted and sent to prison, rather than executed, though I’m sure there are those who called for such extreme measures.
There’s also little doubt that WikiLeaks is currently serving, perhaps unwittingly, as a propaganda arm of the Russian government. WikiLeaks’ actions serve mainly to embarrass the US and other Western countries while at the same time serving Russian interests. This is not necessarily intentional on the part of WikiLeaks. It may just as well be a side-effect of their anti-establishment attitudes. But this perception that WikiLeaks acts at the behest of Russian interests adds fuel to the fire.
Back to the original question, though: is there information so important that it might be necessary to kill to protect it? I have a difficult time coming up with such a scenario. In the case of Assange, the calls to assassinate him are always coming after he’s made revelations–his death is proposed as a punishment for things he’s already done, rather than a preventive measure to keep him from leaking more. Assange’s death would do little to stem the flow of sensitive or classified material into the hands of WikiLeaks or similar organizations. The security policies within government intelligence and military organizations are simply insufficient to keep that information confined. It may not even be possible to prevent leaks entirely.
What I find especially worrisome is that this sort of talk is normalized in our media culture. Assange is a bad guy so it’s fine to kill him. Even people who disagree with having him killed must hedge what they say to ensure it’s clear what an unsavory character he is and that he should, at the very least, be brought to the US and put on trial. But we don’t stop to question whether such a policy makes any sense. Similar threats were made against Edward Snowden, too, even though the revelations he’s made have stimulated an international debate about government surveillance and international policy. We have evidence of government misconduct that we simply would not have without the efforts of people like Assange and Snowden.
I don’t expect American journalists to kneel down and thank them for doing us such a service–American journalists are, by and large, obsessed with maintaining their access to our political class, which means doing whatever makes the political class happy. Even so, we could do with more critical examination of this behavior. I have noticed that, for instance, there’s been limited media attention to the fact that WikiLeaks recklessly dumped information on almost every female voter in Turkey, a trove of over 20 million names, addresses, and phone numbers. This sort of carelessness is what should garner WikiLeaks a bad rap, not the fact that they often release documents which embarrass governments and make elected officials out to be liars. But since such a move doesn’t compromise American military interests or embarrass American elites, it can be dismissed with a shrug.
Making matters worse is that there’s a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists who are tying Assange to a laundry list of time-worn Clinton conspiracies, such as speculation that Assange has been placed on the Clintons’ “kill list,” right alongside a DNC staffer who was recently murdered. Other people directly or tangentially connected to the Clintons and/or the Democratic National Committee have died over the years, which is a consequence of any large social network–people are going to die every so often, because people die all the time and everyone dies eventually. But if you can take a handful of deaths and link them to the Clintons who are, in our media culture, objects of suspicion by default, you can create the impression that the Clintons are having people murdered.
That sort of conspiracy nonsense is what I am expressly not talking about here. I don’t believe there is any conspiracy to assassinate Julian Assange. But it is certainly cause for concern that we have media personalities, politicians, and others publicly calling for his death–calling for anyone’s death–in the name of protecting information that is, for the most part, an ongoing indictment of our foreign policy and our surveillance state. We need more leaks, not fewer. People deserve to know what their governments are doing in their names. And if those governments won’t be honest, then it falls to risk-taking whistleblowers to expose the truth.
It would be nice to live in an environment where that’s not necessary–where government policy and action are transparent and available for public critique. But until we live in such a country, unauthorized leaks will have to suffice. And no matter one’s politics, killing people involved in such leaks stands against everything our values are supposed to represent.