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The War on Wikileaks: Thiessen’s paradox

with 3 comments

Torture apologist Marc Thiessen has been having fun this week calling for the deployment of “military assets” against Julian Assange, and the destruction, if necessary by force, of his whistleblowing website, Wikileaks.

Wikileaks, Thiessen tells us, “is a criminal enterprise”. Its activities (which include the publication of classified military documents) are “likely a violation of the [US] Espionage Act” and “arguably constitute material support for terrorism”. Julian Assange is therefore “a criminal, not a journalist”.

Ideally, says, Thiessen, the US government should work with those countries where Julian Assange is believed to operate (including Iceland, Sweden and Belgium) to track down, arrest and extradite him by lawful means. But if these countries refuse to play ball, “the United States can arrest Assange on their territory without their knowledge or approval”.

Thiessen cites a 1989 US Justice Department memorandum which he suggests authorises the FBI to arrest Julian Assange anywhere in the world, even where such an arrest would violate “international or foreign law”.

But here lies something of a paradox. If Julian Assange is to be considered a “criminal” on the basis that his actions violate US national law – in this case the Espionage Act – then so too could anyone who broke international and Icelandic (or Belgian or Swedish) national law by snatching Assange by force, without permission from that country’s government, and spiriting him away to the United States.

In principle, any US agents who attempted such an unlawful arrest could be liable to prosecution themselves by the country in question. There’s a precedent for this: in Italy last November, 23 CIA agents were tried and sentenced in absentia over the 2005 kidnapping on Italian territory of an alleged terror suspect, Abu Omar.

If Wikileaks can be considered a “criminal enterprise” for its practice of publishing information in violation of national secrecy laws, so too could the CIA for its “rendition” and torture of people it claims to suspect of terrorism, in violation of international law.

Yet Thiessen appears to believe that the CIA’s activities were morally justified, even if they were illegal under international law, because, he claims, they helped to prevent terrorism, thereby serving a greater good (I’m not at all convinced that they did, but he’s entitled to his view).

Julian Assange, likewise, clearly believes that the activities of Wikileaks are morally justified, even if they break national secrecy laws, because, he claims, they are helping to deter corruption and abuse by governments and corporations, thereby also serving a greater good.

Now it may be that Thiessen only considers activities which break the laws of the United States (rather than international law, or the laws of other countries) to be “criminal”. But this definition of the word would seem somewhat parochial, and unlikely to win much sympathy outside of North America. Or it might be (as his arguments around torture and terror seem to suggest) that he believes some “criminal” activities to be morally justifiable. But if that’s the case then describing Julian Assange as a “criminal” doesn’t seem, in itself, to get us very far in resolving the ethical questions around Wikileaks’ activities.

Throughout history, all sorts of things have been considered “criminal” under a particular country’s national laws – criticising the government in the Soviet Union, inter-racial marriage in the Southern United States, homosexuality in 20th century Britain and modern day Malawi. It has generally not been widely accepted that a particular activity is morally wrong simply and solely because a particular government somewhere in the world – even the US government – has passed a law against it. Theissen might view Wikileaks as a “criminal enterprise”. Others (this author included) see it as an exercise in peaceful civil disobedience against national secrecy laws which serve more to cover up corruption than protect our “security”.

Of course part of what Thiessen seems to be getting at is that the United States can do what it wants to Julian Assange and Wikileaks because, legal and political niceties aside, no other country is in a position to stop them. He might be right – but again this argument has some parallels with the rationale behind the whistleblowing website. Wikileaks does what it does, in defiance of national laws around the world, in part because no-one has yet found a way to shut it down.

Even if the United States succeeds where China and North Korea has failed, and manages to arrest everyone involved with Wikileaks and locate and destroy every server in the world where the website is hosted, short of scanning every hard drive and memory stick on the planet it will be impossible to be sure that the huge database of yet-to-be-released Wikileaks secrets has not been safely stashed away somewhere, for release online, on a new website, at a later date.

Peaceful civil disobedience has a long and noble pedigree. The lesson to date seems to be that heavy-handed action against the leaders of peaceful civil disobedience movements can sometimes badly backfire.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 5, 2010 at 10:23 am

3 Responses

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  1. Wasn’t the Bush administration of which Thiessen was part responsible for outing CIA agent Valerie Plame which was a clear act of treason?

    I suggest a deal. The US jails everyone who was in the Bush administration for treason (10 year minimum sentence) and we hand over Asange for a fair trial?

    Martin aka Chunkylimey

    August 5, 2010 at 10:47 am

  2. This seems to parallel closely the pretensions of the US Senate Foreign Affairs Commitee to summon Scottish Ministers to answer to them for carrying out their duties under Sctos law in the Megrahi case.

    Richard T

    August 5, 2010 at 12:05 pm

  3. Likewise, I don’t think you will see Bush or Cheney holidaying in Europe anytime soon – lest they become the next Pinochet (if only…).
    I listened to an interesting take on Wikileaks the other day – a journalism professor was opining that the only way to counteract such an organisation was to avoid secrecy entirely, thus avoiding leaks. One can only hope.


    August 5, 2010 at 12:10 pm

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