Punching Back at WikiLeaks

With Julian Assange in jail, the State Department steps up its WikiLeaks counteroffensive. Howard Kurtz talks to State brass about his motive and why he should be considered dangerous.

12.07.10 12:46 PM ET

As Julian Assange steps up his rhetoric and his releases of sensitive material, the State Department is becoming increasingly undiplomatic.

“Mr. Assange is not seemingly worried about real lives and real careers which can be put at risk of being intimidated, jailed or killed,” Assistant Secretary P.J. Crowley told The Daily Beast. His most recent statements “really unmasked him.”

Hours after WikiLeaks published a secret memo listing more than 100 factories, labs, and underseas cables that the United States considers critical for world security, Crowley said: “In releasing that kind of information, Mr. Assange is giving a group like al Qaeda a potential targeting list.”

It’s no surprise that the department is hostile to Assange, who has greatly complicated Hillary Clinton’s job while calling for the secretary to resign over cables directing that personal information be collected on U.N. officials.

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But Assange is winning respect, even praise, from some on the left, and his jailing Tuesday in London—after a judge denied him bail on sexual assalt charges—could turn him into a martyr. In this climate, senior State Department officials feel the need to challenge his carefully cultivated image as a champion of transparency. As WikiLeaks trumpeted on its Twitter page, Assange is now the leading contender in the public vote to be Time’s Person of the Year.

“WikiLeaks is a publisher—a new kind of publisher, but a publisher nonetheless—and that makes this a freedom of the press issue,” Mathew Ingram argues at the Web site GigaOm. “Like it or not, WikiLeaks is fundamentally a journalistic entity, and as such it deserves our protection.”

At Salon, Glenn Greenwald writes: “I seriously question the judgment of anyone who—in the face of the orgies of secrecy the U.S. government enjoys and, more so, the abuses they have accomplished by operating behind it—decides that the real threat is WikiLeaks for subverting that ability.”

“It’s hard to know what his motive is,” Crowley said. “In our view he is undermining the system by which countries collaborate and cooperate and solve problems together.”

But Crowley, the department’s top spokesman, dismisses Assange as an “anarchist.”

“Does he really believe there should be no secrets? Every government, every company, has secrets, has proprietary information. Through his logic, Google should release the algorithm it uses. Coke should release its formula, McDonald’s its special sauce. That’s ridiculous. Everyone has secrets, and you can’t function without them.”

A serious chill went through Foggy Bottom when Assange’s lawyer made his latest threat, saying WikiLeaks supporters will unleash a “thermonuclear device” of government files—complete with the names of confidential sources and informants—if he is brought to trial. The Sunday Times reported that the 1.5-gigabyte file has been distributed to tens of thousands of supporters and contains all the documents that WikiLeaks has accumulated to date.

That threat, Crowley said, “demonstrates that he’s not acting on any principle other than self-preservation.”

Clinton aides are taking the threat seriously, believing that Assange has accumulated more than the 250,000 pages of material he has publicly claimed. By their count, he has released only 1,300 pages.

“It’s hard to know what his motive is,” Crowley said. “In our view he is undermining the system by which countries collaborate and cooperate and solve problems together.” Crowley even played the terrorist card, saying that without the kind of cooperation that led to the October discovery of bombs hidden in cargo sent to the United States from Yemen, “those airplanes would have crashed and people would have died.”

At the moment, WikiLeaks is under assault on several fronts. Internet titans such as Amazon and PayPal have severed their connections, and Mastercard is now refusing to process its donations. Assange turned himself into a London police station Tuesday after Swedish authorities issued an arrest warrant stemming from sexual assault allegations by two women, which he denies as politically motivated. “Good news,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared. But WikiLeaks vowed on its Twitter feed that “we will release more cables tonight as normal.”

But while these legal and law-enforcement efforts may well wound WikiLeaks, they don’t go to the heart of the debate over the 39-year-old Australian’s role as a purveyor of secret information. What is ultimately the difference between Assange’s group obtaining classified documents and Bob Woodward obtaining Stanley McChrystal’s secret assessment of the Afghanistan war last year? Or The New York Times exposing George W. Bush’s domestic surveillance program in 2004? Or Jack Anderson obtaining classified papers showing a U.S. tilt toward Pakistan in its 1971 war with India?

Assange blatantly appeals for sympathy in an op-ed today in The Australian, saying that while papers from the Guardian to Der Spiegel published the cables, it is he who has been accused of treason and WikiLeaks subjected to “the most vicious attacks and accusations from the U.S. government and its acolytes… There have been dozens of serious calls in the U.S. for me to be ‘taken out’ by U.S. special forces. Sarah Palin says I should be ‘hunted down like Osama bin Laden,’ a Republican bill sits before the U.S. Senate seeking to have me declared a ‘transnational threat’ and disposed of accordingly. An adviser to the Canadian Prime Minister’s office has called on national television for me to be assassinated.”

Such draconian fantasies aside, Obama administration officials say that mainstream newspapers, unlike WikiLeaks, work closely with them in redacting information that could jeopardize sources. But WikiLeaks made the same offer to the State Department and was turned down.

Perhaps the core distinction is that the Times, which Bush once called “disgraceful” for publishing secret information about his anti-terror campaign, has editors who care about the country’s security, and Assange, with his anti-American outlook, does not. 

“He’s not a journalist. He’s not a whistle-blower,” Crowley said. Real journalists, he argued, publish secrets to expose “abuse of power” or “misdeeds,” while Assange is just pushing his idiosyncratic agenda.

But the law doesn’t recognize such distinctions.  Yes, the State Department’s legal adviser, Harold Koh, warned Assange that he had obtained the documents “in violation of U.S. law and without regard for the grave consequences of this action.” And yes, the 1917 Espionage Act bars an unauthorized person from possessing “information relating to the national defense which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.” But the Justice Department will be hard pressed to prosecute Assange without posing a chilling threat to press freedom.

Clinton’s department is already feeling the fallout from the WikiLeaks dump. In some countries, fewer people are coming to meetings with U.S. officials, and some are insisting that no notebooks be allowed. Plans are already being hatched to reshuffle key U.S. embassy personnel. The notion that Clinton could repair the damage with a round of sympathetic calls to foreign leaders was always unrealistic. Every potential informant is now worried that his or her name will show up in a cable that could wind up on the Web.

The Clinton team is also frustrated that some media outlets are reporting each cable signed by her as a personal directive, when it is standard practice for bureaucrats to send such communications in her name. But these officials are wary of being seen as “whining,” as one put it.

In an interview with Time magazine last week, Assange said that “the State Department is going to have a hard time of it trying to spin this,” and dismissed the idea that he was jeopardizing lives as “nonsense.” He boasted that “the response by the American public has been very favorable to our endeavor.”

That would suggest Assange is not entirely in touch with reality. But he is acutely aware of being tried in the court of public opinion, which poses a greater threat than the Swedish sex charges. For even if Assange stays out of jail, WikiLeaks will be crippled if it comes to be viewed as a malevolent force. That’s why the State Department cannot merely rely on private diplomacy in this infowar. Making the case against her elusive adversary may prove to be Hillary Clinton’s greatest challenge.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.