Early Sunday, WikiLeaks issued a statement, later updated, on its relationship with escaped fugitive Edward Snowden. (And now that he has been formally charged with espionage, “escaped fugitive” seems the most obvious description of Snowden.) It read:
“Mr. Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower who exposed evidence of a global surveillance regime conducted by U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies, has left Hong Kong legally. He is bound for a democratic nation via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisers from WikiLeaks.”
Two things jump out. First is the favorable reference to a “democratic country,” which seems curious. Hong Kong is hardly a democracy, let alone Russia, where Snowden arrived Sunday, apparently on his way to Ecuador, which announced that it would consider his request for asylum there. (Ecuador seems to be collecting fugitives. Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks, has now spent over a year holed up inside its embassy in London, as Sweden pursues sexual-assault charges against him and, in his words, because of “the risk of arrest and extradition to the United States.”)
But the odder reference in the statement is to the “diplomats and legal advisers from WikiLeaks.” So now WikiLeaks has its own diplomats? The group has gone from whistleblowing aimed at those in power to acting like some kind of faux state that welcomes immigrants bearing secrets. How do they respond when threatened by legal action to block their contributions? “WikiLeaks Declares War on Banking Blockade” their website boldly announces. Diplomats? Declarations of war?
Snowden’s U.S. passport has been rescinded and now he is, in effect, fleeing the U.S. authorities on a WikiLeaks passport. The organization is acting like a digital state with enemies and allies. Fine. Let’s treat it accordingly and address the threat WikiLeaks presents not as a simple criminal act by random individuals but as the organized effort of a virtual state. As such, we should employ the full set of tools—ranging from diplomacy and world opinion to espionage and military force—we use when dealing with any other state.
For decades we have discussed the meaning of non-state terrorism, and how to treat such entities. In the 1990s, al Qaeda declared war on the United States but—outside of a few bold voices at the CIA—we continued treating Osama bin Laden’s outfit as a bunch of bad guys rather than an organization dedicated to our destruction. We learned from that mistake after 9/11, and though the Obama administration often goes to great pains to downplay the role of Muslim fundamentalism in terror attacks—categorizing the Ft. Hood attack as “workplace” violence, and initially treating the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi as a “spontaneous protest”—the commander-in-chief deserves credit for green-lighting not only Osama bin Laden’s death but the relentless pursuit of al Qaeda members across national lines.
WikiLeaks is not taking up arms to murder Americans, but if Iran or North Korea—or Mexico or Canada, for that matter—had taken the same actions as Assange and Snowden, we would consider it a grave national-security threat and respond accordingly. We would arrest any spies that we could get our hands on, of course, but we’d hardly consider that an adequate response.
And so it is with WikiLeaks. An organization is defined by what it does, not what it says, and this one has made clear it is interested in damaging the interests of the United States. WikiLeaks believes that it is doing the world a service by acquiring secrets and disposing and exposing them as it sees fit—and now by protecting others who do so. It seems mostly interested in U.S. and British secrets, it’s important to note; we’re still waiting for the Cuban, North Korean, and Chinese WikiLeaks dumps.
Let’s not pretend that the actions of Snowden, Assange, and WikiLeaks are, as once was famously said, a third-rate burglary. WikiLeaks has made clear its interest in taking on the United States. Let’s do now what we failed to with al Qaeda in the decade before 9/11: take it at its word, respect its capabilities and stated intent, and respond with our own not-so-modest capabilities to defend the United States.
This is not a moment to get misty-eyed and muddle-headed about freedom of the press or right to know. The crime here is the stealing of secrets, not the publication of those secrets by legitimate news organizations. Context and scope matter, as they always do. Is it a different endeavor to leak to a journalist a government secret versus downloading thousands of secrets, hurling them over the transom, and going on the lam with the help of an organization like WikiLeaks?
Well, yes. Our legal system and public and private moral codes deal with those distinctions constantly.
The first priority of any president is to defend the United States. But let’s not forget that it’s also the duty of every American citizen. The Oath of Allegiance for all new citizens states: “that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law …”
It seems clear that Snowden has not kept those terms. He may feel that he answers to some higher authority. He has that right, but the president has his own oath and one that gives him the right, indeed the obligation, to treat Snowden and WikiLeaks as serious threats to the United States, though not violent ones.
Snowden and Assange often speak of the vast reach and power of the United States. It’s time we proved them right.