The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Why the WikiLeakers are not quite Rosa Parks

December 9, 2010 |  3:25 pm

JulianAssangeWhen Julian Assange talks about transparency and our right to know about our government, he has at least a fighting chance of winning over the public. He stakes out a difficult but righteous position: that the media deserve special latitude to expose government secrets.

But when the WikiLeaks leader and his acolytes condone cyber-attacks, threaten foes with retaliation  and take on messianic airs, they surrender the high ground and hurt the cause of freedom of information they so vehemently champion.

In other words, leaker-people, make your business about the leaks, not your leader. Focus on holding the world’s governments accountable for their actions. Don’t waste your time correcting every slight and bludgeoning every foe.

Most commentary on the extraordinary WikiLeaks case has bogged down in caricatures of Assange. He's either the traitor, to be run off, or the savior, to be defended at all costs. How about another view: that he and his organization have provided worthy information about how the U.S. conducts foreign policy, but they need to take care about what they release and to stay focused on their mission, not themselves.

Assange & Co. would have us believe they follow in the footsteps of America's civil rights protesters. The 1960s activists broke the law when they sat at segregated lunch counters. The WikiLeakers break at least convention when they release thousands of cables the government insists should be secret.

But history's freedom protesters realized that their civil disobedience would lead to jail. They welcomed time behind bars as proof of their willingness to sacrifice so others could sit at the same lunch counter, or ride at the front of the bus, with their fellow citizens.

When Assange went to jail this week on sexual misconduct charges, he depicted it as retaliation for his publication of hundreds of secret dispatches between U.S. consular officials. Maybe. The messy details of the case—involving alleged sexual misconduct with a couple of Swedish women—remain to be resolved.

But Assange, a 39-year-old Australian, did not take this apparent setback as an opportunity. He could have suggested, if he really wanted to mirror the civil rights evangelists, that the greater good that would come of revealing U.S. foreign policy made his personal sacrifice worthwhile.

Instead, the Assangists condoned the cyber-attacks on those who defied him—starting with Amazon, PayPal, Visa and Mastercard. A WikiLeaks spokesperson insisted the secretive website played no role in trying to cripple the websites of those companies. But the leakers also would “neither condemn nor applaud the attacks.”

And Assange had already threatened to make even farther leaks, not in the name of the public’s right to know but for vengeance, should he come to any harm. Assange’s attorney described a giant trove of secret documents, “a thermonuclear device effectively in the electronic age,” that will be released if Assange seems in danger of imprisonment or death.

What will be forgotten in the midst of this guerrilla warfare is what WikiLeaks says its actually about--transparency and public information. Also obscured will be what the cables actually show. And, thus far, only 1,203 of 251,287 cables have been posted. (And many of those in recent days have appeared on  "mirror" sites, which jumped up after hosts for the original WikiLeaks site folded their tents.)

The cables have helped us understand how Mideastern leaders so disdain Iran they secretly support U.S. bombing there. They suggest that China’s long-standing support of North Korea may be weakening, if only a measure. The cables reveal how the leaders of Yemen supported—and even took responsibility for—secret missile strikes against suspected Al Qaeda terrorists, attacks actually launched by the U.S.

It’s in the public interest to know about those stories. Assange’s leaks effectively provided, as one New York Times story suggested, “crisp color photographs of what was previously fuzzy black and white.”

What's also gotten little attention is something else exposed by the memos--that much of American foreign diplomacy appears to be well intentioned and managed as the public would expect it to be. As I wrote last week, some of the world’s top news organizations have uncovered a few embarrassments (mostly for foreign governments) but no major scandal staining U.S. diplomats.

Instead of drawing attention to the memos, though, strutting and tough talking have mucked up that  picture. If that doesn't change, even journalists will have to strain to believe this can be an altruistic struggle that's not about one individual, but freedom of information for everyone.

--James Rainey

Photo: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holds a press conference at Park Plaza Hotel on Oct. 23  in London. Credit: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images