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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Stop the Persecution of Julian Assange


Either God or the U.S. government is out to get Julian Assange, the founder of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. Assange is either a modern-day Job or there is an orchestrated campaign (presumably) by the U.S. government to compel his Web site to desist in its publication of classified U.S. government documents and diplomatic cables. But Assange should not be persecuted simply because the U.S. government cannot keep track of its secrets.

The American superpower apparently has leaned on friendly governments—such as Sweden, Australia, and Switzerland—and private companies to harass Assange. Sweden is pursuing Assange on dubious rape charges for either not using a condom in consensual sex or having one break. The government of Australia is openly trolling for some illegalities on the part of Assange, an Australian citizen. PostFinance, an arm of the Swiss postal service, has frozen an account used by WikiLeaks to collect donations. Amazon.com, PayPal.com, MasterCard, and computer server companies have cut off WikiLeaks for conducting “illegal” activities, despite the U.S. government’s struggling effort, since the Web site’s publication in July of classified documents related to Afghanistan, to any find grounds for prosecution.

The reason the U.S. government is flailing in its attempt to prosecute Assange is that traditionally in the United States, third-party recipients are not prosecuted for receiving government secrets. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and 15 other leading newspapers were never prosecuted for publishing the Pentagon Papers—which were a classified history of the Vietnam War that revealed government duplicity and which were provided by the now-famous Pentagon employee Daniel Ellsberg. Of course, major media outlets have more power to retaliate against the U.S. government than does Assange. In addition, all prosecution of third parties under the Espionage Act of 1917 have failed—for example, the case against two AIPAC lobbyists for receiving classified documents from Pentagon employee Lawrence Franklin fell apart.

Instead of attempting to prosecute, and therefore persecute, third-party recipients of classified material, the American people would be better served if their government channeled its abundant energy into prosecuting governmental sources of leaked secrets and reforming the classification system for sensitive documents.

Government employees, such as Lawrence Franklin and Private First Class Bradley Manning, the alleged governmental source of the WikiLeaks documents, have been and are being rightfully prosecuted. Government employees take an oath not to divulge government secrets. The problem is that lower- or mid-level employees like Manning and Franklin are prosecuted, but high-level White House or administration officials often leak highly classified information to the media for political purposes without any penalty. Scooter Libby is one of the few exceptions that prove the rule. In the “outing” of CIA operative Valerie Plame during the Bush administration, Libby seemingly took the fall for Vice President Dick Cheney and political adviser Karl Rove and was convicted of obstruction of justice and lying to the government, not disclosing government secrets. The other problem is that most government secrets are over-classified—that is, either the information shouldn’t be shrouded from public view at all or is classified at too high a level, leading to contempt for the classification among federal employees—one of the key exceptions being the identity of U.S. spies. The latter information needs to be protected so that those people, or their foreign sources of information, aren’t killed.

Yet Assange, and the mainstream media outlets to which he is distributing his documents, have responsibly redacted information to protect such identities. So Attorney General Eric Holder’s accusation is nonsense that “The national security of the United States has been put at risk; the lives of people who work for the American people have been put at risk; the American people themselves have been put at risk by these actions that are, I believe, arrogant, misguided, and ultimately not helpful in any way.” The disclosures have mainly embarrassed the U.S. government—and other governments that also have an incentive to help stop Assange and WikiLeaks—rather than having a catastrophic effect on U.S. security. What is arrogant is the U.S. government’s persecution of a man and his Web site for merely receiving information that it has hidden from its own people and then failed to protect.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.

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