68 days ago a seldom discussed website, WikiLeaks.org, burst into the international spotlight with the leak of a classified video of a US military helicopter killing civilians, including two Reuters employees, in Iraq.
The leak was almost an afterthought for US officials, who shrugged off the killings as “out of context” and slammed WikiLeaks as “irresponsible” for releasing it. Rumors of a second video emerged, but nothing came of it.
Now Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, is a wanted man, though exactly what legal basis there is for holding him, assuming he is captured, is unclear. The Pentagon is out for blood, or at least a little revenge, and is trying to hunt Assange down.
It is a far cry from last month’s farcical hassles in the Melbourne Airport, when officials told Assange his passport was being confiscated because it “looked a bit warn,” apparently in retaliation for WikiLeaks releasing a list of websites banned is Australia, a list which is itself apparently banned by the Australian government.
This time the game is real and the stakes are high, at least that is what officials aver. After the arrest of a Pentagon analyst, 22 year old Bradley Manning, for providing the Iraq video, officials now claim Manning has also provided WikiLeaks with some 260,000 other classified documents.
The story behind Bradley Manning and his leaks is an epic in and of itself, a military analyst stationed in Baghdad and increasingly disillusioned by what he witnessed. One of his formative events underscores exactly what he was up against:
watching 15 detainees taken by the Iraqi Federal Police… for printing “anti-Iraqi literature”… the iraqi federal police wouldn’t cooperate with US forces, so i was instructed to investigate the matter, find out who the “bad guys” were, and how significant this was for the FPs… it turned out, they had printed a scholarly critique against PM Maliki… i had an interpreter read it for me… and when i found out that it was a benign political critique titled “Where did the money go?” and following the corruption trail within the PM’s cabinet… i immediately took that information and ran to the officer to explain what was going on… he didn’t want to hear any of it… he told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the FPs in finding MORE detainees…
Manning’s story is much the same as many other government employees turned whistleblowers, but his youth and the sensational nature of the Pentagon and State Department allegations have led to his portrayal in the media and in official statements as a “despondent” loner, a misfit who leaked classified data en masse as some sort of cry for attention. It also paints WikiLeaks into the corner of the mean-spirited villain, taking advantage of a misguided youth.
But while this does a disservice to Manning and certainly to WikiLeaks, it has also turned Assange from a thorn in the side of governments around the world, someone to be railed against and maybe harassed at the occasional airport to full-fledged “threat to national security,” complete with the requisite Pentagon moves to “locate” him and prevent the leak of God only knows what.
Assange was still in Australia as of last week, when he failed to attend a New York conference on the advice of his lawyer. Where he is since then is anyone’s guess, but the military seems to be feverishly trying to find out.
Exactly what would happen if Assange is “located” or captured is anyone’s guess. Officials expressed hope that he would be found in the US, as that might provide them with some sort of legal basis for whatever it is they plan to do to him.
And that may be the real story here, above and beyond the potential damage to America’s image abroad that might be done if some particularly embarrassing diplomatic cables come to light, the question of a global free press is very much on the table, with fears that Assange could be liquidated for the protection of the administration, or simply as a warning to future whistleblowers that attempts to reveal the seedy underbelly of America’s overseas adventures is a de facto capital offense, though of course one without any legal basis.
Assange’s personal safety is needless to say a very important issue, but it goes far beyond a mere threat against one man and looms as a threat against all of us, if and when the Pentagon takes action to cement the notion that the American public has no “right to know” when the Defense Department, the State Department, or anyone else is engaged in unsavory and potentially illegal behavior.
The service provided by WikiLeaks is particularly vital in an era of perpetual war. One can only hope they will be able to continue in the face of Pentagon actions.