Wikileaks renegade Julian Assange seems to be genetically incapable of staying out of trouble. Holed up now for some five months in the Ecuadorean embassy in London to evade police questioning on sexual assault charges, the self-styled paladin of transparency and free expression appeared on CNN for an interview with host Erin Burnett and wound up insulting his Ecuadorean hosts.
Fumbling about to answer an obvious question on how he reconciled his seeking the political protection of a country whose president, Rafael Correa, has one of the worst track records against a free press in the hemisphere, Assange asserted he did not want to talk about "little things in small countries," and, when Burnett persisted, dismissed the situation of press freedom in Ecuador, because it is "not a significant world player."
Yet even as Assange strained mightily to change the subject from his hypocritical embrace of the Correa government, the latter is showing no signs of letting up on its suppression of critical media, and has even brought its campaign to the United States. Last month, Ecuadorean ambassador to the United States Nathalie Cely and another close Correa crony traveled to Miami to pressure a local Spanish language station not to air a documentary critical of Correa's presidency. (The good news is that the State Department's patience with Correa appears to be wearing thin, with Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson recently criticizing his abuse of the Ecuadorean legal system to punish and intimidate the press.)
As far as Julian Assange is concerned, as much as he desperately tries to convince anyone who will listen that his cause is openness and transparency and, now apparently, speaking out against purveyors of strategic surveillance technologies, his alignment with someone like Rafael Correa, who as recently as last month said that control of information should be "a function of the state, like the judiciary," leaves his credibility in shambles. Of course, openness and transparency and the abuses of surveillance technologies should be concerns of anyone living in the 21st century, but if you believe the threats emanate from the United States and Europe and not today's technologically savvy authoritarians, then you are less a prophet than a crank whose audience will remain forever confined to the fever swamps of the rabid, anti-American Left.
Assange's quixotic crusade has led him to a cramped room in Rafael Correa's embassy in London -- with no exit in sight. With his opinions on just how much Assange thinks of their country, the Ecuadoreans got to see a side of him they probably were not expecting. Still, the two sides appear to be locked together out of ideological convenience. Here's to a long and unhappy marriage.
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Ever since Julian Assange sought the diplomatic protection of the government of Rafael Correa in the Ecuadorean embassy in London in June, there has been much commentary on the seemingly odd political pairing of a supposed champion of government transparency with an erratic president mostly known for his horrendous record of press abuse at home.
I have written previously that Assange's embrace of Correa exposes the former computer hacker as a fraud and that his reckless exposure of U.S. confidential documents was no blow for freedom of information. Instead, that his real agenda was to try and harm the United States' attempts to play a leadership role in ensuring the security of the prevailing global system.
For Correa's part, many have speculated his association with Assange is meant to expressly counter his (well-deserved) international image as intolerant of a free and independent media. Others see him embracing the Assange cause as an audition to replace an ailing Hugo Chávez of Venezuela as the leader of South America's perpetually angry Left.
It is certainly all that, but also more. And President Correa pretty much summed it up in comments this week: "This is not a about patching up systems that have not worked for centuries," he said. "It is about changing the systems, and that is why we are clashing with national and international powers that want things to stay as they are."
Thus, his granting of political asylum to Assange is meant as a direct provocation and challenge to long-established roots of international order and accepted behavior. Painstakingly built up by the United States and its allies over the last century, this interlocking system of institutions and largely accepted international norms has helped not only to maintain a remarkable level of global stability in recent decades, but has irrefutably created the conditions for unprecedented global economic growth that has pulled billions out of poverty.
Is the system perfect? Of course not. But as Robert Kagan has pointed out in his recent book, The World America Made, the alternatives are not very appealing.
But you will always have the outliers, the self-alienated who feel compelled to act out against the system for whatever reason - historical, cultural, or just plain personal. This is precisely what Assange and Correa are all about: tearing down what has gone before, motivated by no more than spite.
As the old Midwestern saying goes, "Any jackass can kick down a barn." In other words, destruction is easy. Where the credit for human progress lies is with the builders and creators - and those who carry the burden of protecting environments where builders and creators can thrive.
Granting political asylum to someone wanted in Sweden (of all places!) for questioning on allegations of sexual assault is by any measure a gross abuse of accepted standards of behavior (no matter what outlandish conspiracies theories people think lie behind the charges).
Thus, the central question in London is this, will established rules and norms prevail or are we prepared to allow the Assanges and Correas of the world to begin rewriting them as we go along?
For my money, the future most certainly should not be allowed to lie in the hands of these two pied pipers of anarchy.
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Much of the initial commentary on Julian Assange's surprise bid for political asylum in Ecuador has centered on the question of, why Ecuador? After all, Assange has fashioned himself as a paladin of free speech and government transparency, even as Ecuador's radical populist president Rafael Correa's campaign of intimidation against his own country's free press has been assailed around the world, including his $40 million lawsuit against a leading newspaper and his systematic shuttering of news outlets that don't display an appropriate sympathy for the government line.
Yet if one understands Assange not as a paragon of freedom of expression, but simply as an angry, maladjusted individual who has sought to damage the United States, not because of its alleged lack of openness, but because he sees it as the guarantor of an international system from which he is completely alienated, then his bid for asylum in Ecuador makes perfect sense.
Indeed, he certainly would find a home in Ecuador.
For his part, President Correa appears to have his own psychological tics about the United States. Although he received his PhD in economics here, his father was also jailed here for drug trafficking. He has also consistently railed about the "neo-liberal" world economic order, evidently resenting his country's relatively powerless role in it and its relation to Ecuador's recent history of political instability.
Thus, his presidency has been one of conflict with established international institutions and practices of that order, as well as pretending that the traditional determinants of international power and influence no longer apply. He's all South and no North.
In fact, the quixotic, anti-"system" campaigns of Assange and Correa recently converged when the two sat down together for a fawning satellite interview over the news outlet RT TV (funded by the Kremlin). It was a veritable anti-American love-fest, with Correa telling Assange, "Welcome to the club of those who are persecuted!"
So far, the only response from the Obama administration on Assange's Ecuador asylum bid has been a passive statement from the State Department, saying that it was "a matter between Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Ecuador."
That may be an appropriate public response, but privately the administration ought to make it clear to the Correa government that there will be serious repercussions if asylum is granted to Assange. The temptation to grant it will be great for Correa, who will bask in the global attention it would bring, as well as further burnishing his radical credentials. So far, his anti-"system" posturing and preening has come at no cost to him. It's time he learned there are limits to such behavior.
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In 1998 the United States fired cruise missiles at al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan to try to decapitate the group after it bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. The United States knew about bin Laden and the whereabouts of his camps because, according to Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, "the National Security Agency had tapped into bin Laden's satellite telephone and kept track of his international conversations."
After the missile strike, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, a prominent newspaper revealed the United States' knowledge about bin Laden's phone. As a result, "al Qaeda's senior leadership ... stopped using [the satellite phones] almost immediately. ... This made it much more difficult for the National Security Agency to intercept his conversations." U.S. intelligence lost its most valuable source for tracking the world's most dangerous terrorist.*
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, emphatically could have been prevented if the United States was able to protect classified information. The newspapers' complicity in divulging classified information helped murder some 2,977 people.
I make this point now in response to those who believe the protection of classified information is unjust. There is an anonymous movement now among anarchist hackers to attack government and corporate websites to protest the prosecution of Julian Assange and defend WikiLeaks. Judging from the responses to my last post, in which I advocated the passage of a Secrecy Act, some readers of Foreign Policy would sympathize with the hackers.
The most common argument is that protecting information, and prosecuting offenders, is a violation of free speech. That is simply not true. The Supreme Court has never upheld First Amendment absolutism. There are legal and reasonable restrictions on what people are allowed to say, print, or broadcast. It is illegal to incite a mob to violence. It is illegal to libel others. It is illegal to make false claims in advertising about a product. It is illegal to utter profanity on broadcast television or radio. And it is, in fact, illegal to reveal information that would cause immediate harm to U.S. national security. This was uncontroversial during World War II, when sailors and their families were routinely trained that "loose lips sink ships."
You may quibble with the application of these rules (the rule about profanity seems more and more anachronistic), but it is flatly untrue that citizens or the press have the right to say absolutely anything, anytime, in any medium. Few should disagree with the principle that there are restrictions on speech; the debate is really where the line ought to be drawn and how to enforce it. I argue that we should actually try to enforce the principle at least a little when it comes to protecting classified information, which would be a significant change from our current habit of not enforcing it at all.
Once again, it goes without saying that the Obama administration needs appropriate oversight and accountability, which is why we have the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, among other organs. No doubt they need to work better. And perhaps there ought to be a standing body charged with reviewing the government's classification decisions. But the need to protect classified information is as obvious as our government's failure to do so.
*(Some newspapers have tried to debunk this story by claiming there was no specific leak of the information about bin Laden's phone, or that it had been leaked previously to no effect. Of course the newspapers have an interest in exonerating themselves. Their efforts are unconvincing. If their claims are true, it is actually more damning that the information about bin Laden's satellite phone stemmed not from a specific leak but from a general culture of impunity among the media to disclose intelligence sources and methods. And the August 1998 reporting plainly had an effect on bin Laden, even if the information had been reported earlier. Both the 9/11 Commission and Clinton-era NSC staffers Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon wrote in The Age of Sacred Terror, bin Laden stopped using his phone "instantly" after the publication of the story.)
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Australian citizen and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is clearly an "enemy of the United States," as the Wall Street Journal argues, and the Obama administration is rightly considering prosecuting him for espionage. I agree with my colleague Peter Feaver that the disclosure of State Department cables hurts our diplomats' abilities to do their jobs. But a more pressing and complex question is whether the New York Times should be prosecuted as well.
It is a crime to disclose classified information under the Espionage Act of 1917 (see 18 U.S. Code § 793, paragraph e). The Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in Schenck vs. United States (1919). The Court ruled that "Words which, ordinarily and in many places, would be within the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment may become subject to prohibition when of such a nature and used in such circumstances a to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils which Congress has a right to prevent." The First Amendment does not protect espionage.
The most famous prosecution under the Espionage Act was the Pentagon Papers case, New York Times vs. United States (1971), in which the Nixon administration attempted to stop the publication of a Department of Defense internal history of the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration lost the case and the New York Times (and others) published the history in full. Since the Pentagon Papers case, administrations have been generally reluctant to prosecute under the Espionage Act both because of the perceived difficulty of winning a conviction and because of general discomfort with the idea of suing the media for the content of what they publish.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.