Julian Assange: Villain or Hero?
Why should the United States actually thank WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange?
July 26, 2011
According to the critics of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, his release of confidential diplomatic documents needlessly put lives in danger, particularly those of American diplomats and their sources.
In contrast, many non-Americans find this categorical condemnation, coming from a nation that has long prided itself on transparency, disclosure and “sunshine laws,” quite incomprehensible. They acknowledge that Mr. Assange unilaterally decided to open up a treasure trove of diplomatic cables that were not intended for release to the public.
But they see, first, that a generation or two of students and professors of international relations, in the United States and elsewhere, will probably want to thank him enthusiastically for aiding their future scholarship. And second, according to many who have read a good chunk of the cables, U.S. diplomats actually come across as quite knowledgeable and prescient.
Better yet, some of the cables embarrassed foreign governments due to their pinpoint accuracy of the faux nature of their leaders in ways that stimulated the dissatisfaction of the street, especially the Arab street. Formerly hapless protestors now had actual evidence of the duplicity of their leaders. Given the fact that the reporting came from the diplomatic staffs of the United States, their main (or at least a pivotal) ally, made them all the more authoritative and indisputable.
But what about the charge that it is reckless to publish these materials, as they may well have endangered lives? First, WikiLeaks and the newspapers it works with actually make an active effort to redact sensitive information, such as names, when that information could pose a direct security threat. Second, if you address this topic with U.S. diplomats themselves, the honest ones actually shake their heads — not about Mr. Assange, but rather about their colleagues.
Many of the cables in question disregarded the most basic rules that are drilled into young consulars in the early days of their diplomatic careers. While it is acceptable to write that one talked with “three social science students at the country’s major university,” it is not acceptable to include the specific ages of the individuals and the departments in which they study. The authorities can often retrace that kind of sourcing without much effort, which can result in harm to the respective embassy’s interlocutors.
In other words, if the cable writers had worked according to script, they would have remembered to obscure the names and descriptions of their in-country contacts to the point of plausible deniability.
For all the potential quibbles with Mr. Assange’s approach and method of operation, the biggest reason to be thankful to him is that he exposed the tremendous shortsightedness of one internal U.S. government procedure — namely, the storing of a large amount of confidential documents on databases that were easily accessible to a young private.
Seeking to promote interagency cooperation by creating a unified infrastructure with all-too-open access by anybody inside the system, was a strategic oversight of stunning proportions. The biggest misdeed Mr. Assange exposed did not concern the informational substance of the data package, but the fact that the U.S. report management system is far too integrated, allowing confidential documents to be downloaded by Bradley Manning, a 23-year-old army private.
The databases from which these documents were drawn should have not been as integrated or so easily accessible to a lowly soldier. That, as any data security expert will attest, is precisely the wrong strategy to pursue if one wants to ensure the impenetrability of one’s data system.
For exposing this breathtaking weakness in the U.S. government’s data management system, Mr. Assange might rather deserve the nation’s gratitude. Just imagine it had not been he, but, say, the Chinese who had tapped into this rich vein and had kept it all secret (as they undoubtedly would have).
Mr. Assange’s actions will surely have a cooling effect on overly enthusiastic, if not naive, database engineers. In the end, what he did was not just act as a mere whistleblower. He imposed the embarrassment equivalent of treble damages onto the U.S. government for a particularly egregious violation of safe data storage and access procedures.
The only proper response to what Julian Assange did is definitely not for U.S. authorities to demand extradition (or, thereafter, dream of a legal absurdity like treason). Rather, he ought to be thanked for the very dramatic shock he delivered. Given the billions and billions it spends on data security, the U.S. government deserved that rude awakening.
Just imagine it had not been Mr. Assange, but, say, the Chinese who had tapped into this rich vein of information and had kept it all secret.
Julian Assange exposed the shortsightedness of storing a large amount of confidential documents on databases that were easily accessible to a young private.
Many of the cables in question disregarded the most basic rules that are drilled into young consulars in the early days of their diplomatic careers.