As usual, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, had flashed on to the screen. There were hisses here and there among the audience. The little sandy-haired woman gave a squeak of mingled fear and disgust. Goldstein was the renegade and backslider who once, long ago (how long ago, nobody quite remembered), had been one of the leading figures of the Party, almost on a level with Big Brother himself, and then had engaged in counter-revolutionary activities, had been condemned to death, and had mysteriously escaped and disappeared. The programmes of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure. He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party's purity. All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies: perhaps somewhere beyond the sea, under the protection of his foreign paymasters, perhaps even -- so it was occasionally rumoured -- in some hiding-place in Oceania itself.
- 1984, George Orwell
Julian Assange's WikiLeaks has been a thorn in the side of the powerful and corrupt for four years. A history of their reporting is here. Originally, WikiLeaks focused on "exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations." In other words, your basic human rights and transparency organization. In fact, WikiLeaks has won awards including the 2008 Freedom of Expression award from the Index on Censorship and the 2009 Amnesty International human rights reporting award.
So how did the face of an ordinary human rights / open government group become the evil archvillain denounced by everyone from Joseph Lieberman to Sarah Palin? Simple. It depends whose corruption is being exposed. As soon as WikiLeaks released information that was embarrassing to the U.S. military and State Department (and threatened to release information on an even more untouchable target, Wall Street), WikiLeaks and Julian Assange became Enemies of the State.
Sarah Palin called Assange "an anti-American operative with blood on his hands," and urged that he be hunted down like the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Joseph McCarthy Lieberman used his position of state power to pressure businesses into taking away WikiLeaks' freedom of speech. Tom Flanagan, a former aide to the Canadian Prime Minister, publicly called for Assange's murder. The State Department threatened students with employment bans if they discuss WikiLeaks online. Defense contractor Raytheon ordered employees not to read WikiLeaks even on their home computers.
Look at the disdain with which we viewed such censorship in China less than three years ago.
The original leaker, Pfc. Bradley Manning, certainly committed a crime (perhaps even treason) in stealing the classified documents. He should face a court-martial and punishment serious enough to deter others from following his path. But to demonize a media/non-profit for distributing leaked materials is ridiculous. We didn't execute the publisher of the New York Times for publishing the Pentagon papers, nor when they clearly damaged a national security objective by publishing leaked details of a surveillance program in 2007. Attorney General Eric "what voter intimidation?" Holder announced "an active, ongoing, criminal investigation" into WikiLeaks.
It is terrifying how casually politicians are blurring the line between journalism and terrorism. If WikiLeaks and Julian Assange lose their freedom of speech in America, we have all lost our freedom of speech as well. What's to stop the government from naming every embarrassing or incriminating leak a "state secret?"
UPDATE: Assange's op-ed.