Julian Assange—Journalist or Jerk?

By Matthew Gault at Newsweek: No person is just one thing. I believe that strongly and, like other strongly held convictions, edge cases test me. So it is with Julian Assange, who I see as both a brave publisher of government secrets and an ideologically driven zealot who probably got people killed. He’s a person I find unseemly, a grotesque glory seeker interested in mostly his personal brand and an anti-American crusade. He also published damning secrets about the United States that were in the public interest and pioneered new forms of digital journalism.

When I think about Assange, I dwell on an anecdote from David Leigh and Luke Harding’s book WikiLeaks. In it, Assange is eating dinner with journalists when Leigh pressed him about redacting the names of America’s Afghan partners from cables WikiLeaks plans to publish. Leigh pointed out that publishing their names could lead to their death.

“Well, they’re informants,” Assange replied. “So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.”

It is possible for me to both know that America did not belong in Afghanistan and to also know that locals fighting against warlords and theocratic rule do not deserve to die simply because they worked with the United States. That nuance seems beyond Assange.

We rush to judgment and seek to sort people into tidy boxes. We want to know if a person is good or bad, if a country is fighting for the wrong or right reason. Often, we decide what we believe first and force the facts to conform to those beliefs.

So it’s been interesting, for me, to watch people’s reactions to the news that Assange has accepted a plea deal from the American government. He’s going to plead guilty to disseminating government secrets and, after more than a decade in various kinds of prisons, will go home to his native Australia.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said the sight of Assange walking free outdoors was “incredible” and that he’d only committed the crime of journalism. I wondered if she knew her beloved former President Donald Trump‘s Justice Department had been the machine that started the case to which Assange would eventually plead guilty.

On X, Cornel West also lauded Assange. “He also should be pardoned immediately because he committed no crime,” he said. “He simply exposed the barbaric crimes of the American empire!” I thought about Russian-linked hackers slipping WikiLeaks a trove of Democratic National Committee emails, a move that probably helped elect Trump, and all the “barbaric crimes” that occurred during his presidency.

“Julian Assange is no hero,” Gail Helt—a former CIA analyst—said on X. “He is a despicable Russian asset who harmed hundreds of people and dismissed them like they didn’t matter. I’m okay with the plea agreement because I hope it means I’ll see his name in my social media feeds a lot less, but let’s not venerate the man. He caused great harm.”

His status as a Russian agent—unwitting or not—is harder to quantify. So are the direct harms he caused. Meanwhile, the direct harms of the U.S. government he exposed are there in black and white on WikiLeaks.

Assange’s legacy, like my feelings on him, will be mixed. I don’t want to see him suffer anymore, but I wish he hadn’t pleaded out. In doing so, he’s set a dangerous precedent.

“The United States has now, for the first time in the more than 100-year history of the Espionage Act, obtained an Espionage Act conviction for basic journalistic acts. Here, Assange’s Criminal Information is for obtaining newsworthy information from a source, communicating it to the public, and expressing an openness to receiving more highly newsworthy information,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a statement. “This sets a dangerous practical precedent, and all those who value a free press should work to make sure that it never happens again. While we are pleased that Assange can now be freed for time served and return to Australia, these charges should never have been brought.”

I think Helt’s hope that we’ll see less of Assange is foolish. If he wants, he’ll be a media darling. The only question left now is: who will be the first pundit to interview him? I will watch it, of course, and hatefully scrutinize every word that comes out of his mouth. But I’ll still listen and, if I’m having a good day, judge the material presented and not the man it comes from.

More here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.