I’d hoped that with the demise of the Bush administration we would leave the realm of Really Bad Ideas like the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, criminalizing free speech and being Muslim, etc. Yes, I know that the Obama presidency has a pretty sordid record of maintaining some of the worst of these laws. But until now, it hadn’t done much to add to the damage by creating new Really Bad Ideas. Until this report in today’s NY Times, saying the government was contemplating charging Julian Assange with some form of espionage for releasing the hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables which have so embarrassed our government.
I admit that if I were a senior government official, this development would be making me tear my hair out. And I understand when human beings are deeply frustrated they contemplate doing really extreme things. But not this, please not this.
Julian Assange may be a lot of things. He may not be a pleasant person. He may be self-righteous. He may think he’s God’s gift to Man (and women). But prosecuting him is a Really Bad Idea. First, it will be almost impossible to win a conviction. Second, it will turn him into even more of a martyr than he is now. Third, it will turn the civil liberties community against Obama even more forcefully than it already is. Fourth, it will motivate Wikileaks supporters and potential whistleblowers to dig even deeper and expose even more secrets. This can only end badly for the government.
As to how difficult this prosecution would be: remember one of the last people charged under the 1917 espionage statute? That would be Daniel Ellsberg. That didn’t end so well for the government. Nor did the prosecution of Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman under that same statute.
Whistleblowers like Assange, imperfect as they and their motivations may be, perform a benefit for society. They cleanse the system. They reveal secrets that often are better seen in the light of day. These secrets allow us to understand our world better and be better citizens for it. This is also true of Shammai Leibowitz, the Israeli-American who last spring began serving a federal prison sentence for leaking government secrets to a blogger. Ellsberg invokes Shammai, Bradley Manning and Julian Assange as courageous souls for puncturing the shroud of government secrecy. That sounds about right.
So Pres. Obama and AG Holder–don’t make this Really Big Mistake, if you know what’s good for you.