The Wired Family is somewhat confused about the WikiLeaks revelations and the various reactions to them. Mr. Wired thinks they were a really bad idea, and Julian Assange should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. But the sisters are all uncomfortable with this proposal. Red, predictably enough, considers Julian to be a hero. She looks forward to the end of official secrecy in the Western world. Jane, on the other hand, misses diplomatic discretion, which did some useful things in its day. Cyn is most concerned, not about the breaches of governmental secrecy, but about the measures being taken to discourage repeat performances.
First, Cyn, being the lawyer in the family, is discomfited by repeated proclamations that the US government (and probably others as well) is trying to figure out how to rewrite the Espionage Act to cover the behavior of Assange and his sources. Umm, guys, that’s behavior that has already happened. Which means any law enacted or amended now to punish it is an ex post facto law. And Article One of the US Constitution specifically prohibits the enactment of such laws. Okay, maybe the government just wants to close the barn door before the next batch of horses is stolen. That’s not what it sounds like.
Secondly, Cyn finds the behavior of private agencies against Assange and his buddies really scary. Closing down his server and his domain; shutting down credit card donations to his website; arresting him for utterly unrelated criminal charges in Sweden, which may or may not have any factual basis, and in either case may or may not be the sort of thing the Swedish courts normally prosecute—try to imagine, gentle reader, how easily you could be the target of such sanctions, if some government took a dislike to you. Note that most of these sanctions were implemented by private organizations, such as MasterCard, Amazon, Bank of America, PayPal, Visa and Swiss bank PostFinance. Suppose your bank decided to stop accepting deposits to your account. No more direct deposit of your paycheck or your pension. Suppose your website, or blogsite, or email, got cut off by your server. If you have not had the foresight to put a substantial portion of your money into your mattress, you may discover yourself homeless and broke, and unable to communicate your plight to most of your friends and family. Writers of speculative fiction have played with this scenario for several decades now—most notably Whitley Strieber in Nature’s End and John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider, but the list is a lot longer. We have all entrusted our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor to a bunch of faceless non-governmental strangers who can all too easily be co-opted against us by an irritated government (or even an irritated corporation.) After all, under US law, MasterCard, Amazon, and their other buddies, as non-governmental actors, are not bound by the Equal Protection and Due Process mandates of the Constitution.
Assange, of course, is far from friendless. His supporters are retaliating against the above-mentioned malefactors with Denial of Service attacks far beyond my poor power to add or detract. But how many of us have access to such support? Maybe while governments are tinkering with the machineries of censorship to fend off the next batch of leaks, the rest of us should be organizing a vigilante support mechanism to protect ourselves from the vengeance of the international bankers and servers.
Maybe Assange deserves it. I haven’t read most of the leaked documents, or even read a synopsis of them. The ones I do know anything about seem more embarrassing than dangerous. Red, as previously indicated, likes to see politicians embarrassed. It may help keep them honest. But even if he had put the formula for the Universal Solvent on the front page of the New York Times, or done something else that really deserved punishment and needed deterrence, so far nobody except maybe the Swedes are even trying to follow the law in sanctioning him.
There are a few other background questions that need exploration. Like: how many of these leaked documents were originally created with the specific intention of being leaked, as unofficial and unauthorized but plausibly deniable and highly useful communications? Or in the alternative, is there any likelihood that some or more of the documents were falsified or redacted by WikiLeaks to say things they never originally meant to say? And if so, how does that change their legal status (compare: the guy who knowingly sells oregano claiming it is marijuana—what crime, if any, has he committed? Or suppose he sells it with the explicit disclaimer that it is oregano, but wink-wink-nudge-nudge we all know better don’t we?)
Consider the bizarre fate of Leonard Lewin’s Report from Iron Mountain (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ The_Report_from_ Iron_ Mountain), a kind of fictionalized predecessor of the very real Pentagon Papers. It was published in 1967 as a satire purporting to be a report on military-industrial policy prepared by several government officials and think tankers. But 30 years later, a right-wing nutcase printed excerpts from it in his propaganda screeds, and defended himself (unsuccessfully) against Lewin’s copyright suit by claiming it was a government document and therefore in the public domain. What if the WikiLeaks papers turn out to be another Report from Iron Mountain? Or, as the Italians say, Si non e vero, e
Ben Trovato *
*A friend of the Wired Family, and director of the Iron Mountain Office of Creative Publicity and Quasi-Factual Information.