Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks Attack on Progressive Values

As Professor Geoffrey Stone made clear on this site and in the New York Times this week, Congress must be careful not to criminalize conduct that is constitutionally protected and vital to our democratic system, like rooting out and exposing government misconduct. For example, the two Times reporters who uncovered the Bush administration's NSA wiretapping scheme were properly awarded the Pulitzer Prize; they should not now fear prosecution for their work to expose a classified -- but illegal -- rogue government operation.

But while progressives are right to oppose such government overreach, they should not conclude that if some disclosure of secret government information is good, then more is always better. Indeed, the recent dumping of documents by WikiLeaks have been the opposite of the Times' careful and responsible reporting -- wanton and indiscriminate disclosure of confidential information, with no concern about the consequences. If progressives are to protect our values, we must not applaud such damaging conduct or make a hero out of Julian Assange. Few things can wound a political movement as deeply as lionizing the wrong person.

Supporters of Assange and WikiLeaks argue that unbridled and random violations of confidentiality in our diplomatic and security affairs are somehow good for America. But we see three grave threats to progressive principles in supporting Assange: the WikiLeaks revelations make the US and the world less safe; they have endangered the lives of some of our friends and allies; and they will make government less transparent, not more so.

First, to Assange, the public deserves full access to government information, regardless of the national security implications. His view is that government information revealed is universally better than information that remains secret. Though Assange himself apparently cares little for US national interests, his American supporters seem to suggest that public disclosure of information will, in all cases, make this country safer.

But that is manifestly wrong. Generations of political leaders, advocates and intellectuals on the left have argued that there is a legitimate place in foreign policy and national security affairs for confidentiality and that some secrets are worth keeping. For Franklin Roosevelt, loose lips really did sink ships. For Barack Obama, secrets revealed can mean arming a barbaric enemy with information that can endanger the innocent.

In the modern world, where America's enemies are numerous, those who are dedicating or risking their lives serving this nation abroad should be able to rely on a meaningful degree of privacy in their work. To pick just one example: Assange has revealed secret diplomatic cables showing that the government of the United Arab Emirates considered staying silent on the assassination of a Hamas operative but felt they had to go public to avoid looking like they were protecting Israel. We should want the UAE and other Arab governments to cooperate in the battle against brutal, repressive terrorist groups. Making it public likely will end such cooperation and make the terrorists stronger.

More broadly, where would Assange and his defenders draw the line? Should a military operation to free hostages from al Qaeda be revealed beforehand? If we execute successful strikes against terrorist targets, should the sources of the intelligence be revealed afterward? Clearly not, but under the Assange standard, there would be no information the US government could or should keep classified; in fact, he believes that decision should be left up to WikiLeaks and any other copycats.

Second, groups with some of the most serious progressive credentials, like Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders (RWB), have said that the leaks have put at risk pro-democracy advocates in some of the most hostile parts of the world. As John Heilmann put it in New York Magazine, Assange's July dump constituted a "ready-made Taliban hit list." In an open letter to Assange, RWB said that those disclosures were "highly dangerous." The group's leaders wrote: "It would not be hard for the Taliban and other armed groups to use these documents to draw up a list of people for targeting in deadly revenge attacks."

Finally, exposing diplomatic cables and secret intelligence documents is not a mechanism for encouraging government openness; it is a recipe for further classification and compartmentalization of sensitive information. Our diplomatic relations are complex and sometimes seem contradictory. Violations of confidentiality can damage vital communication, and they feed, rather than impede, government secrecy.

Diplomats, intelligence operators, and military personnel are now going to be on their guard, reluctant to write anything sensitive that isn't highly classified. (WikiLeaks got access to Secret documents, but not those classified as Top Secret or higher.) And it will make their jobs much harder if their foreign counterparts, fearing for their reputations or their lives, refuse to divulge anything that could be damaging or dangerous if it appeared in the New York Times.

And the fallout has been serious. As Undersecretary of State Patrick F. Kennedy said recently, "This was as bad as it gets. We had, over the course of many years, built up a huge amount of faith and trust. That's ruptured now, all over the world." Just yesterday we have learned that the US Ambassador to Libya, our first there in more than 35 years, is likely to be recalled after his private cables documenting Muammar Qadhafi's eccentricities (some of them potentially dangerous) were made public by Assange.

As we make clear above, we believe that genuine government misconduct must be exposed. There is great value in the work of the courageous whistleblowers, activists, journalists and other watchdogs who are aggressive in ferreting out government malfeasance but also take seriously any credible claims of harm from the revelation of secret information. This proud tradition includes the disclosure of The Pentagon Papers, the lies about the invasion of Iraq, and the pictures from Abu Ghraib. But all of these were revealed with a clear purpose and with an eye toward protecting our national interests and the lives of the innocent. Compared to the chaos that the Assange approach entails, this is a more effective means for balancing our security and civil liberties.

Progressives must not mistake anarchists for truth-tellers. Assange is not a conscientious, constructive government critic; he is an online hooligan, committing devastating acts of vandalism that have hurt the United States and put our own people, our friends and our values at risk.

Years ago, when we ran a group that was taking on the National Rifle Association, Michael Moore was an ally in the battle against the outrageous tactics of the far right. In Bowling for Columbine, Moore exposed the NRA as totally unreasonable. The film was nuanced, thoughtful and deeply informed.

That's why it is so distressing to see well-known progressive voices like Moore's taking up the cause of Julian Assange. The WikiLeaks leader should have a status more in line with the self-important, misguided, rigid and ideologically blind Charlton Heston, who Moore exposed so brilliantly in his film.

We hope that Moore and other progressives will reconsider this support. The left should not be backing a man or an organization that is so clearly inimical to American security interests and to so many progressive values. Assange's actions as head of WikiLeaks should install him in the annals of infamy, not offer him hero-worship.

Jon Cowan is Co-Founder and President of Third Way; Matt Bennett and Nancy Hale are Co-Founders and Vice Presidents of Third Way.