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There are no heroes in the Wikileaks saga

Jack LB GohnIt can be humbling to watch one’s own opinions change. Eight years ago, in this space, I posited that leakers are a necessary corrective to governmental abuse of secrecy, supplementing the functions of the press in our constitutional scheme. At that time, Wikileaks, cooperating with the mainstream media, was exposing some of the things the United States was doing in Afghanistan, misbehavior previously protected from public backlash by a system of classification that had kept the public from knowing about it. Because the killer drone program and other aspects of Afghanistan that Wikileaks exposed were simply wicked, in my view, I tended to applaud organizations that could publicize them.

Since then, though, we’ve seen the selfsame Wikileaks give a public home to secrets the Russians stole from the Democratic National Committee, as well as private personal information such as Social Security numbers, medical histories and the identities of rape victims. I’m not in favor of any of these revelations. And, yes, my views have consequently changed – well, at least they have grown more nuanced.

I still maintain that when governments use official secrecy to evade accountability to their citizens, we need the services of leakers. But governmental cover-ups are one thing and (as I said eight years ago) legitimate governmental secrets are another, and (as I now add) private secrets are yet another. Yet at Wikileaks, all these things nowadays seem to be processed in the same way. According to Associated Press reporting, Wikileaks, at its founding in 2006, professed a determination to protect properly private secrets, but the sheer volume of information leaked to and by Wikileaks made the redaction process intolerably slow to founder Julian Assange, who was quoted as concluding that “(w)e can’t sit on material like this for three years with one person to go through the whole lot, line-by-line, to redact. … We have to take the best road that we can.” Apparently the best road is one that saves Assange and his colleagues time, even if, for instance, as has happened, Wikileaks exposes the name of a gay person in Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality can be a capital offense.

There is also a difference between revealing government secrets – acceptable in my continuing view if done to prevent governments from hiding information that should be available to their citizens – and revealing the secrets of private organizations and individuals, which or who have no duties of public disclosure. The DNC may have a close relationship to governments and government officials, but it was a private organization when Russian hackers attacked it and fed its correspondence to Wikileaks. Sony was a private corporation at the time Wikileaks accepted and placed online the results of a massive hack of Sony’s correspondence that was apparently conducted by North Korea. And obviously Wikileaks accepts the validity of corporate secrecy in principle, since it has some of the toughest nondisclosure agreements out there for its own employees, with a stipulated penalty of £12 million for breach.

Now I am not suggesting that a news organization, or an organization like Wikileaks that has some but not all the traits of a news organization, should never publicize private information about individuals or the workings of private corporations. I can’t come up with any blanket rules for when it’s OK to publicize that information, however. To the contrary, I think it has to be decided on a case-by-case basis. But the DNC and the Sony dumps demonstrate quite clearly to me, first, that Wikileaks has abandoned case-by-case determinations and, second, that Wikileaks had no moral compass by the time it published that material. When your information seems to be coming from the intelligence services of corrupt totalitarian states, it’s a pretty good bet the information, accurate or not, is morally tainted and you probably should not be lending your aid to its dissemination.

Speaking of morally tainted, that is also the word for the U.S. effort to extradite Mr. Assange. The now-unsealed indictment that is the basis of the extradition request is a single count of conspiracy to obtain unauthorized access to a government computer. The indictment does not even report that this was a successful effort, though we know that Assange’s alleged co-conspirator Chelsea Manning was the source of a trove of State Department cables leaked to Wikileaks. Those cables revealed U.S. arrogance and misbehavior around the world, e.g., in aiding U.S. corporations to the detriment of public welfare elsewhere, from Boeing to McDonald’s to Monsanto, and authorizing spying on the UN secretary-general. Though Manning was sentenced to 35 years for this breach, it is significant that Barack Obama commuted her sentence to seven years, acknowledging implicitly the public-spirited nature of the breach. In other words, the United States may be trying to extradite Assange for one of the good things Wikileaks did, not one of the bad things. Though it would seem to violate an explicit provision of a treaty between the United States and the United Kingdom, other crimes might be charged if Assange ever reaches these shores; the indictment’s sneaky narrowness probably was simply a way to prevent the extradition request from being rejected because, under that treaty, “political crimes” are non-extraditable. What recourse against further charges would the United Kingdom or Assange have after the extradition went through?

As a late friend, citing his Jesuit training, would frequently say, “Circumstances alter cases always.” The evolving Wikileaks story is full of “circumstances,” new considerations that continue to alter my opinions. It’s clear we need leakers; it’s also clear Assange and Wikileaks have repeatedly behaved without integrity or moral clarity. It’s also highly likely that the United States wants Assange extradited for exactly the wrong reasons, namely to exact political revenge and to clamp down on legitimate First Amendment activities. There are no heroes in this tale.

Jack L.B. Gohn is partner emeritus with Gohn Hankey & Berlage LLP. The views expressed here are solely his own. See a longer version, with links to his authorities, at

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