Julian Assange just can’t keep his hands to himself.
The founder of Wikileaks is facing a world of trouble because of his inability to play by the normal rules of civilized society. His story raises some incredibly important and thorny questions, first among which is this: What kind of secrets does the government have a right to keep?
Assange is spending the Olympics in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and his fate will not be decided until the Olympic torch has been extinguished. He sought sanctuary among the Ecuadorians seven weeks ago to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he would answer to prosecutors who have charged him with two sex crimes. Assange’s greater fear about Sweden is that it might be simply a transit stop on the way to the United States, where he would be tried and face life imprisonment on espionage charges.
Assange had been camping out at a supporter’s apartment in Stockholm while attending a Wikileaks-related conference. His sexual advances toward two women, described as furtive and rough groping leading to intercourse, are at the root of his Swedish legal problems. The two women, on different nights in the same apartment, both went through the same experience of Assange allegedly forcing himself on them. That’s why he wants to stay out of Sweden.
Assange, by all accounts, is an odd duck. He grew up fatherless in Australia, raised by a mother who lived a lifestyle fairly similar to the American hippie movement of the 1960s. If you want to play amateur psychologist, you could claim that Assange sees the world as a distant father who had no right to abandon him. And thus his founding of Wikileaks, a place where all the world’s authority figures are brought to task for their misdeeds.
Assange’s mother, in the last few days, took to the airways to decry the “stressful” conditions under which her son is residing at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. But whatever stress Assange is going through, it bears little resemblance to the inhuman conditions under which Lt. 1st Class Bradley Manning has been held at Fort Leavenworth for more than 800 days. Manning was in Iraq, handling information technology for the military, when he saw an American helicopter gunship on video hunting down and murdering civilians, including children. He was so disturbed by what he saw that he turned over that video, and other material, to Wikileaks. Manning now faces court martial and even execution for his actions, which violated his military obligations but can only be construed as an act of extreme courage.
So Assange faces criminal prosecution in Sweden and potential life in prison in the United States for the release of literally millions of classified documents. Manning, who displayed a level of conscience and courage to which the rest of us could only aspire, faces death.
The latest twist in the twist-filled Wikileaks saga is the faking of an opinion piece by New York Times editor-in-chief Bill Keller. In the piece, created by a Wikileaks partisan and distributed to a credulous world, Keller reverses his stand on the legitimacy of Wikileaks and praises Assange as a hero.
Whether Wikileaks is covering itself in glory with such sideshows is debatable. The core of the story is not what happened on two nights in Stockholm when Assange’s advances allegedly went too far. The real issue, obscured by Assange’s own personal problems and antics like the Keller piece, is this: Just how many secrets is a government allowed to keep?
To put it more bluntly, why are politicians and diplomats permitted to take actions in the name of their nations without any accountability? Why do they get to do and say whatever they want to about our friends and foes? Why are their misdeeds constantly protected? Wouldn’t a little accountability go a long way in terms of affecting the behavior and morality of not just our government but any government?
Julian Assange is no Martin Luther King, Jr.. It’s hard to lionize an individual who must stand trial for two sexual assaults. But Wikileaks, legitimate or not, has succeeded at forcing the world to reevaluate the level of secrecy, protection, and lack of accountability that our elected leaders enjoy.
There’s an old expression—don’t do anything that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times. It’s a great admonition for parents to give children. Does Assange deserve jail time for his Wikileaks-related actions? Strictly speaking, yes. But I see his actions as extremely useful in terms of making government accountable, just as were those of Daniel Ellsberg when he brought the Pentagon Papers to the world forty years ago, and exposed the truth about the conduct of the war in Vietnam.
The greatest injustice, however, has been done and continues to be done to Bradley Manning. This little man with a big conscience threatens no one and deserves free trial solitary confinement—conditions bordering on torture, in the eyes of many observers—no more than you or I.
Julian Assange cannot keep his hands to himself. This is true whether he’s uploading politically sensitive documents to the world by Wikileaks or engaging in inappropriate sexual contact with two women he barely knows in Stockholm. On a personal level, he is no one’s idea of a hero. But the actions he, Manning, and their cohorts have taken are nothing short of heroic. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
Maybe if we had a little more sunlight, a little more accountability, we would have had a lot less war.
(New York Times Bestselling Author Michael Levin runs BusinessGhost.com, America’s leading provider of business books.)