A defense of WikiLeaks: Some inconvenient facts

Julian Assange
Julian Assange

JULIAN ASSANGE and WikiLeaks have been assailed with bloodlust by many, both in and out of the U.S.

The website has been subject to so-called denial of service attacks (flooding it with requests), the stripping of its web addresses, heavy-handed threats by Amazon.com and other companies that rented space to it on their servers, the throttling of its financial lifelines to PayPal, MasterCard and Visa, and calls for Assange's assassination - or long incarceration.

No one wants to require diplomats to wear bathing suits and work in glass embassies, and you can have qualms about the effects of (some of) what WikiLeaks has done or will do without signing on to the fury with which it's being pursued.

Consider the following points, presented in no particular order.

Although MasterCard and Visa will no longer accept payments to WikiLeaks, the KKK, to cite just one egregious example, can receive payment on its website via these companies even though donors have to state they're "white and not of racially mixed descent" and "not married to a non-white. . . and do not date nonwhites."

Interpol has become, as writer Naomi Wolf has humorously noted, the world's dating police, who nevertheless don't seem too exercised about the tens of millions of other men guilty of behavior at least as boorish as Assange's. If the charges against him involve, as reported, consensual sex without a condom (or a damaged one), we'll know soon enough.

Whatever the (nonsex) charges against Assange are, they would seem to apply as well to mainstream media outlets like the New York Times. And to many writers like Bob Woodward, who regularly quotes political and military figures about classified matters in his books. (One difference, of course, is that the matters they discuss tend to cast them in a sympathetic glow, unlike some of the WikiLeaks cables.)

Reports to the contrary, WikiLeaks has released only a tiny percentage of the diplomatic cables it possesses - according to the Associated Press, just under a thousand of approximately a quarter-million. Moreover, they have been vetted and redacted (deleting names and minimizing harm) by correspondents at the newspapers that have published them: the Guardian, El Pais, Le Monde and Der Speigel, as well as the Times. It's simply not true that WikiLeaks has released a trove of unedited cables.

Downloaded and transferred to WikiLeaks by a U.S. soldier named Bradley Manning, most of the cables were accessible by up to 3 million people - diplomats, military people, agencies, staffs at all levels. Something is not all that secret, it would seem, if millions of people can pull it up on their computers.

Also a secret to some who should know better is that Assange is not a U.S. citizen, and thus can't be charged with treason, as Sarah Palin and Sen. Joseph Lieberman have urged. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has deemed him a "high-tech terrorist," presumably making all who support him terrorist sympathizers.

The bottom line is that the attack on WikiLeaks is also an attack on the newspapers that published the material, indeed an attack on free speech itself. More than an airy ideal we invoke to applaud ourselves, free speech is essential to free and open societies, which need to know the truth whatever the source. Many of today's problems can be traced, in part, to its absence: a war ginned up under false pretenses, overly optimistic assessments of some of our "allies," a financial meltdown because people were unaware of the risks they were assuming. Dead soldiers and civilians and an economy in tatters is a staggeringly large price to pay to avoid embarrassing various officials and diplomats.

John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, is the author of the best-sellers "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper," as well as, most recently, "Irreligion."

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