Gwynne Dyer: Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, and the U.S. government response

“Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.”

Theodore Roosevelt, two-term president of the United States, said that, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange quoted him in a manifesto he wrote four years ago, adding: “The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership....”

By that criterion, how is the United States government doing after a year that saw first Pentagon and then State Department documents published by WikiLeaks in the tens of thousands?

In truth, none of the “secrets” that Assange has revealed are all that momentous. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was right when he said: “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”

Yet some of his cabinet colleagues verge on the hysterical.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared on November 29: “This disclosure is not just an attack on America—it's an attack on the international community....There is nothing laudable about endangering innocent people, and there is nothing brave about sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations."

Endangering innocent people? Like King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was urging the United States to attack Iran, or Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whom a U.S. diplomat described as being Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s “mouthpiece"?

Neither man has doubled his bodyguard detail, nor has either country broken off relations with the United States.

WikiLeaks did not simply dump a quarter-million State Department cables on the Web. It has released only a few dozen documents at a time, each of which has been carefully edited in cooperation with five leading newspapers to ensure that no innocent people are endangered.

It’s puzzling. Some parts of the U.S. government seem quite relaxed about Assange’s actions, while other parts seem determined to put him in prison for the next few decades.

“We are talking about one of the most serious violations of the Espionage Act in our history,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “To the extent that we can find anybody who was involved in the breaking of American law...they will be held responsible.”

How can someone who isn’t an American citizen, and wasn’t in the United States, have broken an American law? No way, technically, but the United States might still be able to get a close ally like Britain to hand over Assange if it could argue that he was actively spying on it.

That will be hard, since he almost certainly wasn’t. He had good legal advice when he set up the “dead letter box” where the leaks are collected, and it is designed not to reveal the sources of the leaks even to WikiLeaks itself.

Indeed, Assange says that he never heard the name of the person whom the U.S. accuses of being the leaker, 23-year-old army Private Bradley Manning, until he read it in the newspapers.

The United States cannot make a case for espionage against Assange unless it can plausibly claim that he encouraged and helped Manning steal the documents.

Given that it probably isn’t true, it can only do that by forcing Manning to say that it is true. That may not be impossible, because he has been held in solitary confinement for the past seven months.

He has so far refused to say what his interrogators want, but he is facing 52 years in prison if he is convicted of leaking the documents. He is entirely alone 23 hours out of 24, and even his hour of exercise takes place in an empty room where he walks figures-of-eight.

"It’s an awful thing, solitary," as John McCain wrote of his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. “It crushes your spirit."

And once Manning is a pathetic wreck of a human being, they will offer him a plea bargain: a much reduced sentence for his own actions if he will also incriminate Assange.

Then the United States could lay a charge against Assange that might result in his extradition—although that is far from guaranteed, since nowhere do political crimes lead to automatic extradition. But does the U.S. government really want to go all the way down this road?

The usual suspects out in the backwoods are howling for blood, so domestic politics demands that at the moment the administration must make a great show of outrage and vengefulness. On the other hand, the grown-ups in the government know that the way to get through the WikiLeaks drama with the least damage internationally is just to ignore it.

That is why Vice President Joe Biden could say on December 16: “I don’t think there’s any substantive damage” from the WikiLeaks episode—and then on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the following day, accuse Assange of being a “high-tech terrorist”, who is putting lives at risk.

It’s called “talking out of both sides of your mouth", which is what politicians have to do a lot of the time.

Which side should we believe? Obama’s people probably don’t know that themselves yet. Domestic politics will decide.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book, Crawling from the Wreckage, has just been published in Canada by Random House.




Dec 25, 2010 at 6:55am

I think every government in the west should be afraid. We have sponsored and supported some of the most corrupt governments in the world. Those governments in turn have murdered more innocent people than the last 2 world wars have put together. Add in the autrocities committed by each side in those wars and the numbers are staggering I'm sure. It's through people like Assuage and those brave enough to reveal governments secrets that we can rein in these psychopaths in government. And when I say that I mean on all sides of the political spectrum.

claire hurley

Dec 25, 2010 at 9:31am

We could certainly use WikiLeaks in BC where no one knows who is running this province. We particularly need WikiLeaks here in Delta where the CAO and Council keep giving contracts to invisible, unknown "consultants" who charge outrageous prices and drive our taxes up, up and away!


Dec 25, 2010 at 2:50pm

It is interesting to see how Canadian "media" are being used to brainwash the population. Instead of engaging in real debate about the leaks, they are attacking the messenger they do not like. I wonder, how much of this dislike is generated by the fact that a small website has done much, times, more to inform us about the irresponsible behaviors of the ruling class, then those from whom we expected to keep us informed. As a result, and not surprisingly, our public opinion is completely distorted when compared with the rest of the world. While Wikileaks is being supported by overwhelming majority of the people around the world, here in Canada, the US-styled propaganda is turning us into an "animal farm". Like it or not, Wikileaks has changed the landscape of politics and the flow of information with no going back. We, the public, have the right to know when people we elected behave like thugs. If democracy, or at least what is left from it in the west, means something these days, we need more wikileaks now then ever.


Dec 25, 2010 at 11:04pm

That's the ultimate issue here. Democratic governments have to be open. For the people, by the people.

The fathers of the Americas knew what democracy was and fought the Imperialists to gain independance and freedom. That same country is breaking all the founding rules of what made it great.

It's a shame.

Accountability in Government (at all levels) needs to happen. For example, it's interesting to see the very high salaries in portions of government. Some of these are unchecked (doubled over the past 7-10 years!??)


Dec 26, 2010 at 11:37am

I fully agree that more Wikileaks the better. You know it is so truly surprising the leaks have revealed ..the cables have been so very...normal. Diplomats saying things most of us would say. All the nefarious things we say are being done here or there in secret are revealing in their kind of boring normalcy. Where are the conspiracies? I am relieved that maybe we do understand the world as it mostly appears to be. It is an exciting time to live.


Dec 26, 2010 at 9:33pm

"How can someone who isn’t an American citizen, and wasn’t in the United States, have broken an American law? No way, technically, but the United States...."

What about a Canadian selling pot seeds to Americans? What's his head was carted off to the U.S. not long ago, if I recall correctly.

Mike Boileau

Dec 28, 2010 at 9:21am

When people like President Teddy Rosevelt speak of "Invisible Government" and other Presidents like JFK speak of "Secret Societies" and then President Eisenhower speaks of the "Military Industrial Complex" we all need to ask ourselves, "Why isn't the American Mainstream Media not zeroing in on these statements? This is exactly what these "Leaks" are all about. Granted, nothing leaked so far amounts to much but I suspect the "Good Stuff" will be edited out. If I am correct, and my observations of the remarks of the previous Presidents are correct, it is then obvious that the problem lyes strictly at who controls the Mainstream Media, World-wide? If they would expose all of this stuff without fear, we would soon live in peace and prosperity. I guarantee it.


Dec 28, 2010 at 9:18pm

Unfortunately It does not matter what side is in power GOP's or DEM's they are all puppets working for the "Military Industrial Complex" and Big Banks......