The responsible and principled position on the Wikileaks cables is that they should not have been published, as they damage diplomacy, a friend who is a former journalist told me in a booming voice at lunch. We were in a quiet yakitori – literally “burnt bird” in Japanese – restaurant in Weller Court in Little Tokyo.
That contrary position comes from a longtime conviction that the media acts too often as propagandist for the government.
So when the lies are unmasked, when the government takes a public position that is duly parroted by newspapers and TV and then it is shown that the public position is belied by a different position behind the scenes, I think that unmasking is good.
It is good for a free people.
Walking to work this morning, I thought about Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. He unmasked the truths behind the public facade of the Vietnam War, and those top-secret truths were published by the New York Times.
“Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in reversing an injunction against the newspaper.
The exposure of deception in government is the basic aspect of both releases of classified troves of information. But these are different times.
Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, is for sure a different breed of cat. His role, however, is the same.
The publication of the cables is a different type of release, very much a product of the vast web of computers that form the Internet and allow instant and multi-source publishing. But it represents a difference in the path to the same result, wide dissemination of government secrets.
The prosecutions of the two men are also different. But they share a similar bizarre nature.
Ellsberg was tried on charges related to taking the documents, a charge dismissed by one of the great Federal Judges of Los Angeles, Matt Byrne, based on the government’s extensive and brazen misconduct that included breaking into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
Assange stands accused of sexual assault. The strange nature of his prosecution stems more from the decision to prosecute than from the tawdry facts.
My prediction is that here too the case will be dismissed, if it is not abandoned first.
Before the facts started to come out, I was going back and forth with another former journalist who suggested the sex charges against Assange might be the product of subterfuge by foreign governments.
I emailed in reply, “Above the social liberal heart of the Scandinavian countries is a set of foreign policies that are remarkably aligned with England and with the U.S., overall. I don’t think they were enthusiastic about hosting Assange. If anything the girls could be Swedish agents.”
“But,” I said, “my money says he was sleeping with the women and the one didn’t know about the other and then when they found out, they were furious, and they bonded over it, compared notes, and, as an Asian woman in my salsa class writes it, they ‘got pitz off’.”
The Swedish prosecutors initially rejected the case.
But the women then hired a private lawyer who pursued the matter and persuaded a female prosecutor that charges should be brought. From thence to an international arrest warrant and and an English jail for Assange.
As the complaints of the women find their way into the media, notably the UK’s Guardian, they suggest a difficult case where consent changed when Assange did not use protection.
I cannot imagine an American prosecutor trying to maintain a sex case, based on those facts. And I suspect the Swedish sex case will fail eventually. In the meantime, federal prosecutors in the U.S. are reported to be investigating potential charges against Assange, based on the leak of classified information.
While the twists of Wikileaks are different, we forget that the Pentagon Papers case was a drawn-out saga with a number of bizarre turns, a steady stream of embarrassing news and a great clash of ideals and principles. Wikileaks is going down a similar path in a different age.