Ambling up to the stage in a rumpled suit and clutching a laptop covered in bumper stickers, Julian Assange didn’t appear particularly dangerous, like a man soon to be accused by the United States government of having “blood on his hands.” He looked like Edgar Winter as imagined by Jim Henson; an awkward, lanky Australian with translucent skin and wisps of white hair falling over his face. Assange, as you surely know by now, is the founder and “editor-in-chief” of Wikileaks, the website responsible for the recent release of thousands of classified U.S. military documents detailing the war in Afghanistan.
In the company of those who survived the Khmer Rouge's killing fields, the torture chambers of Iran, Soviet psychiatric hospitals, and a man who avoided being hacked to death during the Rwandan genocide by hiding under a pile of corpses, Assange asked attendees of the 2010 Oslo Freedom Forum to remember the “statement that was put by the Nazis on front of concentration camps that ‘work brings freedom,’ an idea that Himmler had when he himself was in prison.” Himmler did not invent the phrase Arbeit Macht Frei nor had he been imprisoned until the end of the war. It wasn’t a promising start to a Nazi analogy. But Assange barrelled ahead, breathlessly explaining that the Guantanamo prison camp had a similar slogan (“Honor Bound to Defend Freedom”), one that, as a perversion of truth, is “worse than ‘work brings freedom.’”
It was to this speech, and this wildly overblown comparison, that my mind wandered when watching Assange’s seemingly endless media tour to promote Wikileaks Afghanistan document dump. The mild, sallow-faced whistleblower who routinely dismissed corporate media propagandists was now to be found on NBC News, telling Andrea Mitchell that the release of the Afghanistan documents was like the opening of the Stasi archives. Assange, it seemed, was something of a specialist in the obscene, historically illiterate analogy. But trawl through the fetid swamps of the blogosphere and you will find countless paeans to this paragon of New New Journalism, a man whose name is frequently preceded by the adjectives “brave” and “heroic.”
It’s up to specialists in military affairs and those with a deep understanding of Afghanistan to determine if these documents will ultimately add to our understanding of the war or, as has been frequently argued, if such raw intelligence data simply add detail—some extraneous, some misleading, some valuable—to what we already knew. While it seems implausible that in 91,000 pages of secret documents there is nothing unknown, it is more likely that there is simply nothing explosive here. As New York Times editor Bill Keller told CNN, his reporters dug out plenty of interesting material but the cache wasn’t "full of scandals or revelations."
Keller, who received the documents from Assange before they were published online, bristles at the suggestion that Assange is a journalist and that Wikileaks was, as the organization has repeatedly claimed, a “media partner” of the Times. Wikileaks, says Keller, was simply a source, no different than the countless other sources the newspaper works with. And unlike the Times, "they are an advocacy organization. They have a point of view, and an ideology..."
If Assange wants to be a journalist—and he consistently identifies himself as one—he would be advised to cease referring to Wikileaks as an “activist organization” attempting to make a “political impact” and “achieve justice.” As Washington Times national security correspondent Eli Lake told me, Assange is “an activist who understands computer code,” not a journalist. (Incidentally, Lake describes himself as generally “pro-leak” and complains that Assange “will now be the poster boy for everyone who wants to create an official secrets act in the United States.”)
After Keller’s criticism, Assange moaned that The New York Times, a newspaper with an impressive and brave staff of war correspondents, wouldn’t link to the Wikileaks website and denounced the paper’s coverage of the leak as “unprofessional.” The Times of London, whose staff reported that Wikileaks' document dump exposed the names of confidential Afghan informants, was “disingenuous” in their reporting, the paper guilty of “media manipulation.” The rest of the media, many of whom are currently translating the leaked material into news stories, is doing “such a bad job” compared to Wikileaks. Those who criticize Wikileaks' methodology—and they span the ideological spectrum—"feel jealous, or they just don't understand the issue," Assange says.
When attacked for exposing the names of Afghan informants, and potentially exposing them to Taliban retribution, Assange lapsed into incoherence, citing the hitherto unknown “journalists shouldn’t prognosticate” rule: “In journalism we should actually ignore people that say something might happen or could happen.” It’s a rule that would frequently require that we ignore Julian Assange.
But Taliban leaders recently declared that they were reviewing the documents, looking for traitors to punish (i.e. behead). Assange dismissed the claim, reasoning, "Anything in theory has the potential to harm anything else." But if this fails to convince, Assange blamed Wikileaks' exposure of Afghan informants on the United States military, claiming to be “appalled that the US military was so lackadaisical with its Afghan sources. Just appalled.” When asked by Today Show host Meredith Vieira if the deaths of informants could be considered “collateral damage” in his attempt to stop the war in Afghanistan, Assange agreed.
But rather than accept this sinister moral calculus, why can’t Assange and Wikileaks understand that one can leak documents that expose and enlighten while also protecting those in need of protection? Collating and interpreting 91,000 documents is a difficult task, precisely because this type of journalism is difficult. Assange, though, is learning the craft of journalism on the fly—charming when covering town meetings in Buffalo, dangerous when exposing Afghans to Taliban justice.
Suffering through every stop on his media tour, it becomes apparent that his transition from hacker to crusading journalist is not yet complete. Assange says that the Afghanistan documents are important because they contain "raw facts" (they contain, in fact, raw data) before they are massaged by the government and media. In another interview he advises that we "have to be careful reading this material" because of the inherent military bias contained in military reports. When asked if the material provides evidence of war crimes, Assange hedges, saying that the leaked "reports can be quite terse so I wouldn’t want to prejudge the issue and say for sure that a war crime has been committed.” But to ABC News, "it's pretty clear that at least some of these are war crimes."
Assange is right that readers must be extremely circumspect when consuming Army spin, even if it’s designed for internal use only. But should we be circumspect about Wikileaks' spin on released documents? Take Assange’s claim, repeated in dozens of interviews, that Wikileaks obtained a 32-page document outlining a U.S. intelligence plan to “destroy Wikileaks.” But the document, available here, says nothing of the sort; it’s merely a sleep-inducing intelligence assessment on what Wikileaks means to U.S. Army security. The quotes pulled by Assange that “prove” a conspiracy are clumsily and dishonestly wrenched from context and detail not a “plan to destroy” Wikileaks, but tactics on how the military can discourage leaking.
Looking at Assange’s previous forays into journalism—where he authored stories and attempted to interpret data for the Wikileaks site—I stumbled upon this 2007 story about the archives of the East German secret police (Stasi), in which the WikiJournalist provides the wrong date for the country’s collapse and, misreading a BBC news report, erroneously states that the CIA was prevented from “looting” the Stasi building of files by German “civil rights activists.” (The cache of Stasi documents were obtained by Langley in 1992, when the agency allegedly paid $1.5 million to a former Stasi general. In other words, a paid leak.) And while we are being pedantic, most journalists should be aware that “newspaper” is one word.
The problem is not just that Assange posted 91,000 documents online having, by his own admission, read only 2,000 of them carefully. Nor is the problem the reckless exposure of brave Afghans who would rather not live under the jurisdiction of a fanatical religious cult. The real lesson for the Wikileaks team is that while obtaining secret documents is an integral part of journalism, it is not by itself journalism. And contrary to Assange’s grandiloquent proclamations that he intends to “build a historical record, an intellectual record, of how civilization actually works in practice,” in its four years of existence he has produced a handful of interesting and impressive scoops, but the dreaded “mainstream media” has done far more.
So by all means, Julian, stump for more openness, publish more leaks, continue your attempts to “achieve justice.” But stop calling yourself a journalist.
Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.