What To Do About Assange

Julian Assange at New Media Days 09 in Copenhagen.
Image via Wikipedia

It took me two weeks, but I’ve negotiated an uneasy truce between my sympathy for government transparency* and my understanding that conducting diplomacy responsibly demands some level of hypocrisy. So here goes.

My sense, as I’ve written before, is that the damage this will do, both to Foggy Bottom’s efforts and their human assets, has been wildly overstated. That said, the negative consequences are real enough that I believe we can condemn Assange for behaving badly. Note that condemning his behavior and prosecuting him for it are two very different things.

Modern small-R republicanism is a balancing act between contradictory forces: transparency and consent of the governed on one side, and the necessity for an civil service to manage some of the affairs of state while operating under some level of secrecy. The test for the state now is to demonstrate that this balance between secrecy and transparency works.** This means proving that the state’s commitment to an open society is real, and that it accepts the risks of governing such a society.

Among those risks: People will access and unveil information that they should not. Individuals can and will cause enormous trouble for the state, even when the state is more or less working the way it should. And sometimes defending a free homeland means doing absolutely nothing about it.

If the Justice Department prosecutes Assange under the (deeply problematic) Espionage Act, then the United States government fails the test and proves that Assange was right about them. About us. So here’s what the government should do instead: Forcefully condemn Assange. (Check.) Then acknowledge that nurturing free and open public discourse in the modern era means accepting the possibility that something like this could occur. Lastly, reaffirm that free and open public discourse is worth that risk. Doing that would not only prove Assange wrong, but turn a considerable headache into a victory for the American system.

*Also for misfits, troublemakers, contrarians, and people with badass mountain fortresses.

**Ironically, Wikileaks has already done some of the work for them. The cable dump made American diplomats look pretty good, overall.

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