Indictment of Julian Assange for publishing government secrets at WikiLeaks illustrates everything I’ve said about why intelligence agencies want to classify information to conceal their activities. Announcing ‘I told you so’ is satisfying, I’ll admit. What have I argued? I don’t want to repeat all of it, but I’ll restate one important point. Governments want to act in secret for the same reason criminals want to act in secret. No one would let them do what they want to do otherwise.
Note too – and here is a new point – secrecy and propaganda go together. On the public side, government spills over with propaganda, like a cauldron of thick stew that boils over. The more secrecy, the more steaming stew flows onto the stove. Lies to distract people serve the cause of secrecy. I can’t help but mention Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects again. Master of spinning yarns, like our president, Soze could make you believe that the partly true is true, the partly false is false, and every half-truth leads you to freedom – freedom for criminals, of course.
Secrecy and propaganda go together.
So now the federal prosecutors want to charge Julian Assange with espionage. First leakers received the ticket: you’re a spy because you mishandled or divulged classified information. Now people who receive the information and publish it are spies as well! Suppose the New York Times responsibly publishes information obtained from Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsburg, or dozens of other whistleblowers, as we expect it to do. Its editors ought to publish evidence of wrongdoing, including lies government officials tell. That is part of their job. Now government says that people who publish classified information are spies. It wants to prosecute and punish them as such.
Suppose, for example, that intelligence officials set up detention centers to interrogate prisoners. As with most government activities, the information they gain, as well as the methods they use to get it, are both classified. Now suppose a citizen learns details about those techniques from someone – a contractor, say – who finds these interrogation methods disturbing. The citizen publishes an account of her conversation with the contractor in her blog. Government officials read her article, and arrest her as a spy.
The information intelligence officials gain, as well as the methods they use to get it, are both classified.
Leave no doubt that the feds want to make an example of Julian Assange. They might have kept the charge of computer hacking – Assange allegedly gave Manning advice about how to crack a password-protected system – and left it at that. Even if they prosecuted that charge successfully, they would have expended a lot of work for little return. They want to get both Manning and Assange to make sure no pair of people ever does something like that again.
No criminal organization can tolerate rats. No secret intelligence apparatus can tolerate leakers. As we have seen from Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, and countless tinpot Maduro’s, Franco’s, Hussein’s, Assad’s, Duterte’s, Jong Il’s, on and on, the difference between an intelligence apparatchik and a member of a crime syndicate is that the former draws pay from the public treasury, while the latter steals it. Secrecy is essential either way.