The latest fad in politics and journalism is whistleblowing, the highly contested practice of releasing confidential government documents and revealing controversial practices for the benefit of greater good. Many whistleblowing cases have headlined the news, including Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning. But the most infamous, polarizing figure in the whistleblowing circle is Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks.
Wanted in Sweden, the United States and his native Australia, Assange has continually fueled the fire in the debate over the role of whistleblowers. Are they champions for a better democracy? Or do they endanger the liberty of the governments they expose?
Wikileaks explains its motive on its website as based on the principles of “defense of freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history” (1). They believe their work “improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people” (1).
In a reader Q&A published in The Guardian, Assange claimed that “there has been no credible allegation, even by organizations like the Pentagon that even a single person has come to harm as a result of our activities” (2). Many of the readers who submitted questions included admirations of Assange, like “I think history will absolve you! Well done!” and “Thank you for what you are doing” (2).
Not everyone is so quick to sing Assange’s praises. In one submitted question, a reader wrote the following:
“…An embassy which cannot securely offer advice or pass messages back to London is an embassy which cannot operate. Diplomacy cannot operate without discretion and the protection of sources. This applies to the UK and the UN as much as the US. In publishing this massive volume of correspondence, Wikileaks is not highlighting specific cases of wrongdoing but undermining the entire process of democracy” (2).
This viewpoint echoes the sentiments of many citizens and government officials around the globe. At a surface level, many of the documents uncovered by whistleblowers are embarrassing. Beyond that, the release of classified information can have reverberating effects in the international community. When Snowden recently unveiled the NSA’s secret surveillance program, the United States were forced to make amends with many foreign countries that were outraged to know they were involved without prior knowledge or consent. Furthermore, whistleblower critics argue the release of certain information can have a harmful effect on the national and global security, putting intelligence directly in the hands of the people the government has tried to hide it from.
Personally, I have a mixed opinion on the role of whistleblowers. I think it’s important for those with inside access to the government to have a procedure to voice their criticisms and uncertainties, but I don’t believe leaking documents is the way to do it. In regards to Assange, I question his motives. Is he trying to do the right thing for the advancement of democracy, or is he seeking attention on a global stage? I find it hard to justify his work with the fact that it’s led him to a life of self-confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
In an article in The New York Times, writer Daniel Politi quoted Joan Smith from The Independent: “Assange is a fabulist, someone who stretches and distorts the truth to make himself look exciting in the eyes of his diminishing band of followers” (3). The title of the article encapsulates it all: “Assange, the Drama King.”
(1) “About.” Wikileaks. Wikileaks. Web, 10 Oct. 2013.
(2) Assange, Julian. “Julian Assange answers your questions.” The Guardian, 2010.
(3) Politi, Daniel. “Assange, the Drama King.” The New York Times, 21 June 2012.
(4) Ellison, Sarah. “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” Vanity Fair, Oct. 2013.