News Flash: Julian Assange is AUSTRALIAN!

In the interest of surviving this semester in one piece, I imposed on myself a blogging ban through mid-December about two weeks ago. But then this weekend came word of more of that journalistic manna that my news-junkie self absolutely cannot resist: another WikiLeaks dump!

The latest documents, some 250,000 State Department cables ranging from discussions of Iranian nuclear capabilities to musings on Russian and Italian Prime Ministers Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi’s reported bromance, have this country’s political elites every bit as worked up, although in a slightly different sense. New York Congressman Peter King  fumed that WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange were engaged in “terrorist activity,” while Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, ever the voice of reason, restrained himself to calling WikiLeaks’ disclosure “nothing less than an attack on the national security of the United States, as well as that of dozens of other countries.”

I won’t wade into the broader ethical debate on WikiLeaks’ actions. If you’re interested in sampling the gamut of what I’d consider rational opinion on the issue, I’d recommend Glenn Greenwald’s full-throated defense of WikiLeaks on Salon and Peter Beinart’s criticism of the latest dump as sabotaging American foreign policy without adding to the public debate.

I’ve only had time for a cursory survey of the debate online, but one, it seems to me important, issue that I haven’t seen broached is that of Julian Assange’s nationality, which happens to be Australian. Assange’s detractors have blasted him for undermining American foreign policy by revealing unflattering remarks made by US diplomats about world leaders or exposing the State Department’s use of diplomats to spy on foreign officials. (I’ll ignore the absolutely unfounded accusation that Assange has blood on his hands; US officials have conceded they have no evidence of WikiLeaks documents leading to anybody’s death.) Perhaps this would be a legitimate criticism of an American journalist, but what responsibility does Assange have, as an Australian, to protect American foreign policy interests? Surely journalists should refrain from putting any innocent lives in jeopardy (again, there’s no evidence WikiLeaks has done so), but is it really a journalistic no-no to make a foreign government’s life more difficult? Would the voices calling for Assange’s head be so loud if he had released, say, Chinese diplomatic cables? I suspect he might be treated more like a conquering hero in that case.

Whether we should consider American journalists and publications under some sort of patriotic duty not to jeopardize their government’s foreign policy agenda seems to me a legitimate subject of debate, although I’m highly skeptical of this line of reasoning. What could possibly justify applying the same standard to a foreign journalist is completely beyond me.

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