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The Julian Assange problem

WASHINGTON — They say that guests are like fish; after three days they become a bit whiffy. By this measure, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange smelled like an overladen fishing vessel adrift in the searing sun.

Upon his arrest Thursday by British authorities, ending his nearly seven-year asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, revelations emerged that he was less than an ideal guest. He reportedly was rude and aggressive toward his hosts and demonstrated little interest in hygiene. In his grossest display of disaffection, he apishly smeared his feces on the embassy walls, according to Ecuador’s interior minister.

Assange’s behavior makes one wonder about his mental health. Maybe he lost his mind while being confined for so long. On the other hand, he seemed quite cognizant as he left the embassy, offering peace signs and a thumbs-up to bystanders.

If Assange is, indeed, of right mind, then we can only conclude that he’s a solid jerk. Certainly, his non-fans — including many in the U.S. media — long have viewed him as a sociopathic interloper operating under the protection of free speech. More on that anon.

No stranger to legal problems, Assange has been indicted by the U.S. on one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. This sounds more like a stay-after-school offense than what one might expect given the potentially disastrous ramifications of Assange’s publishing activities.

Then again, Al Capone was brought down on tax evasion.

While the government seems to want to avoid a battle over the First Amendment, focusing mostly on conspiracy, it can later charge Assange with something more. Meanwhile, media talk has turned to whether Assange is really a journalist and if free-speech protections ought to apply to someone who is (allegedly) a criminal first? Despite the recent surge in “citizen journalists,” saying you’re a journalist doesn’t make you one. (Granted, some are better than the “real” ones.)

The difference between someone like Assange publishing whatever leaks land in his lap and, say, The Washington Post, which published the leaked documents known as the Pentagon Papers, is mostly a lot of worry and process. Most responsible reporters and editors routinely ask themselves questions such as: Should we publish this? Does the public interest override other concerns? Is it justifiable to expose someone’s personal emails and under what circumstances?

One supposes that Assange never bothered himself with such pesky queries. But then, why should he? He is not, after all, a journalist, despite his claiming to be, because he isn’t accountable to anyone. No filters, no standards.

In the case of the Pentagon Papers, former Rand Corp. military analyst Daniel Ellsberg stole thousands of pages of a top-secret report detailing the U.S. government’s decades-long campaign of deceit, mayhem and murder related to the war in Vietnam. Ellsberg first gave the documents to The New York Times, which published three articles about them before the White House obtained a court injunction. Ellsberg then provided copies to the Post, which, after due consideration, began publishing its own stories.

In deliberating whether to run them, Post publisher Katharine Graham deployed lawyers and editors to weigh the potential legal and commercial consequences against allowing the government to continue lying and sacrificing lives. Graham’s bravery in standing up to the U.S. government and the courts — all while risking great personal and financial loss — was epic.

Assange’s process, on the other hand, is largely to dump secrets in the town square and let the scavengers sort it out. No filter. No conscience.

It isn’t hyperbolic to say we’re at a hinge point regarding how we gather and disseminate information. Does anyone have the right to publish stolen/classified materials? Should the manner of obtaining information inform the right to publish? For now, at least, the Assange case provides little help, but precedent may offer clues.

On the surface, Ellsberg and Assange seem similar. Ellsberg stole — and newspapers published. Assange allegedly conspired to steal — and he published. The difference may be mostly political.

The Vietnam War was unpopular, and the government demonstrably lied to the American people for decades, unconscionably committing tens of thousands of young Americans to their early graves. Ellsberg’s charges on theft, conspiracy and espionage were eventually dismissed.

Wikileaks leaked hundreds of thousands of secret documents that potentially endangered Americans and allies around the world and, possibly, helped get Donald Trump elected.

One was a historic act of bravery; the other seems more like feces-smearing by a fishy-smelling “cypherpunk.” Then again, maybe that’s just me.

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