Editor’s Note, September 1, 2017: This article was published on August 19, 2012. On August 22, 2013, one of its subjects—Bradley Manning—announced that he would begin identifying as female under the name Chelsea Manning. The original names and pronouns have been left in place because they were appropriate at the time. Any future references to Manning will abide by the Tangent Style Guide guidance on names and gender pronouns (see sections 5.43, 5.256, and 8.3-A).
Back in December 2010, I wrote a piece defending Julian Assange and Wikileaks.org. I’m still no fan of Assange or his organization, but the fact remains that a media outlet can publish whatever information is delivered to it. The only real exception is when a legitimate government has prohibited the publication of certain information for its own national security reasons, but those laws only apply in the countries that passed them. A country cannot arbitrarily extend its laws to people in other countries.
Let’s turn this around a bit. Imagine that a Nigerian army officer is unhappy with his country’s military policies, and he decides to send me an email here on Off on a Tangent with a bunch of classified Nigerian military information. I have the right, as a U.S. based media outlet, to go ahead and publish that information. Perhaps its publication is a violation of Nigerian law, but I’m not Nigerian, I don’t live in Nigeria, and my web site isn’t hosted in Nigeria. Nigerian laws simply don’t apply to me. The Nigerian government’s only recourse in this case would be to find the rat in its army ranks and punish him in accordance with Nigerian law, which is binding on him (but not me). A good argument can be made that Off on a Tangent shouldn’t publish any country’s military secrets, but that is a moral argument, not a legal one.
So when it comes to Assange’s publication of U.S. military secrets on WikiLeaks, a Switzerland-based web site, it is quite clear that U.S. law does not apply. The servers are in Switzerland, and Assange himself is Australian and has never resided in the U.S. A strong moral argument can be made that Assange is putting lives at risk by publishing what he does on WikiLeaks, but it would appear that he committed no crime in publishing what he did. U.S. laws don’t apply to an Australian in Switzerland any more than Nigerian laws apply to, say, a Frenchman in Canada. The real criminal is the U.S. soldier who provided those secret documents to WikiLeaks, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who will likely stand trial for his crimes in September.
Assange, however, has been accused of sexual assault by two women in Sweden. The Swedish government has been trying to get their hands on him so a trial can proceed, but he has (inexplicably) been granted political asylum by the government of Ecuador, and he is now holed-up at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, U.K. On Sunday, he made a speech from a balcony at the embassy in which he urged the United States to end its ‘witch hunt’ and condemned the imprisonment of Manning. I agree that the U.S. should end its WikiLeaks witch hunt . . . but Manning should indeed stand trial for his crimes, since he actually is bound by U.S. law and appears to have broken it. But what does any of this have to do with two Swedish women accusing Assange of sexual assault?
Assange is engaged in a campaign of misdirection. He’s standing on an Ecuadorian embassy balcony blathering about WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning, but that has nothing to do with the actual reason he faces extradition to Sweden . . . sexual assault. Go to Sweden, Mr. Assange, and face the music.
Update, August 20, 2012, 11:50 a.m.: This article originally stated that Assange has been accused of sexual assualt by two Swiss women and faces extradition to Switzerland. This is incorrect. Assange has been accused by two Swedish women and faces extradition to Sweden. The article has been corrected. I apologize for the error.