I know I'm not going to be popular burning this particular bridge, but as news comes out about Assange both claiming intellectual copyright on wikileaks, and enabling the persecution (or worse) of dissidents in one of the few remaining Stalinist states in Europe, let me say: Julian, J'Accuse.
This is nothing to do with potential rape charges, or the appeal he still has with the British Supreme court about his extradition. It has nothing to do with the wikileaks data dump of Pentagon and Embassy files, which doesn't seem to have the horrendous effect predicted. It also has nothing to do with the court martial of Bradley Manning, nor indeed the treatment (cruel to my mind) he seems to have received while held by the DOD. It has to do with his insouciance about the people exposed through his actions, and even more to do with whom he exposes them too.
Personal disclosure first. My judgement about Assange is highly coloured by a friend of mine, the sterling UK based American investigative journalist Heather Brooke, who exposed the MPs expenses scandal here, and is one of our great promoters of transparency and open government. She worked with Assange on the Guardian's (selected) wikileaks release. If she now thinks he has gone beyond the pale - I trust her, and he has.
Heather linked recently to a New Statesman article which exposed how wikileaks dealt directly with the autocratic Belarus Government in Minsk, one of Europe's few surviving dictatorships:
In December 2010, Israel Shamir, a WikiLeaks associate and an intimate friend of Julian Assange -- so close, in fact, that he outed the Swedish women who claim to be victims of rape and sexual assault by Assange -- allegedly travelled to Belarus with a cache of unredacted American diplomatic cables concerning the country. He reportedly met Lukashenko's chief of staff, Vladimir Makei, handed over the documents to the government, and stayed in the country to "observe" the presidential elections.
When Lukashenko pronounced himself the winner on 19 December 2010 with nearly 80 per cent of the vote, Belarusians reacted by staging a mass protest. Lukashenko dispatched the state militia. As their truncheons bloodied the squares and streets of the capital, Minsk, Shamir wrote a story in the American left-wing journal Counterpunch extolling Lukashenko ("The president of Belarus ... walks freely among his people"), deriding the dictator's opponents ("The pro-western 'Gucci' crowd", Shamir called them), and crediting WikiLeaks with exposing America's "agents" in Belarus ("WikiLeaks has now revealed how... undeclared cash flows from the U.S. coffers to the Belarus 'opposition' ").
The following month, Soviet Belarus, a state-run newspaper, began serializing what it claimed to be extracts from the cables gifted to Lukashenko by WikiLeaks. Among the figures "exposed" as recipients of foreign cash were Andrei Sannikov, a defeated opposition presidential candidate presently serving a five-year prison sentence; Oleg Bebenin, Sannikov's press secretary, who was found dead in suspicious circumstances months before the elections; and Vladimir Neklyayev, the writer and former president of Belarus PEN, who also ran against Lukashenko and is now under house arrest.
Did Assange at this point repudiate Shamir or speak up against Lukashenko? No. Instead he upbraided Ian Hislop for publishing an article in the Private Eye that exposed Shamir as a Holocaust denier and white supremacist. There was, he claimed, a "conspiracy" against him by "Jewish" journalists at the Guardian. Addicted to obedience from others and submerged in a swamp of conspiracy theories, Assange's reflexive reaction to the first hint of disagreement by his erstwhile friends was to hold malign Jews responsible.
His subsequent attempts to distance himself from Shamir were undermined when James Ball, a former WikiLeaks staffer, revealed that not only did Assange authorise Shamir's access to the cables -- how else could he have got hold of the documents from this impenetrably secretive organisation consecrated to transparency? -- he also stopped others from criticising Shamir even after news of his Belarusian expedition became public.
Another personal disclosure. I'm a regular visitor to Poland, and have connections to several dissident Belarus groups (through relatives) who have been persecuted, imprisoned and repressed by Lukashenko in the last 15 years. That more could be outed and endangered by Shamir and Assange puts the organisation of wikileaks beyond the pale.
I believe in transparency and openness. But I also know that knowledge is power. Perhaps Assange provides a service to well connected internet savvy people in some countries when they want to take on their autocrats, but naivete is no excuse for simultaneously revealing the secrets of persecuted minorities.
And if you're still in doubt about the character and motivations of Assange, perhaps read the Guardian book WIKILEAKS: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy. There you'll see he not only betrays Nick Davies, the wonderful investigative journalist who - against all the odds of police and political pressure and corporate coverup - exposed the Hackgate scandal and brought down Murdoch's News International - he also told David Leigh about Afghani informants being in danger:
Assange initially rejected pleas to redact documents to protect sources. At an early meeting with international reporters in a restaurant he told them: " 'Well, they're informants,' he said. 'So, if they get killed, they've got it coming to them. They deserve it.' There was, for a moment, silence around the table."
The bridge was smouldering then. It's burnt now