Julian Assange has all the makings of a 21st-century folk hero. He has single-handedly humiliated a great power by exposing its dark secrets and hypocrisies. He steals secrets from the rich and powerful and gives them away to benefit the rest of us. Lots of people want to take him out. But he's not cowed. Every day or two, he grants another interview from cyberspace. Now, he warns that he can unleash a devastating information bomb any time he wants.
There's just one problem with this heroic picture. Julian Assange has made the world a far more dangerous place.
"I am a former British diplomat," wrote one person in an online Q&A session with Mr. Assange the other day. "In the course of my former duties I helped to co-ordinate multilateral action against a brutal regime in the Balkans, impose sanctions on a renegade state threatening ethnic cleansing, and negotiate a debt relief program for an impoverished nation. None of this would have been possible without the security and secrecy of diplomatic correspondence … Diplomacy cannot operate without discretion and the protection of sources.
"In publishing this massive volume of correspondence, WikiLeaks is not highlighting specific cases of wrongdoing but undermining the entire process of diplomacy. … My question to you is: why should we not hold you personally responsible when next an international crisis goes unresolved because diplomats cannot function?"
For once, Mr. Assange had no answer.
No wonder lots of people think Mr. Assange should be taken out. Alas, it wouldn't make a difference if he were. The digital genie is out of the bottle. Any ultra-smart young hacker can steal top-secret information - and anyone can publish it. Not all of them are as discriminating as the editors of The New York Times, who only spill the secrets they deem to be of public interest. The information gatekeepers are gone. This is a liberating thing, we've been told. It's also a terrifying thing.
Some of the secrets that WikiLeaks has spilled deserved to be revealed. But the bigger story here is the new ability of thousands of unaccountable, independent actors to expose state (and corporate) secrets on a vast scale. This development is the digital equivalent of the IED. Their data bombs are cheap, plentiful and indiscriminately deadly.
Even Larry Sanger, a Wikipedia co-founder, believes Julian Assange is an enemy of the people. In a tweet to WikiLeaks last week, he said, "What you've been doing to us is breathtakingly irresponsible & can't be excused with pieties of free speech and openness." He blasted the idea that WikiLeaks is a positive force for openness and transparency, pointing out that a great deal of democratic government - especially matters dealing with privacy, public safety and defence - is necessarily conducted behind closed doors. Anyone who thinks this shouldn't be the case is dangerously naive.
Ironically, Mr. Assange doesn't really want to encourage free speech and openness. Just the opposite. His real aim, as he freely explains, is to paralyze the U.S. government, which he calls an "authoritarian conspiracy," by forcing the authorities to restrict the flow of information so severely that they themselves are rendered powerless. "It is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it's our goal to achieve a more just society," he says. "An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think efficiently cannot act to preserve itself."
So much for Julian Assange, folk hero. More like an information terrorist, with a sack of IEDs.