Rare Honesty About WikiLeaks and American Exceptionalism
Courtesy of Ben Wittes at Lawfare, responding to a question about whether he believes that, if America should be permitted to prosecute a non-American like Assange for disclosing American secrets, countries like France, China, or Iran should be able to prosecute Americans for disclosing their secrets (my emphasis):
This, in turn, leads ineluctibly to Tom’s reciprocity point: If Congress can make such a demand on Assange, the U.S. would be in a bad position to object if the Congress of People’s Deputies made a similar demand on the Washington Post. I actively want more Chinese secrets revealed against the will of the Chinese government. Indeed, were Wikileaks spending more of its time undermining authoritarianism and less of its time undermining democracies, I might admire it. And I would find outrageous efforts by foreign governments to require American news outlets to keep their secrets for them. I’m not against double standards in all circumstances, so it’s possible that the right answer here is hypocrisy: Doing what we need to do and objecting when other countries do the same. But I agree with Tom that the situation would be very awkward.
This is American exceptionalism in full bloom. Getting Chinese intelligence sources killed is fine. Destroying the ability of China to engage in diplomacy is fine. Not allowing China to prosecute those who undermine its national security is fine. Hypocritical and awkward, to be sure. But fine. Because China is an authoritarian state, while America is a democracy.
I could offer a substantive critique of this position, but why bother? If you believe that America is a shining beacon of freedom that should not be governed by the same rules that apply to the other 192 sovereign states in the world — or at least to those that don’t qualify on the Wittes scale as “democracies” — having a discussion about international law (or, for that matter, about any other kind of law) is completely pointless.
I don’t mean to pick on Wittes, who at least is willing to acknowledge that the double-standard means that Assange should probably be let off the hook for publishing American secrets. But statements like these need to be highlighted, because they reveal precisely the kind of uncritical celebration of American power that has led — and, left unchecked, will continue to lead — to the worst excesses of the war on terror.
POSTSCRIPT: To be clear, I support WikiLeaks’ work no matter which government is involved — China as well as America. And it is important to note that WikiLeaks has, in fact, also undermined “authoritarianism,” the best example being its exceptionally important work documenting extrajudicial killings in Kenya, which led to a major UN investigation and an Amnesty International Media (!) Award:
WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange has won the Amnesty 2009 New Media Award for work exposing hundreds of recent extrajudicial assassinations in Kenya. The award was presented last night at a ceremony in London.
Four people associated with investigating the killings have themselves been murdered, including noted human rights lawyers Oscar Kingara and John Paul Oulo, who were assassinated driving to an afternoon meeting at the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights in March.
WikiLeaks first ran its first story on the subject for a week on its front page, beginning November 1, 2008. Eventually the story was picked up by print media, starting with Jon Swain from the Sunday Times. Earlier this year the United Nations sent a team to Nairobi, lead by U.N. Special Rapporteur Prof. Alston, to investigate.
According to AFP, earlier today a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council was told by the Rapporteur that Kenya’s police were a “major stumbling block” for probes into the killings.
Prof. Alston also told that 47 member Human Rights Council on Wednesday that “Attacks on those who document abuses do not absolve a government of its obligation to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for extrajudicial executions,”.
In accepting the award, Mr. Assange stated “It is a reflection of the courage and strength of Kenyan civil society that this injustice was documented. Through the courageous work of organizations such as the Oscar foundation, the KNHCR, Mars Group Kenya and others we had the primary support we needed to expose these murders to the world. I know that they will not rest, and we will not rest, until justice is done.”
It is important not to forget that if America’s witch-hunt eventually succeeds in shutting down WikiLeaks, it’s not just the U.S. that will “benefit” — the Kenyas of the world will benefit, as well.