18 Dec Ben Wittes and American Exceptionalism
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.
As I noted in my post, Ben believes — reluctantly — that it is probably not a good idea to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act for revealing government secrets, because he would not want Americans prosecuted by countries like China for revealing their secrets. Ben claims that this means he was making an argument against American exceptionalism, but I disagree. Ben’s post clearly indicates that he is not opposed to double-standards in principle, even concerning Assange; his objection to using the Espionage Act to prosecute Assange is purely pragmatic, based on the idea that openly embracing the position that only the US should be permitted to prosecute non-citizen leakers (i.e., American exceptionalism) would be “awkward.” I don’t see how that counts as an argument against exceptionalism; even the most uncritical cheerleader of US hegemony (which Ben manifestly is not) will occasionally conclude that openly holding the US and other countries to different standards is counterproductive to US interests. Making that pragmatic call is not the same as rejecting American exceptionalism; rejecting exceptionalism requires accepting, as a matter of principle, that the US should hold itself to the same standards as other countries even if double-standards would in no way harm US interests.
More importantly, though, my claim that Ben’s post reflected American exceptionalism was not directed at his discussion of the Espionage Act. Despite his view of that act, Ben is not opposed to prosecuting Assange and shutting down WikiLeaks; not only did he end his post by claiming that the “sex crimes case in Sweden is looking better and better as way of neutralizing Assange,” he has previously stated that he harbors “no small sympathy” for “prosecuting Assange and shutting down WikiLeaks.” I presume that is because he believes WikiLeaks’ disclosures have harmed America’s national security, put American intelligence assets at risk, and made America’s diplomatic efforts more difficult. Yet, as the quote above makes clear, Ben has no problem with the idea of WikiLeaks’ disclosing Chinese secrets, even if doing so would harm China’s national security, put Chinese intelligence assets at risk, and complicate China’s diplomatic efforts. Indeed, he “actively want[s]” those secrets revealed and admits that he might even “admire” WikiLeaks if it revealed them. Perhaps I’m wrong, but Ben thus seems to believe both (1) that Assange should be prosecuted and WikiLeaks shut down for revealing US secrets, and (2) that prosecuting Assange and shutting down WikiLeaks would not be warranted if WikiLeaks had only revealed Chinese secrets.
How is that not American exceptionalism?