Sunday, December 19, 2010

As It Stands: Is Assange a Robin Hood trying to take the high road by thievery?

By Dave Stancliff/For the Times-Standard

Posted: 12/19/2010 01:28:25 AM PST

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange opened the 21st century version of Pandora's Box. He spread illegally obtained raw classified information on his website for the world to view. As a result, the journalism world may never be the same again.

WikiLeaks has exposed secrets about corruption in governments and corporations; embarrassing stuff that makes a good read, and some humanitarian issues that call for action.

So, who is this crusader for justice, this Robin Hood who leads his merry band of hackers and other followers on behalf of humanity? Should we trust the motives of this convicted computer hacker and alleged sex offender? If so, why? Because he's been the darling of hackers, anarchists, and international journalists since 2007, when he started WikiLeaks?

Assange recently turned himself in to British authorities and is currently out on bail awaiting extradition to Sweden for questioning about sexual misconduct with two Swedish women. Hardly a ringing endorsement for his character.

The question is, “How much good and bad has come of releasing those secret documents?” Assange claims he's a champion for truth. Whose truth would that be?

I question why he didn't hide the identities of Afghan informants in his revelation revolution. The Taliban picked right up on their names and promised to “punish them.” Make that murder them. Collateral damage? OK. At what point do these lives start counting?

Still, Assange has supporters. Recently, a loose-knit group of hackers who gather on the website under the name Anonymous called for cyber attacks against those who worked against him. They successfully attacked Mastercard, Visa, PayPal, the Swiss bank PostFinance, the Swedish government website and others who criticized or tried to shut down WikiLeaks.

These cyber attacks were called “Operation Payback” and “Operation Avenge Assange.” So far, the damage has been temporary. Innocent consumers have suffered financially from these retaliatory actions. More collateral damage.

 Which leads me to wonder, what's next if the British send Assange to Sweden and he's convicted of a crime? How will international hackers respond to that? After all, he's one of their own and used to go by the nickname “Mendax” -- a classical Latin word for “liar.”

He and two other hackers called themselves the “International Subversives” and regularly broke into the computer systems of some of America's most sensitive government installations, including nuclear weapon labs, before forming WikiLeaks. He's never made a secret of his hatred for the United States.

This is where it gets scary. Unknown, unorganized hackers have flexed their digital muscles in the name of Assange. Authorities can expect more trouble if things go bad for him. His followers threaten governments and corporations with impunity.

It's hard for me to believe that a so-called whistleblower organization involved in international espionage may change journalism for the better. In a recent MSNBC interview, Stephen I. Vladeck, a law professor at American University, said, “It's quite clear that the Espionage Act applies on its face regardless of whether the individual who is distributing classified information is the initial thief or an intermediary.”

That initial thief, Pfc. Bradley E. Manning, is no hero. He's been arrested and charged with the unauthorized use and disclosure of U.S. classified information. Spreading that information on WikiLeaks makes Assange a co-conspirator in the theft.

I'm having a hard time joining some of my peers who still support Assange. Someone who provides a website for the dissemination of raw data is not an editor or reporter in my book. Even calling him a whistleblower is misleading, because he's pursuing a personal agenda against the United States.

According to numerous media reports, Assange is leading a troubled life. His wife and child left him. He lost his main supporter and confidant, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who is launching a rival website called “OpenLinks” which promises to be more transparent than WikiLeaks.

Is WikiLeaks a real journalistic organization devoted to truth and the betterment of mankind? Is Assange a modern-day Robin Hood stealing information for the masses? Or is WikiLeaks just a gathering of computer hackers, self-avowed humanitarians and assorted disgruntled individuals all pursuing personal agendas against the established governments of the world?

As It Stands, before people try to make Assange a legend, it might be a better idea to see how his story plays out.

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