As the U.S. charges WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange of conspiring to hack a computer as part of the 2010 release of secret American documents, we ask former senior British Intelligence Officer and Director Cyber Advisory at ITC Secure, Malcolm Taylor what is next for Assange and for whistleblowers?
The arrest of Assange will bring into relief the whistleblower; is journalism dead? My judgement is that this will be a key part of the story of the case but it will blow over; when or if Snowden comes back, or is arrested, will be the whistleblowing event of our lifetime.
Assange is also understandably tainted by the situation in Sweden, and his hiding in the embassy has damaged him in the eyes of the public. I am not sure it is wise for those championing free speech to attach themselves too closely to him, and nor actually do I think it necessarily wise for the government to go after him, beyond of course simply justice.
I also doubt whether any case like this will necessarily discourage whistleblowing; say what you like about Snowden but in some senses what he did was brave and probably built upon a genuine sense of principle – misguided or not. I do believe that when someone sees injustice, sufficient to blow the whistle, then they will go ahead and blow!
For me, the way to prevent this kind of issue is by preventing it from happening in the first place; give people an outlet, treat them well, discuss difficult issues, listen.
Assange has been arrested in the UK for allegedly breaching his bail in Sweden, however it’s no surprise that the US have already moved to charge him with breaching the US Computer Misuse Act.
The substance of the charge is the allegation that he assisted, and persuaded, Chelsea Manning to unlawfully access SIPR and leak sensitive US Defence Department documents; the substance of the Wikileaks Cables.
Equally it is not a surprise that Edward Snowden, and others associated with him, have already sprung to his defence and there has been a mobilisation of journalistic voices in his defence; that is, “journalism is under attack”.
This was always going to be a political arrest, based on simply the length of time he has spent living under diplomatic protection in the embassy in London and in full public view.
This is made even more acute in some eyes by the US charges; the arrest will quickly become a cause celebre for advocates of free speech, journalists and others, against a backdrop of growing concerns about populist, nationalist politicians and their policies. It is not a risk free arrest, in other words, and perhaps particularly so in the US.
It brings in to play big government, the spread of Federal agencies and agency, and it risks re-opening the Snowden-era concerns around state spying and intrusion into the private lives of US citizens. All complicated, of course, by the lack of mention in any of the charges of the leaking of Candidate Clinton’s emails during the 2016 campaign.
Is Assange a terrorist?
I am sure attempts will be made to paint Assange as effectively a “terrorist” who has endangered lives. I’m not sure that will be an easy charge to make stick; Snowden, after all, just about divided US opinion 50-50; that is, 50% saw him as a traitor and 50% as a hero calling out the Federal Government (which contrasts sharply with views in the UK which were much less supportive of him).
We should not forget that Assange is also an effective publicist. Expect a difficult and bitter case fought out in public, and with vocal champions on all sides. I can see that the US government will from time to time have cause for regret this charge, and may come to wish they’d left him in the charge of the Ecuadorians.
As might the UK; did it arrest him for Sweden, or for the US? That isn’t yet clear but the actions the UK takes next will be key, and may define this whole event.