In my most recent book, I reprint some words from a British Embassy cable, sent from Baghdad to the Foreign Office in 1976. The subject is Iraq’s new leader. His quiet coup d’etat is reassuringly described as “the first smooth transfer of power since 1958.” It is added, as though understatement were an official stylistic requirement in official prose, that although “strong-arm methods may be needed to steady the ship, Saddam will not flinch.” Admittedly, these words were used before the “smooth transfer” had been extended to include Saddam’s personally supervised execution of half the membership of the Baath Party. But Saddam already had a well-established addiction to violence and repression.*
I came across this cable after it had been declassified a few years ago, and I reprinted it because it very accurately reflected the tone of what I’d been told by British diplomats when I was visiting Iraq at the time. And I ask myself: What if I had been able to get my hands on that report when it was first written? Not only would I have had a scoop to my name, but I could have argued that I was exposing a political mentality that—not for the first time in the history of the British Foreign Office—chose to drape tyranny in the language of cliché and euphemism.
But what else, aside from this high-minded ambition (or ambitious high-mindedness), ought I to have considered? A democratically elected British Parliament had enacted an Official Secrets Act, which I could be held to have broken. Would I bravely submit to prosecution for my principles? (I was later threatened with imprisonment for another breach of this repressive law, and it was one of the reasons I decided to emigrate to a country that had a First Amendment.) The moral “other half” of civil disobedience, as its historic heroes show, is that you stoically accept the consequences that come with it. Then there is diplomacy itself. One of civilization’s oldest and best ideas is that all countries establish tiny sovereign enclaves in each other’s capitals and invest these precious enclaves of peaceful resolution with special sorts of immunity. That this necessarily includes a high degree of privacy goes without saying. Even a single violation of this ancient tradition may have undesirable unintended consequences, and we rightly regard a serious breach of it with horror. We found out everything we would ever need to know about Ayatollah Khomeini and his ideology when he took diplomats as hostages.
The cunning of Julian Assange’s strategy is that he has made everyone complicit in his own private decision to try to sabotage U.S. foreign policy. Unless you consider yourself bound by the hysterically stupid decision of the Obama administration to forbid all federal employees from downloading or viewing the WikiLeaks papers, you will at the very least have indulged in a certain amount of guilty pleasure. In a couple of major instances, the disclosures are of great value to the regime-change die-hards among us. More Arab regimes want Washington to take on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and more urgently than anyone had guessed; I would very much rather know this now than 20 years later. Iran was able to acquire some missile capacity from North Korea; so would Saddam Hussein have been if we had left him in his so-called “box.” We already know that his envoys were meeting North Korean missile dealers in Damascus before the threat of the coalition’s intervention caused the vendors to return hastily to Pyongyang. The latest leaks complete an important part of an important case.
As for the public’s right to know and the accountability of our covert or confidential agencies, it is only a short time since the entire American liberal consensus was witlessly applauding a clumsy and fruitless prosecution, directed entirely at the hopelessly overdramatized exposure of a relatively minor CIA official, married to a monster of conceit who makes Assange look bashful. It then turned out that Valerie Plame’s job description had been made public by Robert Novak and Richard Armitage, who also had in common with Assange a rooted opposition to the administration’s Iraq policy. Elements of the left and the right appear to have switched positions on full disclosure since then.
Attempts to prosecute Assange will, I predict, be either too little or too late, or both, or worse. There is a good reason the Espionage Act of 1917 has such a rusty and unused sound to it. It was a panic measure passed during a time of Wilsonian war hysteria, and none of its provisions will serve in the cyberworld. Meanwhile, the very word Interpol has been a laughing stock for decades in law-enforcement circles, and, though I find it easy to picture Assange as a cult leader indulging himself with acolytes, the sex charges against him don’t appear to amount to rape and have a trumped-up feel to them. They also give him an excuse to recruit sympathy and stay out of sight instead of turning himself in.
And that, of course, prosecution or no prosecution, is what he really ought to do. If I had decided to shame the British authorities on Iraq in 1976, I would have accepted the challenge to see them in court or otherwise face the consequences. I couldn’t have expected to help myself to secret documents, make myself a private arbiter of foreign policy, and disappear or retire on the proceeds. All you need to know about Assange is contained in the profile of him by the great John F. Burns and in his shockingly thuggish response to it. The man is plainly a micro-megalomaniac with few if any scruples and an undisguised agenda. As I wrote before, when he says that his aim is “to end two wars,” one knows at once what he means by the “ending.” In his fantasies he is probably some kind of guerrilla warrior, but in the real world he is a middle man and peddler who resents the civilization that nurtured him. This Monday, in two separate news reports, the New York Times described his little cabal as an “anti-secrecy” and “whistle-blowing” outfit. Such mush-headed approval at least can be withheld from the delightful Julian, even as we all help ourselves to his mart of ill-gotten goods.
Correction, Dec. 7, 2010: This article originally collapsed the dates of the transfer of power to Saddam Hussein and his execution of Baath Party members. (Return.)