Only Al Capone Might Cry for WikiLeaks Editor: Margaret Carlson

Who would have thought the Swedes would do our dirty work?

For now, at least, Sweden has managed to curb the globetrotting publicity machine that is WikiLeaks founder and editor Julian Assange by charging him with sex-related crimes. Assange turned himself in to U.K. authorities to face the allegations.

It seems that at some point during two sexual encounters in Sweden with two different women on two different occasions, what was initially consensual became decidedly not so. In other words, no means no, even if it was preceded by a sexual act for which the answer was yes.

Assange’s British lawyer, Mark Stephens, asserted that the accusations, at worst, amounted to what’s sometimes called, in Sweden, “sex by surprise,” punishable by a $715 fine.

Law enforcement’s gotta do what it’s gotta do. Mobster Al Capone, you’ll recall, was nailed for tax evasion, not murder. As the Pentagon and Justice Department have learned, it may be difficult to try Assange in the U.S. under the creaky Espionage Act of 1917, unsuited to our Age of Wiki.

So sex allegations will have to do.

The charges against Assange do have a trumped-up feel, as though there’s a specifically worded law somewhere that prohibits Australian creeps from having sex in Sweden while releasing hundreds of thousands of documents on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This arrest should be accompanied by the admonition contained in the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore: Do not use in any other set of circumstances.

No Pulitzer Coming

Still, there’s been no discernable rush to Assange’s defense by civil libertarians and others of their ilk. Usually the press welcomes as heroes those who uncover government secrets. Bob Woodward’s most recent and justly praised book spits out classified information like a teletype machine. Daniel Ellsberg, the Harvard grad and former Marine who saw the government lying about the war in Vietnam and delivered cables showing the real facts, supplied it to the New York Times, which won a Pulitzer Prize for the Pentagon Papers.

I see no such honor for Assange, whose problems overshadow even the considerable ones Ellsberg and Woodward faced.

His supporters say this leak is like the Pentagon Papers in that it reveals the truth about war based on lies. That justification fails for a number of reasons, including how thoughtlessly indiscriminate Assange’s document dump was, how little useful light it shed on Iraq and Afghanistan beyond the awful truth we already know, and Assange’s indifference to collateral damage.

Naming Names

Allies he might have won are aghast that he didn’t take the easy step of redacting the names or the identifying details of Americans working in Iraq and Afghanistan who may now be in mortal danger. It’s telling that news organizations that have used the material supplied by Assange have scrubbed it of compromising details about which Assange has no qualms.

On display in Assange’s few interviews is a messianic sense of self-righteousness and a complete lack of conscience -- a combination to which the natural reaction is to want to pop him in his pouty mouth. Ellsberg wrestled publicly with what he’d done; I imagine that any sleep Assange loses is over how best to continue holding the world’s attention.

It’s hard to know what Assange is. He isn’t a reporter or publisher, with their deserved constitutional protections. He’s not the leaker. By most accounts, that’s U.S. Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, who was arrested in June, who could face decades in prison if convicted, and about whom Assange voices little concern.

New Role

Assange is the cyber-disseminator, about whom we have no laws. It would be beneficial for all involved to figure out how WikiLeaks does or doesn’t fit into the press’s quest for the truth.

Assange’s heroic luster is wearing thin even among his supporters. John Burns of the New York Times, one of the few journalists to spend time with Assange since he went into hiding, reported in October that some of his associates were abandoning him “for what they see as erratic and imperious behavior, and nearly delusional grandeur unmatched by an awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in flesh and blood.”

If Assange had released all the embarrassing diplomatic gossip, even exposed the Saudis playing both sides of the street, but blacked out information compromising real people, he would be closer to his self-image as an international man of mystery using the modern-day printing press to assist free societies.

He may be right when he says the sexual charges against him are political in nature. They’re also a pittance if, as many fear, his crusade against government secrecy results in real heroes getting killed.

Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.