The founder of Wikileaks is a spy? That's what Sarah Palin says. But that makes me a spy, too. I don't agree. I'm a journalist. And what Julian Assange is doing is a form of journalism: He is publishing the news.
If you're like most people, you think that journalists are liars and lackeys, spouting “news” that is barely credible, bent by the profit of the big interests that run the media. (That's what the Pew Center's surveys tell us.) This time, the political class is complaining because a website and its allies in the press are publishing information that is absolutely credible. Has publishing the truth become a crime?
Let's be clear on a key technical matter: You don't have to be a spy to obtain such information. Sometimes looking at things that aren't secret tells you where to find the secret. (That's how the real spies usually work.) Sometimes the information is simply left, by mistake, where someone can grab it. And very often, someone gives it to you.
No one seems to be asking the question, but it is central to this firestorm: Why would someone - especially someone who works, say, for the government or a big bank - do such a thing? Why would they give away the secrets of the institutions they work for?
There are two main reasons that people talk: pride (“Yes, we can!”) and pain (“No, we can't”). Of the two, pain is by far the stronger motivator. You will tell your doctor things that you might not tell your best friend. And some people in our governments know the kind of things that can make you sick just thinking about them.
Why tell such things to a journalist? Because when you know a dirty secret, it eats you up. The only way to feel better is to tell someone, and the best cure is to tell someone who can tell the world. The dream is that telling the truth will put an end to the dirty secret, and we can go back to doing our jobs as if we believed in them.
This is the real secret that Wikileaks has so stunningly recalled to view: Some of the people in our own governments are so disgusted by what they must know, see and do to keep their jobs that they will tell someone else about it. They want certain ways of doing business to stop, and they don't believe that any other means can be effective.
But why did they go to Wikileaks instead of a newspaper in the first place? Because they lost confidence in the news media. It was not so long ago that when people were revolted by what they saw happening, they went to journalists. Now, people trust us so little that they give the news that matters to a website. The success of Wikileaks is a terrible comment on the news industry.
But it would be even worse for journalists if Wikileaks did not exist, because it is proving that if we do our jobs as we are supposed to, and listen to what people want to tell us, we can indeed make it much more difficult for certain things to continue, things that should never have happened in the first place.
Will we do that job even if we can be charged with espionage? I doubt it. And that is no doubt one of the forces driving the controversy over Wikileaks: If charges can be made to stick against Assange, they can be made to stick against any reporter who publishes similar news.
There is no doubt in my mind that a good number of the people screaming for Assange's head would like the news media either to go away, or to function as a docile servant of the powers that be. Of course a society can exist without watchdog media, and many do. But those are generally awful places to live, except for the people who own them.
If the government has secrets, let it try to keep them. Any adult understands that running an organization may require its leaders to lie from time to time. But the job and duty of journalists is to expose those lies and their consequences. Julian Assange has shown that one does not need to be a journalist to help. That does not make him a spy.
Hounding Assange and criminalizing whistleblowers will do far more damage to democracy than a pack of scribes and hackers ever could. You don't need to be a spy to guess that secret. The people screaming for Assange's blood are the architects and allies of disastrous policies that are being rejected even within the government. They are trying to conceal their failure, and Wikileaks is the proof that they failed. It must not be silenced, and journalists should be the first to know it.