Jacob Heilbrunn

Freedom for Julian Assange

Julian Assange is a free man again. He was released today by Britain's high court on bail of 240,000 pounds. This might be a new trend:  England took an Australian and imprisoned him. In the past they used to ship their convicts to Australia.

Sweden continues to hope to extradite Assange and try him on allegations of sexual crimes. But the American government, singed by the WikiLeaks revelations, livid at the exposure of its diplomats, wants to take him down as well. The eager beavers at the Justice Department are working overtime to concoct a case against Assange. According to a New York Times report,

Among materials prosecutors are studying is an online chat log in which Private Manning is said to claim that he had been directly communicating with Mr. Assange using an encrypted Internet conferencing service as the soldier was downloading government files. Private Manning is also said to have claimed that Mr. Assange gave him access to a dedicated server for uploading some of them to WikiLeaks.

Maybe the government can eventually put Assange on trial for conspiring with Private Manning, who is himself in the brig. But I continue to think it's a bad idea. And a silly one.

The only thing a trial will accomplish is to give Assange a fresh pulpit and turn him into a martyr. Already a petition is being circulated by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights defending Assange. The petition makes a simple but persuasive case that Assange shouldn't be censored. The case of Assange could become a huge and fresh sore point between America and Europe. It would be ironic if the Obama administration, in pursuing Assange, ended up reviving the kind of anger that existed toward America during the Bush years.

But there is also the question of effort versus payoff. Assange did no real damage to American foreign policy. At most he revealed that American diplomats can pen a tart sentence about foreign leaders, which is reassuring to learn. But the significance of the leaks has been exaggerated. Embarrassing? Yes. A disaster? Hardly. The truth, as George F. Kennan noted decades ago, is that the importance of government secrets is grossly overrated. Kennan observed that the average American could pretty much learn all there was to know about foreign affairs by reading the New York Times on a regular basis.

Time magazine already took the right path by making Mark Zuckerberg its person of the year. The Obama administration would be wiser to ignore Assange than to devote great efforts to hauling him into the dock. Anyway, he already has enough problems dealing with Sweden. For America to pursue Assange is heaping Pelion on Ossa. Doesn't Obama have better thing to do with his time?