Julian Assange, the Internet publicist and self-described advocate of transparency and open government, is edging perilously close to simple blackmail.
If he is detained by the authorities or they succeed in barring him from the Internet, he is threatening to release additional “insurance” files containing government and commercial secrets supposedly relating to Guantanamo Bay, BP and a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan in which civilians were killed.
One of the encrypted files is said to be protected by a 256-digit password. His many followers have downloaded the file from his Wiki-Leaks website; the assumption is that if he is arrested, the password will be released and major institutions such as the U.S. government will be in for a fresh round of embarrassment.
He has also taken the precaution of having allies establish several hundred “mirrors,” identical copies of his main website, which has migrated from country to country and is now hosted in Switzerland by a domain belonging to the fringe Swiss Pirate Party.
Led by the U.S., authorities are trying to cripple his organization. PayPal is no longer accepting donations for WikiLeaks; Web companies like Amazon.com are pulling it from their servers; the Swiss have closed his bank account there; and his websites have undergone denial-of-service attacks.
But these are not the most serious threats Assange, 39, faces. He is believed to be currently living in England, and Scotland Yard has a Swedish warrant for his arrest and a request for extradition on charges of rape and sexual molestation.
Assange has done two large document dumps. The first was thousands of classified documents dealing with the war in Afghanistan. Although they were technically secret, the documents mostly dealt with mundane military matters. A young Army private is now under arrest for that leak. A second and still-unexplained leak concerned classified diplomatic cables noteworthy for U.S. diplomats’ frank and unexpurgated views of foreign leaders.
Those leaks put the U.S. government in the awkward position of ordering its own employees not to read the cables on the Web or in the newspapers, on the grounds that even though the information was now public it was still classified.
Assange’s threat to release a large cache of classified material if the authorities interfere with him or WikiLeaks has to be taken seriously, if only because someday he may cause real harm.
In the meantime, the U.S. and other governments can only fall back on the Duke of Wellington’s pungent rejoinder to a would-be blackmailer: “Publish and be damned!”
Dale McFeatters is an editorial columnist with Scripps Howard News Service.