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Failing the test

December 8, 2010

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is in custody in the UK, over Swedish charges of sexual misconduct. Deutsche Welle's Matthias von Hein thinks the difficulties facing WikiLeaks and Assange reflect poorly on the US.

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Just as WikiLeaks publishes information that was meant to be secret or classified, so a seemingly private problem for the whistle-blowing website's founder, Julian Assange, has become a global political affair.

No one knows what really happened on those two August evenings in Sweden, but it's difficult to see the subsequent and diligent attempts to catch Assange by Swedish prosecutors as anything other than a part of the dogged US pursuit of WikiLeaks.

It's painful for a superpower to have to look on, powerless, as a small group publishes its secrets for the whole world to see. First, there were the revelations on the Afghan war, then the military log books from Iraq, and most recently the slew of diplomatic dispatches.

But this powerlessness has transformed into anger, and it's the display of anger - not the WikiLeaks files – that might cause the US to really lose face.

What did we really discover from the documents concerning the Afghan war? Little more than a confirmation of that which so many critics had already said - the situation in the country is rather dire.

Was there really anything written in the Iraq war diaries that forced us to fundamentally alter our perception of the conflict?

Of course it's more than a little irksome when US diplomats have to dedicate weeks of work primarily to damage limitation and issuing apologies, but has there really been any genuine, lasting damage?

Matthias von Hein
Matthias von Hein is a senior reporter for Deutsche Welle and an expert on China.Image: DW

The US image abroad is more likely to be damaged when Hillary Clinton blows "Cablegate" out of proportion, calling it "an attack on the international community," or when Assange is dubbed a traitor, terrorist, or hardened criminal.

The US really loses face when the online payment service PayPal blocks WikiLeaks' account, when Mastercard stops transferring donations to the whistle-blowing organization, and when the internet service provider Amazon suddenly stops hosting the website online.

Bear in mind that freedom of expression was the first amendment ever made to the US Constitution; at least in theory, the US places far greater emphasis on this right than many other democratic countries, including Germany.

Already, participants on Internet forums in China are asking just how committed the US really is to freedom of expression, considering its handling of the WikiLeaks case.

It's crucial to draw a distinct line between an employee stealing data and documents from a ministry or a business on the one hand, and an independent individual publishing such material to the wider world on the other.

Of course, the sheer volume of information released has transformed the modern-day concept of a "leak," but this increase in scale is also a logical consequence of technological progress. If it's true that a total of 800,000 people working for the US government have clearance to access the type of classified files published by WikiLeaks, then the appearance of such documents in the public sphere can hardly come as a surprise.

In ancient Greece, the bearer of bad or sensitive tidings was sometimes executed - but we're in the 21st century, and the world should have moved on.

As the world's superpower, the US is forever under pressure to show its quality - this crusade against Julian Assange is doing precisely the opposite.

Author: Matthias von Hein (msh)
Editor: Rob Turner