Jonah Goldberg: Why Isn’t Julian Assange Dead?

Jonah Goldberg has written a bad column. In this case, an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune headlined "Why is Assange still alive?"

The blogosphere is today aghast that Jonah Goldberg has written a bad column.    In this case, an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune headlined “Why is Assange still alive?

I’d like to ask a simple question: Why isn’t Julian Assange dead?

In case you didn’t know, Assange is the Australian computer programmer behind WikiLeaks, a massive — and massively successful — effort to disclose secret or classified information. In a series of recent dumps, he unveiled thousands upon thousands of classified documents from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Military and other government officials insist that WikiLeaks is doing serious damage to American national security and is going to get people killed, including brave Iraqis and Afghans who’ve risked their lives and the lives of their families to help us.

Even Assange agrees. He told the New Yorker earlier this year that he fully understands innocent people might die as a result of the “collateral damage” of his work and that WikiLeaks may have “blood on our hands.” WikiLeaks is easily among the most significant and well-publicized breaches of American national security since the Rosenbergs gave the Soviets the bomb.

So again, I ask: Why wasn’t Assange garroted in his hotel room years ago?

DougJ, Glenn Greenwald, and Big Tent Democrat (Armando Llorens) say that Goldberg is advocating assassination and authoritarian tendencies.  And shocked that a major newspaper would publish something so horrible. We live in a democracy, damn it, and we don’t kill people!  Especially people who have committed no crimes.

Armed Liberal (Marc Danziger) bothered to keep reading, however, and realized that Goldberg had merely written a stinker:   “Now there’s a much better post buried in there, which is a variant of the “if we’re living in such a fascist state why aren’t you in a gulag?” argument I make to people like Glenn Greenwald and my more hysterical friends.”  Alas, “the plain reading of Jonah’s words is that he’d be quite happy if Assange showed up facedown in his bathtub one morning.”

Indeed, that buried post is clearly the column Goldberg intended to write:

In almost every corner of the popular culture, there are people who assume incredible competence on the part of our intelligence agencies. We take it as a given that spooks can, in the immortal words of Elvis, take care of business in a flash. In the Jason Bourne movies, say the wrong word into your cell phone, and assassins will find you at the train station in minutes. In “Rubicon,” if you pay too close attention to crossword puzzles, your train will be “accidentally” derailed. In “Three Days of the Condor,” if you ask your bosses the wrong question, a postman with an ice-bullet-shooting machine gun will pay you a visit.

Of course, that’s just Hollywood.

[…]

I know there are many solid answers to my question. For starters, the world isn’t nearly so dramatic as novelists, bloggers, self-important journalists and nostalgic former spies often claim it is. The main reason the U.S. government didn’t bring down the World Trade Center on 9/11 is that no one has the ability to pull off a conspiracy like that. And the people who come closest — i.e., those very same spies — are too decent and patriotic even to imagine trying.

Indeed, most of the documents from WikiLeaks debunk the vast majority of conspiracy theories that fueled so much idiocy on the left for the last decade. No sinister plots involving Halliburton or Israel have been exposed — because they only existed in the fevered fantasies of some coffee-shop dissidents.

Second, Assange is essentially hiding behind his celebrity and the fact that it wouldn’t do any good to kill him, given the nature of the Web. Even if the CIA wanted to take him out, they couldn’t without massive controversy. That’s because assassinating a hipster Australian Web guru as opposed to a Muslim terrorist is the kind of controversy no official dares invite.

That’s fine. And it’s the law. I don’t expect the U.S. government to kill Assange, but I do expect them to try to stop him. As of now, the plan seems to be to do nothing at all.

It’s an incredibly convoluted column.   Were I the editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune, I would have rejected it– or at least sent it back for a major rewrite.   But Goldberg is saying that, contrary to the popular fantasy of our clandestine service as engaged in all manner of illegal activities — killing citizens outside the Constitution in order to save it — we’re a nation of laws.   And, while Assange is a certifiable scumbag, we don’t go around murdering people who haven’t committed crimes.

As to Goldberg’s closing sentence, it’s nonsense.  The objective isn’t to stop Assange — who is under no obligation to safeguard America’s secrets — but rather to stop people trusted with classified information from violating their sacred trust.   We’re vigorously prosecuting leakers and working to add further checks into the system to make mass theft difficult.

As usual, we’re behind the curve, reacting to an obvious-in-hindsight problem after the damage has been done.   At cyberwar conference at the Naval War College I attended last month, an FBI analyst pointed out that, in the days Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen were committing treason by selling classified information to the Soviets, their acts involved stealing paper documents or photographing files.  It was slow, treacherous work.   Now, a 19-year-old kid with a GED and a thumb drive can steal more information in minutes than both those men did together over a period of years.

The good news, thankfully, is that they tend to steal large volumes of largely worthless raw intelligence rather than the finished product.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Media,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. steve says:

    Assange is not a US citizen. He has no obligation to keep this stuff secret. You are correct, we need to stop the leakers. However, I do find myself a bit conflicted here. I think that government always has the desire to keep more stuff secret and classified than is needed. A good deal of that is to avoid revealing mistakes and oversights. When you lose track of a few thousand guns or a few million dollars, you dont want the public to know about it. When you accidentally shot civilians rather than insurgents, you would rather that information never come to light. Without knowledge of the true facts and costs of war, it makes it more easy to promote war. We desperately need some way to let the public know what our government is doing in our name, that is not controlled by the government itself.

    Steve

  2. Stan says:

    I’ve wondered if some of the stuff Assange publicized was leaked by the Obama administration under the assumptions a) that it would get out anyway sooner or later, b) having WikiLeaks publish something insures that 90% of the US population won’t believe it, and c) even if the public does believe it, most of the really awful things in the leaked documents reflect more on the Bush adminsitration than on Obama’s.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I typically find Mr. Goldberg’s columns to be pretty unreadable. I don’t seem to be the target audience.

    I struggled through a half dozen sentences and then gave up on this one. He doesn’t ask the real question: if this stuff is so secret why is it coming out? Clearly, people are being granted clearances that shouldn’t have them, that doesn’t give me a feeling of overwhelming confidence in our security apparatus, and silencing Mr. Assange would do nothing to bolster it.

  4. Brummagem Joe says:

    I’m afraid Mr Goldberg rather confirms the acuity of Harry Truman’s comments on intensely nationalistic members of the Jewish faith. I’ve no doubt he wrote this rather unsavory rubbish to attract attention to himself rather as Gawker ran that that rather unsavory little story about O’Donnell’s sexual escapades which is causing Doug to get excited.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Clearly, people are being granted clearances that shouldn’t have them, that doesn’t give me a feeling of overwhelming confidence in our security apparatus

    This stuff is merely “SECRET” or even “NATO SECRET” level intel. Everyone in the armed services has to have that level of clearance and the screening process is pretty minimal. Basically, unless there are glaring red flags — in which case you wouldn’t be in the military, anyway — you get the clearance.

    This is operational level stuff. Mostly, situation reports generated by the same kind of people who are doing the leaking. It’s just that the latter have some ax to grind and there’s no way to know that until too late.

  6. ponce says:

    “And, while Assange is a certifiable scumbag, we don’t go around murdering people who haven’t committed crimes.”

    I think there are thousand and thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghanis who would disagree with you.

  7. James Joyner says:

    I think there are thousand and thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghanis who would disagree with you.

    There have been perhaps a handful of Iraqis murdered by Americans. And we prosecute them when we discover their crimes.

  8. ponce says:

    “There have been perhaps a handful of Iraqis murdered by Americans. And we prosecute them when we discover their crimes.

    Imagine how many more murder trials American military personnel would face if the victims of our mindless and poorly executed aggression were the ones who got to decide what was and what wasn’t murder.

  9. sam says:
  10. anjin-san says:

    Tell me James, if you were a citizen of Iraq, minding your own business, and your wife/mother/child was killed in the “shock and awe” bombings, what would you call it?

  11. Mercer says:

    Goldberg is more upset by WikiLeaks then he was by the terrible state Iraq was in from 2003-2007. It is hard for me to see how Assange has harmed the US in the slightest compared to the mess in Iraq since 2003. Goldberg did not complain about Bush and Rumsfeld’s handling of Iraq because they were conservative republicans thus should be exempt from harsh criticism even though they were responsible for the welfare of the US military unlike Assange. Assange is not a fellow GOP conservative so Goldberg feels free to vent at him and even hint that he should be assassinated. This column shows how ideological tribalism can lead to a muddled set of moral values.

  12. wr says:

    James — Do you consider Israelis killed by Palestinian rocket attacks to be murder victims? If so, why aren’t Iraqi civillians killed when we rained bombs down on them?

  13. James Joyner says:

    Do you consider Israelis killed by Palestinian rocket attacks to be murder victims? If so, why aren’t Iraqi civillians killed when we rained bombs down on them?

    Sure.

    Because Iraqi civilians killed by American bombs are collateral damage by a state actor conducting war and attacking legitimate combatant targets while taking extraordinary measures to prevent innocent deaths. Palestinian terrorists, by contrast, are criminals intentionally targeting civilians.

  14. ponce says:

    “Because Iraqi civilians killed by American bombs are collateral damage by a state actor conducting war and attacking legitimate combatant targets while taking extraordinary measures to prevent innocent deaths. Palestinian terrorists, by contrast, are criminals intentionally targeting civilians.”

    It’s funny the rationalization some people cling to.

    It’s not “collateral damage” when you know civilians are going to die before you pull the trigger.

    It’s murder.

    What a shameful and disgusting period this is for the U.S. military.

  15. James Joyner says:

    It’s not “collateral damage” when you know civilians are going to die before you pull the trigger. It’s murder.

    There’s roughly four centuries of theology, philosophy, and jurisprudence that disagrees with you.

  16. mannning says:

    Seems to me that just about any war contains oceans of murder on both sides, “collateral” or not.
    Nothing new there at all, ponce. There is no such thing as a pure war with no collateral deaths, or, if you will, murders. Being against war is an honorable position, but it is a forelorne hope that war will disapper. It is an easy prediction that the US will fight more wars; just be thankful that we are better at it than our opposition most of the time, keep the troops and resources to handle war ready at hand, and use ROE’s that are far more humane than the run of the mill army.

  17. Ben Wolf says:

    War is state sanctioned murder. Now you may make excuses for it, you may turn to ancient law and theology to justifiy it, but war is simply the ending of lives to achieve a political or economic end. The only war that in the end might be “acceptable” is war waged in absolute defense, but even the defender still murders the aggressor, whether the dead are soldiers or civilians.

    The human capacity to rationalize brutality and justify doing what WE KNOW IS WRONG, never ceases to astound me. But everyone likes to think their hands are clean, I suppose.

  18. Because Iraqi civilians killed by American bombs are collateral damage by a state actor conducting war and attacking legitimate combatant targets while taking extraordinary measures to prevent innocent deaths. Palestinian terrorists, by contrast, are criminals intentionally targeting civilians.
    Do Americans ever beg the question, or is that something else only Palestinians are doing?

  19. An Interested Party says:

    “…Jonah Goldberg has written a bad column.”

    In other news of the day, the sun rose in the east and set in the west…

    Meanwhile, if only the Palestinians would declare themselves state actors and conduct an official war against Israel doing their very very best to go after only military targets, then any civilians they happen to kill can be cheerfully described as “collateral damage”…problem solved…

  20. Ben Wolf says:

    I don’t know Stormy. Does it really make a difference to the victims whether they were intentionally targeted? They’re just as dead.

  21. @Ben Wolf:

    The “Because Iraqi civilians killed by American bombs are collateral damage by a state actor conducting war and attacking legitimate combatant targets while taking extraordinary measures to prevent innocent deaths. Palestinian terrorists, by contrast, are criminals intentionally targeting civilians.” part of my entry was a quote from James Joyner. OTB, for some reason, can’t decide how they’re going to handle “blockquote” tags from day to day. Today, apparently, they’re silently deleting them.

    My only actual comment was the “Do Americans ever beg the question, or is that something else only Palestinians are doing?”

  22. Brummagem Joe says:

    According to Jim’s version of events the roughly 150,000 Iraqis killed had nothing whatever to do with our invasion and destabilization of the country. Yeah right Jim, we were just standing on the street corner when all this “bad stuff” accidentally happened. Even when we bring prosecutions as in the case of blatant murder like those of 23 civilians by the blackwater people the US legal system lets them escape scot free. It’s ugly however much lipstick Jim wants to apply to this particular pig.

  23. Trueofvoice says:

    Stormy,

    I wasn’t challenging you, just asking if there was a flaw in my thinking.

  24. David N says:

    Calls for international

    It has been many years and US military is still in Afghanistan and Iraq. To help soldiers call back to the US from military bases, we have special phone cards at http://www.zscomm.com Soldiers and military can use the phone cards like Diamond, Edge and more to call back to US from Iraq and Afghanistan for cheaper rates.