Exposing War Crimes Is a Public Service, Not a Criminal Act

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange makes a statement to the media and supporters at a window of Ecuadorian Embassy in central L
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange makes a statement to the media and supporters at a window of Ecuadorian Embassy in central London, Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012. Julian Assange entered the embassy in June in an attempt to gain political asylum to prevent him from being extradited to Sweden, where he faces allegations of sex crimes, which he denies. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

As the drama around Julian Assange's fate came to a climax last week with Ecuador's decision to grant him political asylum, it is important to remember not just the threat to Assange that led to his asylum petition, but the threat to our democracy itself that the U.S.'s determination to prosecute -- or persecute -- him represents.

Assange is the publisher of Wikileaks, a website and journalistic endeavor dedicated to exposing government secrecy. It is an aggressive, often uncomfortable embodiment of what Americans for generations have held dear as their most cherished right: the freedom of the press. From the architects of the Bill of Rights to some of the nation's most important Supreme Court cases, this right has held a special place in our understanding of what it means to be a free people and live in a free society. Without a free press, our collective watchdog, proving transparency and, when necessary, exposing wrongdoing, our democracy is compromised and crippled.

In 2010, Wikileaks began to publish hundreds of thousands of U.S. State Embassy cables and army field reports. As I have noted in previous blog posts, here and here, what these documents revealed -- like the Pentagon Papers a generation ago -- underscores the very need for institutions like Wikileaks.

Wikileaks showed us the horrors of war that our government has carried out in our name. Revelations from the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs detailed the use of paramilitary death squads, complicity in the torture of Iraqi citizens, the indiscriminate killing of civilians by private military contractors and many other abuses. Meanwhile, the leaked State Department cables brought to light scores of secret drone strikes in countries we are not even at war with, and uncovered the collusion between the U.S. and Yemini governments to lie about American responsibility for the massacre of 41 people in the Al-Majalah region. They also revealed U.S. interference with judicial efforts in Spain to investigate the Bush administration's torture practices. In Tunisia, leaks exposing the opulence and corruption of Ben Ali's government were a catalyst for the revolution that brought down the repressive regime and ignited other pro-democracy movements throughout the Arab world. The list could go on but the point is simple: it would have been a disservice to democracy to withhold this important information.

What a tragic irony then, that ten years after the Bush administration's "torture memos," it is people like Assange and Bradley Manning, the alleged leaker of the documents whose pre-trial treatment has been "reminiscent of the worst abuses at Guantánamo" and whose trial is currently unfolding without any public or media access to the proceedings, who have to fear persecution for bringing these abuses to our attention, while those responsible are granted immunity from prosecution. Constitutional government need not applaud the leaking of documents it means to keep private, but it is its duty to the people to protect their right to know what is being done in their name. In this case, that means not criminalizing organizations like Wikileaks or punishing individuals like Julian Assange for revealing precisely that.

The right to free press is essential to a functioning democracy. Wikileaks is a litmus test of this most important of rights. Where is the power of the fourth branch if it cannot expose the lies and crimes of the national security elites that rule our country? How can we have a free press if we threaten journalists and publishers with dire consequences for exercising that right?

Wikileaks gave us plenty of uncomfortable truths that we, as Americans, must take responsibility for. Let us start by not letting our government shoot the messenger.