As things stand, Assange has not committed a crime. We may believe that publishing classified information that is already in the public domain is a crime; we may think that making publicly available sensitive military information received from a whistleblower is a crime; we may hold that publishing information without checking its source is somehow a crime; we may suspect that a rape of two women has been committed in Sweden and that that makes him a criminal anyway. But, at the moment, the courts do not recognise any of this as a proven crime.
Assange’s whereabouts are known and he is on bail. He is not yet a criminal and he is not charged with any crime relating to Wikileaks. In fact, whistleblowing is a legitimate, non-criminal activity. I don’t know what happens in America, but many government organisations here have to spell out that they will not prosecute whistleblowers. And publishing the information received from whistleblowers is not necessarily criminal either, especially when, as in the Wikileaks case, it so blatantly didn’t affect national security and merely exposed the shocking over-classification of material and the enormous public expense needed to protect it.
So, gathering enormous amounts of data to try to find evidence of some criminal activity is extraordinary. The manpower to be used in collecting all this information and pains-takingly sifting through it will be an incredible drain on government resources. The cost to tax-payers of pursuing this is incalculable. But it goes further than that.
Every message to the Assange operation will be scrutinised too. I managed to restrain myself from writing to him saying, jolly good show, or whatever, but maybe you said something to him? There are at least 2m followers of Assange on Facebook and Twitter alone. But now I’ve commented here (I don’t remember whether I Tweeted about him), all my personal details will presumably be combed through. And what have I blogged about that might offend the US or UK Governments? And what crime will be found to prosecute me for my views? Or will ‘free speech’ prevail?
The only official comments on all this seem be that the trawl is part of ‘an ongoing criminal investigation’. There is no explanation of what the crime might actually be, although it seems as though retaliation, embarrassment about the leaked material and the resulting reluctance of other countries now to tell America anything confidential are the most important triggers for this obsessive reaction. And one official suggested that the subpoenaed material will help show where Assange has been and where his operations have been. Well, we know where he is and, except for making it possible to disrupt his operation (though it seems not to be illegal) or target his supporters (who don’t appear to have committed a crime), where he has been won’t contribute much to the investigation. Of course Assange is probably only the excuse. There are many more whose records will now be available for examination and we may eventually see prosecution orders made against others who have engaged in ‘anti-American’ activities. Normally, it would be illegal to gather evidence in this way without concrete reasons to suspect a criminal offence.
I suppose this might seem like the investigation of Al Capone, whom no one much seemed to mind being prosecuted for tax evasion, even though he was head of a mass murdering gang. But I don’t know that people feel the same way about Assange. He’s hardly a mass murderer. But there will be many of us whose normally private affairs will now be closely examined on the back of this ‘ongoing criminal investigation’. We might even turn out to have committed some offence. But, whatever you think about Assange, if we justify an entirely arbitrary trawl through our affairs to check whether any crimes have been committed, we have lost the freedom of the Internet and are one giant step nearer a Big Brother society, not just in America, but worldwide.. I wouldn’t have expected that from a liberal administration.