America’s War on Digital Media

October 2, 2012

War on WikiLeaksRecent media reports, based on declassified United States Air Force documents, depict a war between the United States government and online watchdog organization, WikiLeaks, and its supporters.  By classifying WikiLeaks, its leader Julian Assange, and the people associated with it as enemies of the United States, that war is literal, not merely figurative.  The declaration of war carries significant, troubling consequences.

Declassified Air Force documents indicate that the military specifically threatened certain Air Force personnel as a result of their alleged sharing of documents with WikiLeaks and with people associated with WikiLeaks.  The Air Force apparently threatened prosecution under the military code, and the proposed charge was “communications with the enemy.”

It is reported that the charges did not include any claims that the information was directly shared with any party other than WikiLeaks.  Accordingly, the allegations appear to be based on a U.S. government designation of WikiLeaks and the individuals associated with it as enemies of the United States.

This designation is, in effect, a declaration of war against WikiLeaks and the people who support it.  By identifying WikiLeaks as an enemy of the state, interaction with WikiLeaks is governed by the rules of war, not by U.S. civil and criminal laws.

Rules of war provide, of necessity, for actions and remedies that are far more extreme than conventional civil and criminal penalties.  For example, rules of war permit drastic action such as killing under certain circumstances.

By designating WikiLeaks and the people associated with it as enemies of the United States, it can be argued that the rules of war, not the conventional U.S. civil and criminal laws, are applicable to the organization and to the people who interact with it.

If WikiLeaks is an enemy of the state, Americans who interact with the organization could face penalties which include death.  Punishable interactions would likely include sharing of information with the organization or its associates.  They could also include providing funds or other support for the organization.

If these reports are accurate, it appears that a significant line has been crossed by the U.S. government.  Traditionally, leaking of government information has resulted, at most, in prosecution under criminal laws for illegal disclosure.  The U.S. government has not, in the past, designated specific media organizations as enemies of the state.

Declaration of war against WikiLeaks sets a bad precedent.  A nation, such as the United States, which purports to value freedom of speech and transparency in government, can not afford to treat media organizations as enemies of the state.

Conventional civil and criminal laws provide an entirely adequate set of tools for effective interaction with the media.  Application of the rules of war against media organizations represents government action which is both unnecessary and inconsistent with fundamental values of the United States.