Back in 2010, Wikileaks was at the peak of its power and influence. The release of the Collateral Murder video, of the Afghanistan logs, and of the US diplomatic cables have to be seen as the zenith of the struggle between the Internet and the world powers. Although I was always concerned about the Wikileaks governance structure and decision-making process, I have always remained a supporter of the idea and of its ideal. Openness is better than secrecy, and as I commented back then, I would rather live in a world that has Wikileaks, than live in one that does not.
But also in 2010, the seeds of Wikileaks trouble were planted by its founder and front-man, one Mr Julian Assange. The equating of Assange with Wikileaks has always been a disturbing aspect of the site, and it makes it easy for opponents and naysayers to attack Wikileaks by focusing on the man and not on the principle. It is perfectly possible to strongly support Wikileaks and everything that it stands for, and at the same time believe that Assange has been instrumental in the site’s slow decline.
There is a lot of speculation about what happened in Sweden in August 2010. What is a matter of record, and everyone involved agrees with, is that Assange arrived in Sweden on 11 August 2010 to give some presentations, and during that visit he had sex with two women who later initiated a chain of events that concluded with the Swedish Prosecutor’s Office issuing an arrest warrant for Assange for sexual offences. The actual details of those encounters are not clear, and while the two women make accusations of non-consensual acts, Assange strongly denies them. There is no doubt that some of the details surrounding the warrant seem very suspicious, and the subsequent placement of Assange in Interpol’s equivalent of the Most Wanted List is completely disproportionate (as of writing, Assange is on the front page of Interpol’s website). It is also clear that Assange is justified in fearing extradition to the US. However, all of that is irrelevant. He was accused of a serious crime in Sweden. We may argue whether this warrant was justified, whether it was politically motivated, or even whether it was part of a far-fetched CIA plot to bag Assange; even if any of those accusations were true, that would not erase the fact that Assange should have dealt with the charges in Sweden.
Regardless of all other questions dealing with crooked Swedish politicians and accusations of subservience to the US, the simple fact is that, irrespective of the veracity of the allegations, Assange is at the very least guilty of monumental stupidity and of a serious lack of judgement. In August 2010 he was in the middle of slapping US power and performing actions that undoubtedly carry criminal sentences in several countries. He was already in advanced stages of planning Cablegate. If you are in that situation, you should be mindful of where you travel, and specially, you should be very careful of not going on a casual sex tour of Sweden. At the very least, by having affairs with two Swedish women in the same week, even if consensual, he was opening himself to smears in the tabloid press; he just made it very easy for some over-zealous prosecutor to track him down and, justifiably or not, place a strong question mark on his reputation.
Let us be clear, Wikileaks was always going to be the target of legal attacks. By its very nature, the site challenged the global status quo, and shook politics to its very core. That being the case, the website and its operators would have to take strong precautions regarding international travel, this would involve being careful about which countries the operators could go to. Extradition to the US would be at the very forefront of the agenda. Instead, the strategy involved misguided trips to countries with strong US links.
The truth is that the legal drama that followed has also been completely misguided. As of today, the US has not charged him with any crimes, and there is still a strong possibility that they may not be able to do so. Assange was publishing leaked documents, the offender was the leaker, he was the instrument, but so were various newspapers around the world. Even if the US has issued a warrant for his arrest (which it has not done), it would have been easier for US authorities to obtain an extradition from the UK than from Sweden, so that excuse is really a smokescreen for his reluctance to face the criminal allegations in Sweden. The truth is that the argument that the US authorities are just waiting for Assange to be taken to Sweden to issue an arrest warrant is laughable, as they could have done that already at any time in the past two years. Moreover, real or imagined threats have led Assange to continue mounting a farcical James Bond plot involving international law and asylum. The tragedy is that the story has stopped being about Wikileaks and the important work that it did, but about Assange and his ego.
Wikileaks should not be about Assange, it is too important for that. Let us hope that the ideal of a global, distributed repository of openness survives whatever happens to Assange.