He is an international man of mystery, but Julian Assange is under scrutiny not for his secrets but for those he has shared.
His WikiLeaks frenzy caps a year of slip-ups, leaks, and missteps. For Assange, the big question is what charge he might face — although he has already suffered punitive payback for his most recent leak of U.S. government information. His bank accounts have been frozen, and there are rumors that the U.S. wants to charge him under the Espionage Act of 1917. His website has been under hack attack, part of a cyberwar attacking his opponents. Meanwhile — and suspiciously timed, say his supporters — he has been accused of assault and briefly imprisoned. And, with the irony lost on no one, his attorneys have condemned the leak of rape charges.
It is, by any measure, not a great time for Assange, the WikiLeaks spokesperson and most visible member of the site’s nine-person board (which one of its members dubbed “window dressing“). Since WikiLeaks was launched in 2006, it has collected millions of documents. With its sunshine policy and focus on human rights awareness, early leaks on the site were met with praise and even awards. The publication of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables was the sixth major leak from the site this year, following two leaks about the Iraq war and the Afghan front. Each has been controversial, but none elicited the level of commentary and condemnation as the latest. So is Assange a hero activist/journalist? A person of the year? A guerrilla for the digital age? Or a criminal?
As much as Assange and his organization are being criticized for endangering public servants and national security, prosecuting them has its problems, too, ethically and legally. Benjamin Wittes, a research director in public law at the Brookings Institute, wrote of charges brought under the Espionage Act, which carries the death penalty: “By its terms, it criminalizes not merely the disclosure of national defense information by organizations such as WikiLeaks, but also the reporting on that information by countless news organizations.”
That far-reaching has the Net in a frenzy. At the other end of the crime spectrum, however, the other possible criminal complaint could simply be receiving stolen property, a penny-ante charge.
What other slip-ups and leaks happened in 2010? Here’s a look at three and their outcomes.
• More a slip-up than a leak, General Stanley McChrystal‘s crew spoke a little too freely around a Rolling Stone reporter. McChrystal ended up relieved of his command as America was re-evaluating its Afghan strategy. His exit however, had a cushion: Although he hadn’t quite put in the time, he received the full pension of a 4-star general ($12,475 per month). Rolling Stone magazine, for its part, made its best newsstand sales of 2010 and renewed its image for investigative reporting for the scoop “that changed history.”
• Strictly speaking, the beans were spilled on Valerie Plame way back in 2003, when Washington Post columnist Robert Novak outed her as a CIA operative, after deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage “slipped up” and spoke more than he should have. A grand jury investigation, lawsuits, and congressional hearings followed over the years, and the reputations of journalists like Novak and Judith Miller of the New York Times were dinged. (The legal fall guy was Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney; Libby was indicted for the leak).
Plame hit the lecture circuit and has become a Hollywood spy consultant, most recently advising on the new TV show “Covert Affairs.” In 2010 Naomi Watts played her in the movie “Fair Game,” based on Plame’s memoir of the same title, as well as on her husband Joseph Wilson’s book. The Washington Post’s editorial page called it “full of distortions,” and Miller echoed those charges in a Wall Street Journal column. The last brought a stinging retort from the film director about her “cavalier attitude.”
• Goldman Sachs found its sacrificial lamb in Fabrice Tourre, whose self-proclaimed nickname “Fabulous” Fab sounded like a professional wrestling moniker. Facing Congress and the SEC, the bosses deliberately released a slew of internal, foul-mouthed emails to show how Tourre bet against the housing market and bragged about selling credit default swaps to “widows and orphans” (metaphorically, of course). His employer settled up $550 million in July with the SEC, but the government agency persisted with an amended complaint against Fab in November. One thing did get cleaned up: Goldman Sachs has banned employees from using obscenity in email.
–Jessica Hilberman and Vera H-C Chan
Jessica Hilberman is a Yahoo! editor and a die-hard generalist. In her former freelance life, she edited and wrote for an eclectic assortment of publications, including Wired, Sunset, Self, Teen People, DailyCandy, America.gov, and even Poultry magazine.
Vera H-C Chan is editorial lead for the Yahoo! Year in Review.