Is Julian Assange a troublemaker or hero?
Julian Assange of WikiLeaks just left the stage in Oxford, where he was interviewed by TED’s Chris Anderson. During the interview we saw footage of American helicopter soldiers shooting an unarmed group of men, among which included a Reuters photographer. The video was leaked to Assange from what he said was “a number of military whistleblowers” and published on the Internet. One question Anderson asked that I thought poignant: “Is Assange a dangerous troublemaker or a hero?” Most everyone in the audience raised their hand for the latter. Only a few for the former.
During the interview I saw a tweet from Paul Rieckhoff, the Executive Director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who I met recently. He pointed to an ABC News story on a young soldier who has been charged with leaking sensitive material to Assange. Another tweet from Rieckhoff was more clear: “Not a fan.”
My guess is that Rieckhoff is unhappy because the video footage Wikileaks published generalized American soldiers in a very unflattering light. Indeed, the voices recorded along with the video joked about the killing while the shooting was happening. It was awful. But as awful as that video is, it’s not fair to think that all American soldiers are like those in that helicopter. And yet, should Assange NOT have published the information? Should the whistle blower have stayed silent?
The hope that journalists like Assange have is that information and transparency can achieve reform. The hope that veteran’s advocates like Rieckhoff have is that soldiers get a fair shake and a fuller understanding of the difficult job they do. In the case of the helicopter video, those two hopes collided, and US soldiers came out a little worse for the wear.
To say that Assange should not have published that video is to go down a slippery slope. If he gets selective about who to out and who to protect, then he does become a dangerous troublemaker. But does his job make him a hero? In this case, I’m not so sure. In others, perhaps. Best is to just call him a journalist.