Has the founder of Wikileaks' become an enemy combatant, and if so, is he a legitimate military target? Julian Assange made a conscious decision to release wartime classified information on his website to the general public. Some of that information is being used by the Taliban to hunt down Afghan individuals who were named as sources for U.S. and Afghan intelligence organizations. At this writing, we don't know how many of those people have been killed or harmed, but they are definitely at risk. This goes beyond the normal exercise of the human right of free expression, and it also goes far beyond journalistic irresponsibility; but has it crossed the line that would cause Assange and his staff to be considered to be enemy combatants in the War on Terror? I believe that it has.
The latest leak of diplomatic cables is less likely to cause likely to cause physical harm, but it has done great damage to American diplomacy; Assange is as much an enemy to the United States as any Al Qaeda operative. Assange is an enemy of our country.
The role of non-state actors as combatants in war has been debated since the early 1990s when Martin Van Creveld raised the Subject in his book, The Transformation of War, and thinkers such as William Lind and former Marine Corps Commandant Charles Krulak suggested that in "Fourth Generational Warfare", non state actors might be considered legitimate combatants in the future. This was a paradigm shift. From the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years War to the end of the Cold War, only nation-states and their legally designated representatives were legally empowered to employ violence. Al Qaeda's attack on the United States in 2001 showed that non-state actors are capable of inflicting damage capable which rival Pearl Harbor or Tarawa in magnitude; and now they can do it on line. The human toll of the Wikileaks actions will not approach the level of a major war, but there almost certainly have been friendly casualties.
Mr. Assange obviously believes that there will be no kinetic consequences as a result of his actions. As a resident of the United Kingdom; he feels that he is protected by its laws. In contrast to the people who have tried to blow up airliners in flight and the American borne cleric in Yemen who is now on the "kill or capture" list, Mr. Assange does not envision any reprisal more dangerous than a civil legal action; and that is something that he may be relishing for the sake of the publicity that it will bring his web site.
This brings us to a very serious question. What is the moral difference between a would-be terrorist, who becomes a legitimate target when it becomes obvious that he is attempting to cause civilian or military casualties, and Mr. Assange, who has taken actions that will almost certainly cause friendly deaths if they have not already?
The American soldier who allegedly leaked the documents to Mr. Assange's organization is in a clear legal status. He is in custody and accused of clear violations of the military's Uniform Code of Military Justice and he can arguably be charged with treason. Meanwhile, Mr. Assange basked in the glow of the media spotlight. There is something clearly wrong with this picture.
Where does a person cross the line between wearing "Ho Chi Minh is Going to Win" T-shirt expressing distaste for a nation's foreign policy and actively becoming a combatant in supporting that country's enemies in an information war that causes actual human casualties? In a kinder and gentler pre-intranet age, Mr. Assange would have offered his leaks to a British or American newspaper. The editors would have made informed decisions regarding what to publish and what not to publish. No reputable news organization in the western world would have published information that would have put an informant at risk. For better or worse, and in this case for worse, those days are gone.
Admiral Mullin, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was uncharacteristically blunt in describing the potential consequences of the Wikileaks; however, he has no current course of action to prevent copycats in the future. Secretary Clinton was equally blunt in assessing the latest damage; she also has no leverage to punish the Assange actions.
I am not advocating putting a Hellfire missile into Mr. Assange's home or sending a special operations team to terminate him with all due prejudice, but I am suggesting that there be sanctions for the kind of actions that he has taken. We should use whatever resources that we need to have him apprehended as an enemy combatant and send him to Guantanamo Bay where our government can decide to do with him. We will want to take our time to determine how to dispose of his case and any avoid any legal mistakes; five or six years should do the trick.