Small Wars Journal

Let's Detain Assange

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 7:59am
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.


carl (not verified)

Wed, 12/01/2010 - 5:26pm


I am pretty naive but I like to believe that just as courtesy to the British we would have tried to stop Russians murdering people on their soil if we had known about it. The Israelis though, you're right. We give them a pass on just about everything.

The question of drone strikes, legality, efficacy thereof etc., is the subject of some threads on the council and maybe the blog too. Very interesting.

This may be a philosophical distinction without a difference, but I think the way we look at it and the way the Putin does is important. We agonize over it and once remove ourselves with machines. Vladdy buck just does it and doesn't apologize. I think that shows that we want to be on the side of good. Which means we at least recognize that good and evil exist. Vlad doesn't care which to me indicates good and evil have no real meaning to him. That is a little scary.

Kagebisty (not verified)

Wed, 12/01/2010 - 4:21pm

Carl: You are very naive if you think the USG would ever do anything to stop wetwork by just about anybody. The number of countries that conduct assassinations is pretty long, never seen anyone on DC care much one way or the other. We practically admire the Israelis for their dirty, semi-covert deeds.

For reasons I cannot fathom - and this goes way beyond anything Assange, et al, have done - the USG has magically determined that "surgically" killing terrorists and their supporters (a very broad and highly subjective group, that second) is perfectly fine legally and morally, even in neutral countries, even when we use Hellfires and worse, which almost always wind up vaporizing innocent civilians who have the misfortune of being in the area. I'm sure readers of this blog are aware that the current administration is even fonder of such methods than the previous one.

Yet, doing the good old double-tap in a back alley in Brussels, which kills the right person and ONLY the right person ... well, how dare one even think of such an abomination!?!

The USG has vaporized plenty of innocents since 2001, and hardly anyone seems to care or even notice. But those Russians, they are baaaaaaad!


carl (not verified)

Wed, 12/01/2010 - 12:23am

JMA: I don't know if you were here when Malcolm Nance published his piece on waterboarding is torture on the blog, but if you want to see blood lust check out some of the comments it generated. You are right, it is deeply saddening.

One of the things, I think Nance said it, is that a lot of this is sort of a vicarious vengeance, the same thing that motivated the savagery depicted on "24". The problem is that it moves from fantasy to reality sometimes.

slapout9 (not verified)

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 9:05pm

"I'm trying to understand the mindset here. The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais and Le Monde are publishing Cablegate documents. Certainly all the TV stations I have access to are reporting details form these leaked documents. So why the focus on Assange?" posted by JMA

I agree 100%. If we prosecute him we would have to put the editorial staff of the NYT in jail to. Fact is publishing secret material is NOT a crime, the Supreme ruled so during the case of the Pentagon Papers. So on what grounds would we arrest him on. What is illegal is stealing secrets in the first place and wiki-guy has not done that.

Colonel, you are right on. Damn it, why hasn't anyone advocated for this measure before? But I disagree on one vital point: your reluctance to put a Hellfire up Assange's backside smacks of a lack of commitment. Why stop at Gitmo? Hell, its just a holiday camp, far as I'm concerned. No, those pesky 'journalists' doing their damnedest to spread lies and disinformation around the world in order to undermine the project of Empire should all be put on a barge and sunk into the lowest reaches of Hell.

Of course, I'm joking. Colonel, you're ideas are, at best, thuggish and brutal. At worst, they advocate war crimes. Detaining, without trial, individuals who wish to highlight the hypocrisy and underhandedness of the American Empire Project? I'm sure you'd advocate his extraordinary rendition, as well. Here's a newsflash: I'm not alone in wanting to see the failure of world you would have me inhabit. Who the hell do you think you are?

JMA (not verified)

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 7:57pm

I'm trying to understand the mindset here. The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais and Le Monde are publishing Cablegate documents. Certainly all the TV stations I have access to are reporting details form these leaked documents. So why the focus on Assange?

I can understand the rage of the current US administration as their inner workings are are exposed to open international scrutiny. I too can understand the fear of those individuals in the State Department who willingly acted as agents for the Administration in these seemingly often dubious activities.

But the blood lust expressed by random US citizens in terms of dealing with Assange is quite revealing and deeply saddening.

I sincerely hope that once the emotional knee jerk reaction has subsided sanity will prevail.

The US now has the best chance ever to take back their government from unelected bureaucrats and deal ruthlessly with those who have betrayed the trust of US people and their allies across the world.


Tue, 11/30/2010 - 7:27pm

slapout9: "...detaining wiki-guy is fighting at the physical level, when we should be fighting at the moral level..."

Couldn't say it any better so I won't try...

If we can prove that there have been deaths that can be directly attributable to Wikileaks, then we can begin to engage Assange et al at their own game and on their own turf in the information domain...

The best response for us at the moment would be "...ho-hum...wikileaks...whatever..." and deny him the attention he basks in...

carl (not verified)

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 4:46pm

Kagebisty: What about the other part of my questions, should we condemn the acts? And I think we probably didn't stop the Putin murders you spoke of because we didn't know they were going to occur.

shaun: Does the espionage act cover things done by people who are not American and done outside the US? I don't know which is why I'm asking.

McGuff (not verified)

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 4:37pm

A concise translation of this editorial:

"US Govt to Rest of World: Touch my junk and I'll have your arrested."

shaun (not verified)

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 3:50pm

I think it's much harder to make the case that Asschapeau is an enemy combatant than that he is a spy. Not a spy in the service of another nation state mind you, but a non-state spy. A spook-world analog of non state combatants like AQ. He knowingly collects and dissemenates classified information. So, he comes under the Espionage Act, and probably some other covering legislation. He does not knowingly undertake acts with intent to kill Americans. So, he's not a combatant.

In any case, drawing and quartering is too good for him.

Kagebisty (not verified)

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 1:54pm

@ carl: We've never stopped Russian assassins before - think Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, killed by a GRU car-bomb in Qatar in 2004; or Sasha Litvinenko's "special" tea in London in 2006; I won't even mention the numerous "myterious" deaths of Russian nationals, a lot of them critical journalists, in recent years - so why start now?

We don't stop the Israelis either, even when they kill people who are in no way "terrorists" ... Why the cheap American morality all of a sudden?

Not to mention all the dead Pakistanis, Afghans, Iraqis, Yemenis, et al, in US "collateral damage" since 2001.

Dead is dead.

carl (not verified)

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 1:04pm

Kagebisty: I have some questions. You seem to be rubbing your hands in eager anticipation of Putin murdering a foreign national for the offense of displeasing Putin. I guess this is because of the probably not often to occur circumstance whereby somebody who thoroughly irritates us also thoroughly irritates Vlad the impaler. Now, if Vlad's lads do attempt to or succeed in knocking off Mr. Assange, should we attempt to prevent this, or in the event, condemn it? If we do not attempt to prevent it or condemn it if it did happen, what kind of precedent would this set when somebody we actually like miffs Vlad and he sends his killers out? Do we say to Vlad and the world, that time was ok, but this time not so much?

Like I said before, dreaming of this is very emotionally satisfying.

Something else strikes me about this. After the last batch of leaks, I don't remember people at this site talking of such drastic action, and that batch of leaks had to do with real people on the ground who actually lived nearby the Taliban etc. This batch of leaks is mostly about embarrassing the hoi polloi and now the knives come out. Maybe I just forgot.

I think the other story that came out of these cables, was the fact that China was contracting with hackers to attack Google. It was reported as rumor in January, but this leak has confirmed it. Hell, the Chinese have been doing these types of attacks since 2002.

China seems to also think it is ok to attack an American company in the 'commons' called cyber space. And Google isn't even a declared terrorist, nor has China openly declared war against them or America. But they certainly had no problem in attacking Google's servers with contracted hackers.

Now with that said, someone is currently attacking wikileaks with a DDOS assault. Now would that be some government doing this, or a private individual? Or could it be cyber privateers, contracted by the government to do this deed in the commons? And would the readership have a problem with the US licensing hackers to do this deed, because obviously China thinks it is appropriate.

Jason Sigger

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 1:00pm

Hey, great idea, Mr. Anderson. Make Assange a martyr, because I'm sure he's going to resist the outpouring of support that sending him to Gitmo would cause. Keep running with those brilliant suggestions, I'm sure they'll get you on the National Security Council staff.

slapout9 (not verified)

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 12:11pm

Some time ago at the SWC thred I predicted you would see this happen. What you are seeing is SBW. The MO (Method Of Operation) is to use people as soldiers that don't look like soldiers, to use things as weapons that don't look like weapons, and to use places as battlefields that don't look like battlefields.
This guy is fighting at a Systems level, something we seem to struggle to understand. Detaining him will not stop it. It would most likley turn him into a Political prisoner/Freedom fighter on the order of Nelson Mandala.

My suggestion is to let Hillary hadle it. She has very well so far.

I disagree with a lot of 4GW but it is not drivel. My compliant is that detaining wiki-guy is fighting at the physical level, when we should be fighting at the moral level.

Kagebisty (not verified)

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 11:34am

Why worry? There have been rumors for months that Wikileaks is sitting on a trove of Russian documents. Once those get released, Mr Putin and friends will take the proper action and have the odious Mr Assange meet up with a car-bomb, a double-tap to the back of his pretty head, or perhaps a cup of radioactive tea and - presto! - problem solved.

We suck at covert action, especially the lethal kind. Let the professionals, ie Russians, handle it. That should take the smiles off hacker faces for a season or two.

BK Price (not verified)

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 9:49am

1. The 4GW did not help your argument in the slightest. You could have left that off without harming the argument you are making. It makes no sense in any form to suggest that 4GW legitimizes non-state actors as combatants. Guerrilla forces have long been acknowledged as combatants, even provided rights under Geneva conventions. This predates any of the drivel from Lind or Van Creveld.

2. You have considerably more work ahead of you to justify that releasing classified information (that he did not steal himself) was an act of war. The best you could possibly hope for would be to show that he was conducting propaganda and to tie this to Tokyo Rose but that's not what he is doing, so I don't think you have an argument there either.

3. Lastly, even you seem to recognize that he is not an enemy combatant based upon your not advocating for his elimination via military means. If he is not eligible to be killed by hellfire or SOF team, how can you argue that he is a legitimate military target/enemy combatant. It appears here that you consider him more of a criminal though you fail to cite any legal justification for his incarceration.

None of this is to suggest that Mr. Assange should not be dealt with, simply that you have not made an argument in that regards. If we were to deal with him, the appropriate venue would be via a cyber assault in which his organization his crippled. Even then, I'm not convinced there is a case for such an attack.

This was not one of the better examples of Small Wars Journal.

carl (not verified)

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 9:18am

I don't think Mr. Anderson's idea is a good one. First off, we don't know if the various Wikileaks have resulted in anyone's death. We had better know that to be the case, not just suspect or describe potential consequences, before we head down this road. We do know that the leaks have annoyed Mrs. Clinton. Snatching someone from a friendly country who annoys American politicians is a surefire way to make that someone a very big celebrity.

Additionally, what about all the others who support Mr. Assange? He doesn't do this all by himself. How many others should we include in the dragnet? How about the newpapers who published the leaks? Mr. Assange didn't force those papers to publish the leaks. Do we penalize those papers? If we started taking serious action against US news organization that publish leaks, government as practiced inside the beltway would stop (though that might be a good thing).

What kind of statutory justification would we use to declare him an enemy combatant or the equivalent thereof? We had better establish some kind of clear rule that he has broken before we get drastic. If such a rule was established could a violation of that rule that occurred before the rule was established actually be a violation?

Whatever country Mr. Assange was living in, if we asked them to pick him up and they said no, what then? Let's say he was living in Ireland or Mexico and we went in there without permission and our people got caught. Then what? Those countries would be displeased. They would be more displeased if our people didn't get caught and managed to snatch Mr. Assange.

Mr. Anderson's idea is an emotionally satisfying one but it probably should stay at the level of speculation.

Zwanikken (not verified)

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 9:15am

That is such a foolish suggestion I don't even know where to start. No you're right, sending Assange to Guantanamo on a weak legal base will not cause public outrage and will be most beneficial to U.S. global standing. American values do not need any enemies with friends like you.