WikiLeaks has gone too far with terrorists’ hit list
Robert Fox: By posting US installations ‘guide’, Julian Assange gave his enemies a stick to beat him with
The arrest of Julian Assange on a Swedish warrant alleging sexual offences - possibly as the result of a honeytrap - comes 24 hours after the WikiLeaks story took a strange and ugly turn. The publication of the comprehensive list of sites and installations of strategic interest to the US listed by its diplomats across the world last year is meat and drink to terrorist and subversive groups.
This shreds the credibility of the repeated statements by the WikliLeaks founder and his spokesmen that the revelations do not threaten the security of communities nor lives of individuals.
The list includes a wide range of sites, among them a cobalt mine in Congo, an anti-snake venom factory in Australia and an insulin plant in Denmark, satellite stations in Britain and the points where transatlantic cables come ashore in Scotland.
There are lists of BAE (formerly British Aerospace) plants across the world, particularly in the Middle East. The Nadym gas pipeline switching station in western Siberia is described as "the most critical gas facility in the world".
Julian Assange's British lawyer, and advocate of his cause, said of the new revelations, "I don't think there's anything new in this".
But there is now something distinctly odd about the whole Assange/WikiLeaks story - particularly in the peculiarly self-serving nature of the various justifications given for publishing much of the material so far, not least by editorials in the New York Times and the Guardian.
This kind of listing and highlighting of vital strategic sites is just what terrorist and extremist groups like.
WikiLeaks advocates argue that most of these sites can be discovered by searching open sites, particularly the internet. This is beside the point.
First, because the compilation of such an inventory is a lengthy and labour-intensive task - and most extremist groups simply don't have the man or woman hours to do this. Some of the sites are pretty obscure and don't easily pop out of the public information woodwork.
Second, it is the emphasis, and interpretation given to the importance of these facilities by US officials that makes the inventory so important.
It is the practical equivalent of a Michelin restaurant guide to the world's top terrorist and sabotage targets. It risks putting ideas about targeting into the heads of those bent on changing the world by violence.
There are numerous examples of terrorists working from published lists like this. Some 30 years ago the IRA used a series of profiles in a Sunday colour supplement of those organising Princess Anne's wedding to target their homes in a doorstep bombing campaign – as subsequently came out in court.
"Terrorists like the IRA are terrible snobs," an Irish colleague said at the time, "they need someone else often to point out the importance and significance of their targets."
After repeatedly justifying the importance and value of the Assange/WikiLeaks revelations, there seems to have been something of an editorial sea-change at the New York Times and the Guardian, two of the prime recipients and collaborators in the publishing exercise.
Today's lists of 'vital' US sites has not been published by either paper. Apparently Julian Assange has fallen out with the New York Times, allegedly for unflattering remarks about him personally in its pages - not least in the devastating commentary by David Brooks on November 29.
Brooks says that the revelations have damaged relationships on which diplomatic and political conversation should be based - not least those between potential antagonists like the US and Iran.
This, he says, "is under threat from a Gresham's Law effect, in which the level of public exposure is determined by the biggest leaker and the biggest traitor."
"Some leaks are harmless, some lethal - and some have led to war," Wolfgang Ischinger, the veteran German ambassador, wrote at the weekend in the New York Times.
And in the end the whole WikiLeaks project is a self-defeating paradox. "It will lead to less openness and a lot more secrecy than the transparent information universe WikiLeaks idealists may have been dreaming of."
Two immediate thoughts come from the latest twist. Ex-PFC Bradley Manning is in bigger trouble than ever - for now he faces a prima facie charge of threatening the security of the state, which in old juridical currency invites a charge of high treason. He is in solitary confinement now (pending trial), and is likely to remain so for much of the rest of his life.
Second, quite apart from the sex charges which may or may not be trumped up, the legal ice appears to be cracking under Julian Assange, too. The latest leaks show him not to be the benevolent liberal anarchist, as his champions in the Guardian, New York Times, and Der Spiegel were desperate to paint him, but the lord of misrule and mischief for its own, and often purely destructive, sake.