How the U.S. government created Julian Assange as an international issue

Let's say someone bumps you a bit on the stairs. Most of us would think, "It's crowded, I bump people sometimes" and just take it in our stride. The exceptions are the people who genuinely believe they are so important and special that nobody should be allowed to inconvenience them.

These people often surround themselves with a buffer of money and/or power, to protect themselves from any bumps. As a consequence of this paid-for illusion of control, they become hyper-sensitive to the slightest bump.

You can't accidentally bump this person, because they are the centre of the universe. Everything either supports or threatens them.

This is how a single teenage blogger in Vietnam or Bahrain, simply writing their opinion online, becomes a "threat to the security of the state" and results in those kids being tortured and imprisoned.

"You can't disagree with me, because I'm always right! I have to be right!

Truly strong people are quite willing to admit to mistakes and learn from them. This is how you build strength: by facing reality. You don't lie about what you did. You don't blame it on someone else. It's your mess: you fix it.

So, when Wikileaks released the "Collateral Murder" Apache helicopter video, did the U.S. government say, "It's true. No, it's not OK to kill civilians. We're going to do our best to make up for this, we're going to change our procedures to try and prevent it happening again, and we'll report back to you."?

No. The U.S. government complained, loud and long, that someone had dared to release this information. They blamed the messenger. They repeatedly said that they saw the release of facts about their activities as "a threat", and anyone who let us know those facts was a criminal, a terrorist, should be executed etc.

This was

Mistake #1: refuse to take responsibility for illegal acts and atrocities revealed by your own documents

combined with

Mistake #2: blame the person who reveals the truth

It thus becomes obvious to us ordinary people that you don't want us to know the truth. Since relationships are based on trust, you're throwing credibility away in heaping handfuls right now.

So, do you acknowledge your mistakes and come clean? No, as Hercule Poirot once said, you "cover the bad fish with a thick sauce". You go into CYA mode. "See? There's nothing wrong with the fish. *choke, gasp* It's the sauce which is making it look bad."

At this point in history, few people knew about Wikileaks. The U.S. government could have taken responsibility for their actions, and Wikileaks would have faded off the radar, like many small publication groups and even key whistleblowers whose names we don't know. Later Wikileaks releases would have simply brought more issues to the U.S. government's attention (something their constitution, and any healthy organization, explicitly encourages). Wikileaks would have just been a publication pipeline, nobody important.

But no, the U.S. government made

Mistake #3: build up the messenger's profile

As an attempted distraction from the revealed facts, they put a great deal of time and energy into accusing Wikileaks of being a serious and imminent threat to the whole country. They insisted on the existence of a "leader", a single person behind this organization who could be targeted, personally reviled and taken down, thus disabling the threat. Wikileaks isn't an hierarchical organization, and removing an elected/consensus leader doesn't disable any healthy group, but somehow the U.S. government thought this was a good idea.

To a certain extent, they achieved their aim of distracting the wider community from the facts Wikileaks had revealed. There was constant speculation about this shadowy leader, much FUD generated, and the more difficult issues of government law-breaking were largely abandoned for the more personal, everyday focus on whether someone is "hot or not": whether you like/approve of them or not. This is easy, and requires virtually no thought.

However, in generating this distraction, the U.S. government made

Mistake #4: create the messenger as a popular icon

A lot of mainstream media time was spent speculating who this supposed leader was, until Julian Assange came forward to try and water down the distraction. Then a staggering amount of MSM time was spent speculating on Assange's background, opinions, appearance, personality and God knows what else. Whether people agreed with him or not, they certainly knew about him. And inevitably, as the U.S. government polarized the discussion, some people started supporting him.

Even then, Wikileaks and Assange could have dropped out of public discourse, if the U.S. government had simply played a soft bat: "Yes, we've seen the documents, and we're working on those issues. Follow this site for updates." Instead, each document release resulted in the same frothing outrage, convincing the public that there must be something really important being revealed, and that Assange and Wikileaks were people to watch. Even so, not many people supported Wikileaks at this stage, not really being sure what they embodied.

Instead of leaving well enough alone, the U.S. government then made

Mistake #5: financially blockade the messenger

This may have worked in the days when you could blockade a country, stopping all communications, but we're long past that. Again, the U.S. government might as well have put up billboards saying, "We can't cope with what Wikileaks reveals". Financial blockades are directed by governments at whole countries, and are only ever partial, strengthening negotiations about specific behaviours. However, the U.S. government pressured Visa, MasterCard, several banks and more than one other government into cutting off Wikileaks completely.

Since we ordinary people can easily identify with not having access to our bank accounts, this brought Wikileaks into the everyday frame. We can also identify with being bullied. Suddenly, the most powerful country on earth was obviously trying to suffocate a small publishing organization. These actions also didn't pass the smell test: you can donate to the Klu Klux Klan, or a range of other law-breaking and destructive groups, but you can't donate to Wikileaks?

Along with the financial blockade, the U.S. government pressured Amazon into throwing Wikileaks off their servers, and continued to make grandiose threats in the mainstream media. Any PR professional would be pulling his or her hair out by now. When you want an issue to go away, you deal with it, addressing the underlying concerns. You don't keep lighting rockets under it, continually re-detonating it in the public eye.

Like anyone playing Whack-a-Mole, the U.S. government appeared to think that just one or two more strikes, and they would win. Nevermind everyone standing around and losing respect for you by the minute. Nevermind the fact that the bad fish still stinks. You're going to yell a lot and everyone will go away. Because you have told them that there are no issues, and besides, we can squash these guys like a gnat.

Mistake #6: put enormous pressure on the messenger: assume that legal threats, imprisonment and financial starvation will make the messenger fold

On the information the U.S. government already had about Wikileaks and Assange, that was a notably inaccurate assumption. Even we ordinary people knew by now that Wikileaks was a minimalist distributed group, and that Assange had no expectations of an easy life. Incidentally, even after one year of torture, two years of imprisonment without trial, Bradley Manning (who might have been considered a softer target) hasn't folded.

Punishing people for telling the truth tends to strip life down for them. Do I believe the truth is worth this struggle, or not? If you go up against an oppressor, there will always be a cost. You decide if it's worth that cost.

Some of the Wikileaks members may have had an illusion of safety, and a few did run when confronted with the reality. The rest were disillusioned but probably not all that surprised. I doubt if Assange was surprised at all.

I could say, "Assange has been chased by a crazy cult before" (which is true), but that would probably be unfair to the U.S. government. They're not crazy, they're just choosing to be staggeringly inept. It's hard to understand why.

Faced with growing popular engagement with Wikileaks, and interest in Assange, the U.S. government brings the whole thing into a long, drawn-out spotlight by making

Mistake #7: be seen to be persecuting the messenger

The whole "yes it's rape, no it isn't, you can leave the country, INTERPOL MOST WANTED!" soap opera has dragged even more eyes onto the situation. Women sincerely wish even a tiny proportion of these resources were directed at the rapes which happen in our communities every day. Assange's alleged victims don't get the speedy and professional investigation they deserve. Assange is hunted with far more tenacity (and bombast) than existing mass-murderers. The U.S. government repeatedly denies that it wants to prosecute him under the 1917 Espionage Act (despite plenty of evidence to the contrary), the Australian government refuses to represent him in any useful way (on the facts, he'd be much better off if he'd been caught smuggling kilos of cocaine into Indonesia), the Swedish government says it doesn't extradite political prisoners to the U.S. (despite having been involved in illegal CIA "renditions" of its own citizens) and the British government has specifically threatened to invade an international embassy in London.

Seriously, we pay you guys the big bucks to make decisions like these?

Maybe it's worked for you in the past. Maybe dramatizing, pointing fingers, making threats and misusing the legal system has made some people go away.

It doesn't make the underlying problems go away.

As long as people are losing trust in government, worrying about systematic invasion of their privacy and being confused, fragmented and even misinformed by polarization of issues, the fabric of our society is indeed threatened.

It's not Wikileaks down there, driving a pick-axe into our foundations. It's you.