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WikiLeaks: How To Make A Superpower Look Powerless

Washington struggles to find a way to deal with Julian Assange’s system. And the world is watching

The American government is looking for an efficient retaliation to Julian Assange's publication of 250,000 diplomatic cables. A possible legal action on "espionage" grounds may go nowhere. Another possible response would be to strengthen the way secrets are protected, though critics warn about the dangers of "over-classification."

Almost every day, from Elligham Hall, his current home in the British countryside, Julian Assange stands in front of cameras beaming out to the world – and taunts the US. The WikiLeaks founder, who spent nine days in a London jail, seems to see himself as a Jedi warrior battling the forces of evil. He talks of continuing his fight against the secrets of the US government, which he clearly puts into the "bad guys' category. "We are a strong organization," he declared last weekend. "During my detention, we kept publishing and this is not going to change."

The same day, US Vice President Joe Biden confirmed that Washington was looking for legal means to strike back at Assange. "This guy has done things that have put in jeopardy the lives and occupations of people in other parts of the world," said Biden.

The world is paying close attention to this duel between the odd "knight" of the Web and the US government. From Beijing to Europe and the Middle East, citizens and governments are wondering who will win this showdown between the relatively small army of Internet true believers, advocating transparency at any cost, and the world's most powerful country. Assange's supporters see him as a hero whose action will "bring a better world". His critics believe his unveiling details of US diplomacy risks making it difficult for countries to be able to protect necessary secrets in a globalized world.

Obama's America now has to wage an odd war, after taking a stand for Internet freedom earlier this year when it supported Google against China. In the 1970's, 1980's and even 1990's, Assange and his anarchist tendencies would probably have gotten lost in the anonymity of pacifist protests against American "imperialism." But in this new century, he is has been given influence that he probably doesn't deserve. In this world of globalized information, it is easy for him to convince millions of Internet users that he is protecting "freedom of expression" and even "creating journalism."

By witnessing his clash with the US, everyone senses that much more is at stake than the simple protection of US diplomatic secrets. Instead, what's been put into question is nothing less than the primacy of the order defined by the nation-state. It's as if Assange, despite his good manners and his cold elegance, was preparing for the arrival of some kind of digital Mad Max. Concern has increased with the recent attacks carried out by a group known as "Anonymous," against companies like MasterCard, American Express and Amazon, who refused to host WikiLeaks' transactions. These latest developments from so-called "hacktivists' are followed closely by Washington, which worries about the threat of cyber terrorism carried out by non-state militias.

Conscious of the stakes and urged to be firm by a Congress, where some Republican members are calling for Assange's extradition, the US is desperately trying to orchestrate a retaliation. The Justice Department has noted that the 1917 law on espionage states that a person who diffuses information that threatens national security can be charged. But many legal experts doubt the law is applicable. The idea of suing Assange for publishing secret information is likely to be blocked by First Amendment press protections.

The Department of Justice is therefore looking into Assange's relationship with Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of leaking the information and still in custody. Investigators are trying to determine if WikiLeaks helped Manning leak information from a government-owned computer. According to Adrian Lamo, a former hacker who turned in Manning, the soldier said he was in direct contact with Assange and used a special server set up by WikiLeaks to upload the data. If this is proven, the US government could charge Assange for his "co-responsibility in the plot," according to Vice President Biden. Accusing him of plotting would allow the Obama administration to qualify Assange's actions as a threat to national security while keeping freedom of expression intact. Is it enough to conclude, like WikiLeaks lawyers have, that the US has convened a secret "a grand jury" and are preparing to ask for his extradition? It is hard to tell given the silence of Department of Justice.

Reducing the number of "secrets' to protect real ones

The debate over the logic of legal action rages on. "This administration has supported freedom of the Internet, so there is a clear tension between the desire to open the space of information and to protect it," says Patrick Gorman, the former deputy director of the National Intelligence Agency under George W. Bush, who now supervises cyber security issues at Booz Allen and Hamilton consultancy. The administration doesn't see any good solution. Not stopping Assange would be admitting its weakness and encourage other fame-hungry hackers. But charging him "will be perceived as a provocation, and we will witness a proliferation of efforts from the Web to bring to light more classified data," predicts Human Rights Watch Director Tom Malinowski. "This case needs an internal retaliation technique, not a legal response."

Many are calling for a revision of the current standards for protecting secrets, noting the tendency of "over-classification." One expert said: "We have to reduce the number of secrets if we want to protect those that really are secrets."

Pentagon and intelligence experts will also work on securing their systems. According to Rafal Rohozinski, who heads an Internet research lab in Canada, a procedure requiring the presence of at least two people for any upload of classified governmental data could be set up to combat insider espionage. "September 11 sparked a radical change toward sharing operational information, especially between allies. The WikiLeaks case dealt a strong blow to this sharing idea," says Gorman, who predicts a "much stricter" control in the future.

The Department of Homeland Security is working on a security system for governmental Internet and email, which would detect hackers and leaks. A gigantic task that, experts say, is making very slow progress. "It is an arms race, and we are still very far behind," says former under secretary for Homeland Security Stewart Baker. One thing seems certain: strengthening a state's shield will not improve its transparency. "I'm afraid officials will now be scared to write down their ideas and information," says Malinowski. "The paradox is that in the long term, the WikiLeaks case will probably have the opposite effect of the one intended."

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