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A Press Without Principles

NEW YORK – Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is in the news again, this time after former Swiss banker Rudolf Elmer turned over to him confidential records on roughly 2,000 wealthy individuals that Elmer claims contain evidence of money laundering and tax evasion. Elmer was quickly convicted of violating Switzerland’s bank-secrecy law, but few journalists have demanded that Assange be prosecuted for his role in the affair. That, apparently, happens only in the United States.

There, in the midst of the debate over WikiLeaks’ ongoing release of classified US State Department cables, and as the government threatens Assange with extradition and prosecution, respected journalists are running for cover. One would expect lead editorials by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, not to mention all major television outlets, defending WikiLeaks’ right to publish. Instead, all we have heard is an awkward, deafening, and breathtakingly hypocritical silence – or worse.

Most American journalists fully understand that Assange did not illegally obtain classified material; the criminally liable party is whoever released the material to the site. He is not the equivalent of Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 illegally released the Pentagon Papers, the US military’s secret history of the Vietnam War; rather, he is analogous to The New York Times, which made the brave and correct decision to publish that material.

Moreover, American journalists know perfectly well that they, too, traffic in classified material constantly – indeed, many prominent US reporters have built lucrative careers doing exactly what Assange is doing. Any dinner party in media circles in New York or Washington features journalists jauntily showing prospective employers their goods, or trading favors with each other, by disclosing classified information.