Assange should be charged, but we also owe him a debt

Published 2:44 pm Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Julian Assange was back in British court on Monday facing extradition to Sweden to face some sort of sexual assault charges, but a major part of his lawyer’s argument against the extradition is that he might be sent to the United States to face charges here, or even end up in prison at Guantanamo as a terrorist.

Assange should face charges in the United States and several other countries for the damage his Internet site, WikiLeaks, has done to security measures here and in other countries. Also, the young U.S. Army intelligence specialist who is charged with providing WikiLeaks with the files of American secrets needs to go to trial, and soon, before this disaster goes off the news radar.

However, we do owe the WikiLeaks founder and the intelligence specialist a debt of gratitude, one that is hidden by the great damage done to our security by their actions. That debt of gratitude has to do with ongoing travesty associated with a great deal of the material that becomes classified as secret and has no business with that classification. While there are legitimate reasons for some material being declared and kept secret, some of the material revealed by WikiLeaks that has been declared as secret was fodder for comics even before WikiLeaks revealed that it was classified as secret and some of it is now fodder for the comics because its classification is so ludicrous.

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The trouble with American secrecy laws is that they have more in common with Mississippi’s laws governing open meetings than they do with national security.

They have become a means for trying to hide chicanery, the merely embarrassing, unseeming behavior by those who should know better and arguments among people who agree in public but don’t want it known that they disagree behind closed doors. They also have become a way to display pompous self-importance by some who have the power to declare something secret.

We have an ongoing example with the Picayune school board of how porous and ludicrous are Mississippi’s open meetings laws, just as WikiLeaks revealed how porous and ludicrous are our secrecy laws. The school board is considering the location of a new cafeteria for Picayune Memorial High School that also will be a storm shelter should we be hit by another storm such as Katrina. Most of the funding supposedly is coming from the federal government, or at least that appeared to be the case before everything was hidden behind closed doors.

The discussions started out openly, but suddenly, on a motion by school board member Ray Scott, became closed and all discussions about the project have since been held in secrecy. What is Scott, or county officials with whom the discussions are taking place, or other school board members, trying to hide?

As the person who covers the Picayune school board meetings, I can only guess that somebody will be embarrassed by the discussions, or somebody may be getting something they shouldn’t, or there is some other nefarious or ludicrous situation that is at play.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a WikiLeaks to tell us what is really going on behind the closed doors of the Picayune school board.

There may be a few things that should be hidden from the public at the state or local level, but very little, certainly not discussions about a cafeteria/storm shelter. Unfortunately, Mississippi’s open meetings laws allows a board to find any number of reasons to hide things from the public, the people who pay the bills.

Obviously, secrecy laws passed by Congress suffer the same shortcomings, of which we become aware only after something such as WikiLeaks, or the Pentagon Papers of 1970s fame, takes place. Because the laws are so ludicrous, it often becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible to prosecute those who break the laws. An example is how the Valerie Plame affair was handled. Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheny’s chief of staff, eventually was convicted on charges loosely related to the revelation of her identity, but many, including me, believe he was simply the fall guy.

We need much better laws to identify those matters that truly are secret so that they may be protected, and we need better laws — and prosecution — for those who break the secrecy laws.

Obviously, we also need much better ways of protecting those things that truly need to remain secret.