One of the values we hold most highly in the United States and the Western world is the free circulation of ideas. The Founding Fathers and defenders of constitutional government and individual rights have stressed that dissemination of and public access to information -- especially about government activity -- should be as unrestricted as possible.
Today some of the largest, least accountable forces clogging up the free flow of information are the intelligence agency behemoths and the emerging cyberwarfare organizations harbored in the heavily classified underworld of governments around the globe. It's one thing when specific information around the details of a spy job or covert operation is held closely; it's another when the operations of enormous organizations working around the clock to steal or manipulate information are kept secret.
Much sensitive information that gets into the public domain now does so via authorized and unauthorized leaks. The White House or Defense Department can decide to leak something because it serves its political purposes. A lower-level employee who leaks something may lose his or her job -- or worse. Reporters may or may not find themselves protected if they publish such information.
Last week The New York Times ran a startling report that pinpointed "Building 61398" just off Datong Road in Shanghai as the likely source of a massive official Chinese operation to steal government and private-sector information in the United States. China, of course, denies it. And the U.S. government has, so far, not confronted China forcefully and publicly on this issue, nor has it sought to prosecute anyone. The reasons for official reticence about Chinese hacking are hard to understand, since we are talking about information that could be used to cripple critical public services such as gas pipelines, power transmission grids and air traffic control systems.
But there is someone whom everyone wants to prosecute for publishing sensitive information. It's not, of course, anyone who is a part of the Chinese hacking effort. It's Julian Assange, the mastermind of WikiLeaks, who organized the acquisition (through leaks by others, not hacking) and publication of classified U.S. government information on foreign policy and military operations.
WikiLeaks didn't use this information to threaten any critical life-support systems in the United States. It didn't use it for military or commercial advantage. WikiLeaks, which Assange calls the "national intelligence agency of the people," released the information because it thought it should be in the public domain. Assange is bottled up in plain view in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where an Australian professor of political science, John Keane, interviewed him last week for a blog called The Conversation.
The Ecuadoreans have decided to protect Assange from the countries that want to lock him up. While he has almost certainly broken some laws, Assange appears to have been acting out of conviction. "We are losing our civic courage," he told Keane, defending his disclosure of information he says the public has a right to.
In the meantime, who will write and publish the counterpart to the Times' story on Chinese hacking of American public and private networks? Who can get the information on how extensive the American hacking operation aimed at China is and what kind of information our government has been stealing and using? Hacking and cyberwarfare, I trust, is one area where the Chinese have not yet surpassed us.
We may have drifted into a world that would have made the Founding Fathers very uncomfortable: where governments won't tell us what's going on, and the press can't, because overblown classification procedures put lots of nonsensitive information off limits.