Analysis: Is Wikileaks' Assange actually a terrorist?

Analysis: Is Wikileaks' Assange actually a terrorist?

Summary: Is, in fact, Julian Assange a terrorist? Or is he something else?


Last week, I had another opportunity to be interviewed by Voice of America. I often like giving VOA interviews, because they ask questions that get me thinking about topics I'm working on from a new perspective.

In this particular interview, Kate Woodsome asked, "You asserted that Assange is, essentially, a terrorist?"

The question came as something of a surprise to me, because I hadn't actually previously identified Julian Assange as, by actual definition, a terrorist, although I had alluded to him as "essentially" such in a previous article. The question got me thinking about precision in our terminology. (UPDATE: This paragraph has been updated to correct an inaccuracy)

Is, in fact, Julian Assange a terrorist? Or is he something else?

Some of my readers, of course, consider him a hero. I don't and so for the purpose of this discussion, for those of you who feel that way, let's just agree to disagree. Let's instead look at how we might characterize this new actor on the international scene.

Let's first start with labels. Is he an extortionist? Is he a blackmailer? Is he a spy? Is he a traitor? Is he a terrorist?

Do any of these labels apply?

Is Assange an extortionist or blackmailer?

In complete violation of that high school rule we all learned about not defining something in terms of the same term, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines extortion as:

The act or practice of extorting especially money or other property; especially : the offense committed by an official engaging in such practice.

Webster's goes on to define extorting as:

To obtain from a person by force, intimidation, or undue or illegal power : wring; also : to gain especially by ingenuity or compelling argument

This is where things become interesting. There is no doubt that Assange has been engaged in intimidation. He's been attempting to intimidate most Western governments.

According to Webster's, blackmail is a subset of extortion:

a : extortion or coercion by threats especially of public exposure or criminal prosecution, b : the payment that is extorted

But the key to extortion, at least as implied here, is that the person doing the extorting has to want something in return and here, Assange is a curious little beast. With the exception of his attempted blackmail of Amnesty International, we haven't seen anything Assange wants in return for his exploits, at least monetarily.

On the other hand, he's definitely scoring big if he wants fame and notoriety. Is he trying to obtain anything else? Really, that goes to the question of what he's after.

For now -- with the exception of the Amnesty International incident -- I think the jury is out on whether Assange is an extortionist. I think it's clear he could be. He has all the ingredients, all the documents apparently necessary to freak out governments, countries, and companies.

But until he clearly asks for something in return, he's not the dictionary definition of an extortionist.

Is Assange a spy or a traitor?

Despite what Sarah Palin may have you think, Assange and Wikileaks have not engaged in acts treasonous to the United States.

The reason is simple, at least for Assange. He's not a U.S. resident or citizen. Treason is a betrayal of your country. Webster's defines treason as either:

the betrayal of a trust : treachery


the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or the sovereign's family.

Assange did not betray a trust. No government trusted him with documents. America trusted Bradley Manning with documents, and he did (allegedly) betray that trust. That's why I've stated that Manning is most likely a traitor.

But Assange does not hold any allegiance to the United States. He is Australian, and it is possible that some of the documents disclosed betray the trust of Australia. That said, nothing has come up about it (and Australia has been surprisingly quiet on the Assange issue).

Assange is also not a spy. He did not engage in covert activities. If anything, he's been overt as frak. So, no matter how frustrating his behavior, he's neither traitor nor spy.

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Is Assange a terrorist?

Ah, so now we come to the meat of our question and, as usual, it's harder than I'd like to provide a precise answer. For our answer, I've turned to two sources, Webster's and the United States government.

Websters defines terrorism quote simply as:

the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion

Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d) defines terrorism slightly differently:

the term "terrorism" means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents

So, here we have an interesting conflict. The dictionary definition of terrorism is the systematic use of terror as a means of coercion. Again, the definition includes what the actor wants to get out of the activity as a component of the definition.

The United States government does not directly care about the result, although they do care that the activity is "politically motivated". More to the point, they define terrorism as "violence perpetrated" rather than "terror created".

What exactly is "violence perpetrated"? We know, for example, that flying a plane into a building and killing thousands is most definitely "violence perpetrated". But what if the actor isn't directly engaging in violence, but creating an environment where violence might take place? Terrorist or not?

What about cyberterrorism? In almost all cases, there are no direct violences perpetrated through acts of cyberterrorism. Yet, it is a term we use regularly and a problem I've been advising homeland and national security professionals on fighting for years.

The challenge with defining cyberterrorism is that there are different approaches you can take. The most strict approach is that of an acknowledged terrorist organization conducting disruptive activities across the Internet. A more broad approach is one where disruptive activities are conducted, but not necessarily through direct affiliation with an established terrorist organization.

In any case, a good way to look at cyberterrorism is through the FBI's description of what they call the "cyber threat".

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Homeland Security on February 24, 2004, Hearing On Cyber Terrorism, Keith Lourdeau, the FBI's then Deputy Assistant Director, Cyber Division described the FBI's view of the cyber threat:

...those individuals or groups that illegally access computer systems, spread malicious code, support terrorist or state sponsored computer operations, and steal trade secrets that present an economic and security threat to the U.S.

Without a doubt, Assange is going out of his way to present an economic and security threat to the U.S.

Bottom line: what is Assange?

Assange is a problem. He represents a new breed of activist, one who blurs the edge between activism and terrorism for the purpose of fomenting disruption and using the Internet as his weapon of mass distraction.

He does not appear to have a direct goal, nor does he seem to be in it for the money. He does, without a doubt, appear to be completely grooving on the fame.

He is not a spy or a traitor. He is a borderline extortionist and blackmailer.

He is not a terrorist. He has not -- directly -- caused violence or physical damage.

He is, without any doubt at all, a threat.

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Topics: Security, Government, Government US


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • He's a terrorist

    Plain and simple he is a terrorist. Look, you can gussy it up however you want about semantic differences and definitions, but he is causing a lot of unnecessary panic for a lot of people, and he's threatening the country (and countries) that if he's arrested or shutdown he will release more classified documents. As any liberal will tell you (I'm not one) it's about their motives and intent... he intends to hurt the credibility and security of the country. To what end? He claims "people need to know" but he's not an American as you pointed out yourself-- so he's not protected by freedom of speech or press. In fact, such a right barely exists anywhere else in the world.<br><br>He is creating undue panic and chaos using information obtained illegally and distributed illegally. Plain and simple. Hold people accountable for their actions.
    • RE: Analysis: Is Wikileaks' Assange actually a terrorist?

      @GoodThings2Life lookup article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights

      Moreover the bill of rights restrict the power of the executive. its benefits are not restricted to US citizen. Congress cannot restrict by law freedom of speech - not restricted to us citizen, as a result, executive cannot restrict anyone's freedom of speech.
      • RE: Analysis: Is Wikileaks' Assange actually a terrorist?

        @s_souche - Assange isn't a US Citizen, nor a US resident, therefore the US Bill of Rights don't apply to him in any way.
      • This would apply only if his actions took place ...

        ... on United States soil. Which they did not. Further, "free speech" does not include passing stolen documents on to others.

        In the end, the actions of Assange are subject to the laws in the jurisdiction where the law was broken by Assange - and his minions (the PFC for instance - who is subject to the military law of the United States). I woud not want to be that young soldier - whose life is now ruined.

        I expect that passing "state secrets" is illegal (and treasonable) in Australia and also in the U.K. of which Australia is a Commonwealth. Thus I expect that both countries, which are Allies of the U.S.A. will charge him if they can apprehend him.
        M Wagner
      • Mwagner, you don't have a clue what you're talking about

        @s_souche The New York Times reprinted all 612 cables that WikiLeaks put on its web site, redacted in the same manner. If the Government can't prosecute the New York Times, it can't prosecute WikiLeaks either.

        Your free-form making up of what laws apply and what laws don't is charming in a juvenile sort of way. America has no "state secrets" law.

        Why don't you just say you're beside yourself with anger and hatred and leave it at that, instead of manufacturing laws in your own mind and asserting they exist in the real world.
      • RE: Analysis: Is Wikileaks' Assange actually a terrorist?

        Rights can be abridged in some ways during time or war or national emergency. It's historical precident.
      • Courts just let two AIPAC spies go ... 1st amendment

        @JoeFoerster "The fact that classified information is involved does not preclude First Amendment safeguards. In the AIPAC case, Judge Ellis rejected the prosecutors' categorical - and dangerous - argument that when classified information is at issue, the First Amendment affords no protection. Of course, the First Amendment is no license to disclose the recipe for the plutonium bomb to Osama bin Laden. But the Justice Department would have to prove that Assange's disclosures were so dangerous to national security as to override the First Amendment. In the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the prosecution would have to demonstrate that what the defendant did was as immediate and as dangerous as "falsely shouting fire in a theater." That is a heavy burden to meet."

        Baruch Weiss, a litigation partner at Arnold & Porter, specializes in white-collar and national security matters. He is a former federal prosecutor and served in the Treasury and Homeland Security departments.
      • RE: Analysis: Is Wikileaks' Assange actually a terrorist?


        Polly...the Constitution clearly states that it applies to all people under its jurisdiction. So that means that anyone who is prosecuted or otherwise effected by US law (ie...being physically located in the US or a US territory) comes under the jurisdiction of the Constitution and is guaranteed the rights and protection granted in the document. The obvious exception to this is the US military, who are covered by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ)
      • RE: Analysis: Is Wikileaks' Assange actually a terrorist?


        You are correct that Assange is not covered at this time by the Consittuion because he is not under the jurisdiction of the United States and thus is not covered by the Constituion...the government, however is still bound by US law in how they deal with him.
      • RE: Analysis: Is Wikileaks' Assange actually a terrorist?


        What does apply, though, are US whistleblower laws...the government is restricted by was is prosecutable in the US as far as what they can try and char Assange with. I think he is doing the world a service. The best disinfectant against fascism and tyranny is sunshine...
      • RE: Analysis: Is Wikileaks' Assange actually a terrorist?

        @s_souche freedom of speach is not absolute.

        Thats been well established by the courts over a long period of time. For instance, I am not free to put on a performance of someones play without paying for it.

        But, its also irellevent as its not freedom of speech that is at issue here, its the freedom of specific pieces of information.
      • RE: Analysis: Is Wikileaks' Assange actually a terrorist?


        you forgot

        Article 13.

        * (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

        Article 30.

        * Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

        The people named as confidential sources have had their right to freedom destroyed as well as their right to move freely within the borders of each state, namely the state in which they were a confidential source.

        As well, a case could be made for
        Article 17.

        * (1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
        * (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.
      • RE: Analysis: Is Wikileaks' Assange actually a terrorist?

        Keep all those things aside. But he is threating the integrity of the world with his current actions and also future actions if any govt. troubles him that defaults him to terrorist more or less.
        Ram U
    • ok but answer this

      How hold accountable for the action of USA ... Good luck staking
      • Accountable for what

        Quebec-french? Helping the interests of Canada?
        Yes, Canada has benefited [i]big[/i] from it's relationship with the US, as much as you would like to thnk that Quebec holds Canada together.
        John Zern
      • uuhhmmm Mr Zern

        @John Zern
        I was not talking about the Canada-USA relation nor benefit .... Even less Quebec involvement in canada stability( shiit ... Please follow the puck if you wanna play .)

        The comment made by GoodThings2Life was that Assange should be hold accountable for its action .... My comment was on the same angle who is accountable for USA action .

        Lets just take a few exemple
        the american sponsored assassination of chili Salvador Allende democratically elected President or the 98 documented illegal action of American interventionism in south and latin america since 1893.

        If Assange is should be hold accountable for it action .
        Then there a large conscience exam that USa should start .

        Or we jump into the same Wagon as the rest of imperialism slaughtering nation Britan,China,USRR,german Nazi regime, France And the list goes on and on.

        If USA wanna start playing who's the biggest treath on Assange they should try to wash the blood from 100 years illegal action of democratically elected country .This is only for south and latin america , SHould we search south east asia , middle east

        Will we are at it what is the big benefit we are having from the relation with USA ... beside interventionism in the development of Canada , a exemple the Arrow project which lead to the brain-drain of canadian scientist to NASA .

        Or Been the Buffer zone during the cold war . The list is long please dont forget it. because we dont. and yes we are so lucky to have a relation with USA ......
      • Just like the filthy French

        its ALLWAYS somebody elses fault never the French, according to the french.

        I would be embarrased to brag about my lineage , so i can see where your comming from quebec-french your one of those "Its allways the US thats bad, we frenchies are the good guys"

        go peddle your petty jelousy someplace else
        Ron Bergundy
      • well once again the impeccable intelligence of

        of cyberspammer2 if you cannot debate with argument and you only vomiting insults you should go back to the basement .
      • RE: Analysis: Is Wikileaks' Assange actually a terrorist?

        I have to agree - he sounds very jealous, considering some of their practices - I would have to agree with him if I lived there - thank God I don't - Phew!
      • RE: Analysis: Is Wikileaks' Assange actually a terrorist?


        I guess then we should hold you liable for allowing draft dodgers into