Analysis: Is Wikileaks' Assange actually a terrorist?

Is, in fact, Julian Assange a terrorist? Or is he something else?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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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