Does Julian Assange Deliver?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 29 2010 10:03 AM

Does Julian Assange Deliver?

I'm reading through the WikiLeaks excerpts of diplomatic cables, and the impression I've had since last night is the one Tom Joscelyn had before the release.

Journalists covering WikiLeaks would be wise to remember that when Assange released a trove of documents concerning the war in Afghanistan he said they would reveal that America is guilty of "thousands" of possible war crimes. They did nothing of the sort. And when Assange released even more documents concerning the war in Iraq, the press repeated an entirely false claim that the documents demonstrate that 285,000 people were killed in the war. The press was also quick to highlight any American mistakes revealed in the documents, especially with respect to civilian casualties. The real story is that the documents demonstrate – unambiguously – that the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties were caused by Iraq's and America's terrorist enemies, as well as "criminal events," not by the U.S. military.

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Indeed, so far I am seeing lots of snigger-worthy diplomatic talk that the authors would not use in public, but nothing that reveals official lying or information that was concealed before last night. The Apple Dumpling Gang-worthy effort to get foreign governments to take Gitmo prisoners? Reported throughout 2009. Arab nations urging action against Iran's nuclear ambition? Again, smart reporters have been on to this. Yes, of course, the WikiLeakers promise bigger revelations to come, but they do so in the most precious way.

Every American schoolchild is taught that George Washington, the country's first President, could not tell a lie. If the administrations of his successors lived up to the same principle, today's document flood would be a mere embarrassment. Instead, the US Government has been warning governments -- even the most corrupt -- around the world about the coming leaks and is bracing itself for the exposures.

What is this, the closing argument in a Harper Lee courtroom scene? And do Assange et al think there's something new about Americans and espionage?

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.