Web of Intrigue

‘Julian Assange, you have some serious questions to answer’

Wikileaks believes that “the public scrutiny of otherwise unaccountable and secretive institutions forces them to consider the ethical implications of their actions. Which official will chance a secret, corrupt transaction when the public is likely to find out?” It is a lofty ideal, and very easy to subscribe to. 

But can one take Wikileaks’ co-founder Julian Assange at face value as someone only interested in the lofty pursuit of transparency for the sake of good governance?

Its webpage provides little information about the people involved. Equally, there is no financial disclosure. Yet it offers multiple ways to donate for its running costs.

As with everything else that is not transparent in Wikileaks’ activities, Assange attributes this lack of disclosure to the need to protect it from lawsuits and “spies”. Whether this is pretext or paranoia, Wikileaks benefits from the secrecy awarded by friendly jurisdictions to protect itself from inquisitive minds. It draws financial support from a German foundation that is not mandated by law to reveal its financial sources. It benefits from US tax-exemption status through two US-registered charities but will not disclose their names. It is registered in Sweden as a newspaper because of lenient press regulations, as a library in Australia and as a foundation in France, presumably for the same reasons.

Even if one is prepared to accept the argument for Wikileaks, the same cannot apply to Assange and its associates.

Here are three questions that Assange should answer for the sake of full disclosure:

What is your legal address? Asking for a residential address is not meant to help the men in black come and take him away. But according to media reports, he does not have a known permanent address. At his court hearings in London, he was asked this by the judge. As in the past, Assange equivocated, asking whether this was for correspondence purposes. He eventually gave an Australian address, though he has clearly not lived there for a long time. 

Can the public see your tax returns for the past five years? Given that he is obviously employed, he presumably should be paying taxes somewhere. He is Australian — does he pay his taxes down under? He has applied for a residency permit in Sweden, though, given his runaway status on sexual harassment charges, it is hard to believe that his request will be granted. Still, is he paying taxes there? Does he pay at all? The public has the right to know, as does the taxman.

As a public figure, his income should be public knowledge. Assange has called on the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to resign. She may have some faults, but lack of transparency is not one of them: she has fully disclosed her financial interests upon entering public life and her annual income is in the public domain. 

Who funds your lifestyle? Before his arrest, Assange told the media that he lived in airports — a romantic notion, especially after Tom Hanks’s touching portrayal of a stranded foreigner in the movie The Terminal. Anyone who travels as much as Assange does, often at short notice, also knows the more mundane trivia of that lifestyle: it costs money to buy plane tickets; pay currency fees; eat out frequently; and rely on taxis, dry-cleaners and hotels. Who pays for all of this? The organisation? Or Assange, out of his pocket? If the former, is that a salary? If the latter, who supports Assange’s cash flow?

Wikileaks’ mission statement would be far less risible if the organisation practised what it preached. The fact of the matter is that its members and its supporters do not believe that the rules apply to them. The wave of cyber-attacks launched against PayPal, Visa, Mastercard and Amazon offered further proof of the kind of lawless mindset behind Wikileaks. After all, the denial of their services to Wikileaks is the result of its violation of the terms of use. Breaking the rules in the name of a cause may be justifiable in a world of tyranny, but not within the framework of open, democratic societies. That the Wikileaks crowd thinks so is proof of their real goals — not to force governments to be more transparent for accountability’s sake, but to undermine the US and its allies.

As the Wikileaks site opines: “Public scrutiny of otherwise unaccountable and secretive institutions forces them to consider the ethical implications of their actions.” The above suggests that Julian Assange has for too long avoided public scrutiny of the kind he wishes to apply to others. Answering my questions truthfully would allay concerns that Assange does not practise what he preaches. And who knows, it might even induce him to “consider the ethical implications” of his actions as well.

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