A Philosopher's Blog

Is Assange a Terrorist?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 8, 2010
Picture of Julian Assange during a talk at 26C3
Image via Wikipedia

I’m in finals week, so I’m writing my blog posts in advance. So, I’m focusing on what is news as I write this. Hopefully I won’t be hopelessly out of date.

Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks, has been accused of being (or being like) a terrorist. He has also been called a traitor who has committed treason. I’d address the traitor charge then move to the terrorist accusation.

While Assange might be guilty of wrongdoing, he cannot be a traitor to America nor can he have committed treason. After all, he is not an American citizen and thus cannot be a traitor or treasonous relative to America.

As far as being a terrorist, this is somewhat trickier. The term “terrorist” is often used rather loosely and under some of these uses Assange could be classified as a terrorist. However, meanings are like rubber bands: they can be stretched, but if they are stretched too far they become useless.

The obvious starting point is to use the stock dictionary definition. While specific books vary, the general idea is that a terrorist aims at creating terror as a means of coercion. It is generally assumed that the terrorist is attempting to achieve a political end via terror.

By this account, Assange is not a terrorist. After all, he does not seem to be using terror as a means of coercing people to achieve political ends. While he does have political ends, this does not make him a terrorist. After all, all politicians have political ends and this does not make them terrorists. Perhaps switching to the the government’s definition of “terrorism” will help clarify things.

Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d) offers the following definition of “terrorism”:

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

While Assange did engage in premeditated, politically motivated acts, his acts are not violent. After all, he leaked information rather than attacking anyone. He set off no bombs, fired no guns, and crashed no airplanes. As such, he would not seem to be a terrorist.

It might be countered that  he aided terrorist groups by providing them with useful information and this makes him a terrorist.

Even if his leak aided terrorists, this does not make him a terrorist. Intentionally providing useful information to the enemy already is already referred to by a perfectly good word: “espionage.” Of course, Assange is not a spy in the traditional sense. Rather, he is more akin to a journalist who provides the information to everyone rather than a specific nation or master.

It might be countered that his leak will lead to harm, thus he is a terrorist.

Obviously, this has no plausibility. While terrorists do harm people, harming people does not make a person a terrorist. After all, shoplifters, drunk drivers, combat troops, boxers and police harm other people. But this does not mean that they are terrorists.

A big part of what makes terrorists terrorists is their methodology. That is, they attempt to coerce via the use of violent acts calculated to create terror with the goal of achieving political ends. Assange leaks information but does not seem to have any intention of creating terror. As such, he is not a terrorist.

Of course, this could be countered by the following sort of reasoning:

“Information warfare is warfare, and Julian Assange is engaged in warfare. Information terrorism, which leads to people getting killed, is terrorism, and Julian Assange is engaged in terrorism,” said Newt Gingrich. “He should be treated as an enemy combatant.”

Newt is, of course, right. Information warfare is, by the very terms, warfare. This is comparable to saying that fast running is running. Why, yes, it is. Likewise, information terrorism would be terrorism.

Of course, there is the obvious question of what is meant by “information terrorism.” Sticking with the stock meaning of “terrorism”, this would seem to involve using information calculated to create terror as a means to advance political ends via coercion. Crudely put, this would involve scaring people with information rather than violence in the hopes of advancing political goals.

Assange does not seem to be doing that. He doesn’t seem to be trying to scare people and thus coerce them in a way that advances his political goals. After all, he just released the information without making any demands and without any attempt at coercion via fear.

It might be claimed that “information terrorism” is just trying to cause harm with information. This changes the meaning of “terrorism” and broadens it considerably by removing the component of the definition that involves the methodology. So, for example, if someone leaked information about a politician to harm his career, then that would be information terrorism. This seems rather broad because it leaves out a key aspect of what makes terrorism terrorism. After all, “terror” is not part of “terrorism” just for the hell of it.

As such, Newt seems to just be engaged in some rhetoric: he wants to say Assange is a bad man, so he calls him a terrorist.

Newt does, however, have a reasonable point about information warfare. Intelligence has always been a critical part of warfare and information can function as a weapon. Given what Assange has said in various interviews, he seems to regard himself as being a foe of certain governments. As such, it seems reasonable to accept that Assange is in conflict with these states. Perhaps this could be called an act of war, or perhaps it could better be regarded as a criminal act. Or an act of espionage.  However, all of these are different from terrorism.

Now, if people want to make the words mean whatever they want whenever they want, then they need to be clear about that. Language is a game, but like all games the players need to know when the rules are being changed.

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27 Responses

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  1. Asur said, on December 8, 2010 at 6:41 am

    Ah, finals week…I feel you there. Maybe I should try preloading comments.

    Anyway, the difficulty in calling this “warfare” is that it presumes a state of war, and war is a political relation between sovereign entities — which neither Assange nor WikiLeaks constitute.

    Other uses are essentially metaphorical; the trouble with Newt’s is that he seems to be intending it literally.

  2. jean-philippe said, on December 8, 2010 at 8:03 am

    The leaders of the world have been terrorized. Their people, not so much. But it doesn’t stop the pathological liars ruling us from selling the idea of Wikileaks being terrorism.

  3. magus71 said, on December 8, 2010 at 9:01 am

    Assenge is clearly an enemy of America, though I’d hesitate to call him a terrorist, at least by the legal definition. But he is definitely trying to cause America pain. Does he think he’s doing the people of the free world a favor?

    There is a difference between secret activity and illegal activity. No one is arguing that the government should be able to break the law. I’m the last person who would argue such a thing. But the psuedo anarchists barking all over the internet about wikileaks have yet to show me where the government did anything illegal. Are they offended that Karl Eikenberry, the ambassador to Afghanistan, states in the cables that Karzai is incompetant and corrupt? Eikenberry is a very smart man, by the way.

    And he’s not corrupt.

    I am not a classic anti government conservative. The government is a tool. I think ours for the most part serves its duty better than any other–ever. And the very fact that we can have these conversations gives me hope.

    Assenge needs to be made an example of. He has no pure motives. He’s made money from it and seems to crave fame and attention.

    Perhaps this could be termed Cyber-Terror, as it is clearly giving terrorists an advantage they didn’t have before, and is doing nothing to help the people of the US.

    • erik said, on December 8, 2010 at 9:37 am

      Off subject: I truly appreciate the first three sentences of your fourth paragraph. Allow me to contribute my version.

      “I am not a classic pro-government liberal. The government is a tool. I think ours for the most part serves its duty better than any other–ever.

      The gap between us exists in the word “tool” and the phrase “its duty”. A tool for what purpose? That’s where 5-4 SC decisions are made.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on December 8, 2010 at 9:44 am

    I was ready to agree that Wikileaks is not a terrorist organization, but then I read this…

    Mr Assange’s British lawyer, Mark Stephens, warned today that WikiLeaks was holding further secret material which he dubbed a ‘thermo-nuclear device’ to be released if the organisation needed to protect itself.
    He said many of the papers being retained contained ‘material of equal importance to news-gathering’ as those already published.
    He said: ‘They [WikiLeaks] have been subject to cyber-attacks and censorship around the world and they need to protect themselves.


    • erik said, on December 8, 2010 at 10:18 am

      A real “thermo-nuclear device”? Wow!

      • erik said, on December 8, 2010 at 10:28 am

        Oops! Misread the text. Just a figurative “thermonuclear device”.

    • erik said, on December 8, 2010 at 10:41 am

      Does that make wikileaks a figurative terrorist organization?

      If the kind of threat this lawyer is making is to have any value at all, any effect, it would be because there’s something out there that threatens the hell out of someone. It’s either an empty threat or there’s a real (figurative) bombshell in that mass of info.

  5. WTP said, on December 8, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    Judging from the picture, perhaps we should first establish is Assange a girl? Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    He’s not a terrorist. Charlie Manson is not a murderer. Obama is not a Socialist. But does it matter?

    • erik said, on December 8, 2010 at 6:56 pm

      Don’t you think it’s necessary for us to be able to label our enemies and, in general, anyone we oppose? Give them a name, slap a label on them, place them neatly in folders arranged alphabetically in cabinets lined up in dusty warehouses at some undisclosed location.

      Oops. I forgot we live in the computer age. All that info’s in cyberspace. And, damn it, it’s not so easy to protect it from our enemies (terrorists,murderers, fascists) —look at the teenie-terrorist bullies that facebook has unleashed on the high school world.

      Based on that picture alone, not knowing when it was taken, and applying a few powerful stereotypes and ugly prejudices, I’d say he’s either a happy hippie, the son of happy hippies, or ( dare I apply the label?) a frikkin’ queer. It IS hard to resist, isn’t it.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 10, 2010 at 12:01 pm

      Well, it does matter. Words have meaning and these meanings have conceptual (and emotional) weight.

      • WTP said, on December 10, 2010 at 9:31 pm

        Assange is not a terrorist. But he has put the lives of the very people we rely on to fight the Taliban and AQ in serious danger. Giving aid and comfort to the enemy would be treason, were he a US citizen. Play word games if you wish, but for all practical purposes this man is aligned with the enemy. There’s a war on, whether you want to take it seriously or not. Does it matter that Charlie Manson didn’t murder anyone? That he wasn’t even present when the murders were committed? Convicted of murder, though. Does it matter?

        • Asur said, on December 10, 2010 at 11:12 pm

          “…for all practical purposes this man is aligned with the enemy.”

          This is simply not true. To be an ally to something is to engage in work specifically for its benefit. Rather, what appears to be the case is that Assange is working toward a goal that is unconcerned with the harm or benefit such work may bring to either the US or to the enemies of the US. That may mean he poses a threat, but this is different from alliance with ‘the enemy’.

          If anything, Assange is simply allied to a kind of anarchic ideology he perceives as a humanitarian cause.

          • WTP said, on December 11, 2010 at 12:30 am

            Asur, as much as I respect the perspectives you present here, I shall now go all Mike-y on you…bear with me, as I am only an apprentice at this skill…

            I did say “for all practical purposes”, this does not say that he is doing X, just that he might as well be doing X. Now for X…

            I did not say allied but aligned. Like wheel alignment on a car. His efforts are in parallel, as the actions of both Assange and the Taliban/AQ seek to degrade the ability of the United States and its allies to execute the war. Again, for all practical purposes. The Taliban/AQ could not possibly dream of developing and deploying the resources necessary to obtain the volume and detail of information that Assange has made available to them for free. And he did so knowingly and willingly, with absolutely no regard for the people who will die because of the actions he chose.

            • Asur said, on December 11, 2010 at 3:15 am

              Hmm, these are good points. I do agree with you that WikiLeaks has harmed US interests (though, philosophically, it’s hard for me to refrain from debating that ‘if X is a meaningful division relative a given thing, then that thing either is or is not X’ — Magus would probably correctly identify that urge as the intellectual in me).

              So, granting that Assange’s recent actions have coincided with the interests of the Taliban/AQ, of real interest to me is that it seems that his /intent/ has not; in other words, the performative agreement is accidental.

              Now, I also agree with your point that, from a practical standpoint, performative agreement is all that should matter as far as the US is concerned.

              The reason Assange’s intent is important to me is that I can’t seem to dismiss his ideology as being clearly wrong. That gives me pause, and makes me want to debate and explore the issue.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 12, 2010 at 11:13 am

              Not “Mike-Y”, it is “LaBossiereian”-a term coined by my advisor in grad school. 🙂

            • T. J. Babson said, on December 14, 2010 at 11:07 pm

              LaBossiereian–kind of like Yossarian, but longer…

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 15, 2010 at 2:28 pm

              Much longer.

  6. T. J. Babson said, on December 8, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    Is Tyler Durden a terrorist? The Joker?

  7. T. J. Babson said, on December 14, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    Excellent analysis. Also, the author, George Friedman, writes a lot like Mike…


    This is the contradiction at the heart of the WikiLeaks project. Given what I have read Assange saying, he seems to me to be an opponent of war and a supporter of peace. Yet what he did in leaking these documents, if the leaking did anything at all, is make diplomacy more difficult. It is not that it will lead to war by any means; it is simply that one cannot advocate negotiations and then demand that negotiators be denied confidentiality in which to conduct their negotiations. No business could do that, nor could any other institution. Note how vigorously WikiLeaks hides the inner workings of its own organization, from how it is funded to the people it employs.

    Assange’s claims are made even more interesting in terms of his “thermonuclear” threat. Apparently there are massive files that will be revealed if any harm comes to him. Implicit is the idea that they will not be revealed if he is unharmed – otherwise the threat makes no sense. So, Assange’s position is that he has secrets and will keep them secret if he is not harmed. I regard this as a perfectly reasonable and plausible position. One of the best uses for secrets is to control what the other side does to you. So Assange is absolutely committed to revealing the truth unless it serves his interests not to, in which case the public has no need to know.

    • erik said, on December 14, 2010 at 5:00 pm

      ” So Assange is absolutely committed to revealing the truth unless it serves his interests not to, in which case the public has no need to know.”

      Sounds like the claim of almost every major country and every major political party, and every politician and those priests and preachers caught with their pants down and car dealers. And in personal relationships, the stance of husbands and wives. Truth: The hat looks dreadful. The Lie: “Yes, dear, that hat looks wonderful on you.” The Interest: God knows, if I tell her the truth, there’ll be no sex with that woman til’ 2014.

    • Asur said, on December 14, 2010 at 5:36 pm

      “Given what I have read Assange saying, he seems to me to be an opponent of war and a supporter of peace.”

      This is where I think we differ. I don’t think WikiLeaks is concerned with a conventional War/Peace binary so much as with a radical Oppression/Freedom binary. This is why it’s difficult to make sense of the leaks under the conventional peace process–as you point out, the leaks are frequently counterproductive to it.

    • magus71 said, on December 15, 2010 at 6:26 am

      Friedman’s good. Read: The Lexus and the Olive Tree by him. It talks a lot about globalization an dthe struggle for nations to adapt technologically and economically whille still maintaining cultural identity. This is the reason that we are fighting jihadists; their’s is a culture calcified in the middle-ages, struggling with the modern world.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 15, 2010 at 2:27 pm

      Excellent examination of WikiLeaks’ situation. The point about the nuclear option is dead on.

  8. jean-philippe said, on December 15, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Michael Moore highlighted a very important question yesterday: could Wikileaks have prevented 9/11 when a CIA report issued on August 2001 that Bin Laden was about to stike the United States with plane hijacks, which caused Bush to take a four weeks vacation on his ranch?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 16, 2010 at 12:55 pm

      Interesting point. Of course, this would require that the leak would get attention in the right places and lead to action that would, in fact, have stopped the events from taking place. Knowing that an attack is possible and stopping that attack are two different things, though.

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