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Secrecy empowers leakers

President Obama's penchant for opacity only helps the likes of Julian Assange.

Julian Assange was insufferable as he left a London courthouse last week.

"During my time in solitary confinement in the bottom of a Victorian prison, I had time to reflect on the conditions of those people around the world also in solitary confinement," he said after posting bail - as if nine days in an English jail fighting extradition to Sweden on sex charges made him a regular Nelson Mandela.

Before Assange motored off to his house arrest at a friend's mansion, one of his lawyers expressed his determination that Assange "will not be going back to that cell once occupied by Oscar Wilde."

Oscar Wilde? Those cheeky Brits. Assange's indiscriminate dump of American secrets over the last several months - with hardly a care for who might be hurt or what good was served - can be summarized nicely by one of the playwright's aphorisms: Nothing succeeds like excess.

I can understand why Obama administration figures want to prosecute Assange. I confess I'd like to throw a cream pie in his face myself.

But prosecuting Assange would give him exactly what he wants: proof that America is hypocritical, that we don't live by the freedoms we preach. Assange would like nothing more than to be a martyr - and President Obama shouldn't give him that.

Better to make him irrelevant. The only reason WikiLeaks has been a sensation is the absurd secrecy of the Obama administration, which is in some ways worse than that of George W. Bush. The reflexive classifying of things that shouldn't be secret has, by creating the perception that the government has much to hide, created a market for WikiLeaks.

In fact, the WikiLeaks disclosures have been generally benign. Vice President Biden said last week that he didn't see "any substantive damage" from them. The biggest revelation was that so many supposed government secrets really aren't secrets.

The episode spotlighted Obama's surprisingly poor record on openness. The administration has already undertaken four prosecutions of leakers, more than any predecessor, in some cases using the arcane, World War I-era Espionage Act. At the same time, the administration stymied efforts to pass a "shield law" to protect journalists' sources.

Government-secrecy watchdog Steven Aftergood, at the Federation of American Scientists, reports that the administration has yet to produce recommendations for the "fundamental transformation" of the security classification system that Obama ordered a year ago. In the first half of this year, the government declassified only eight million of the 400 million documents it is supposed to release by 2013. Overclassification is so prevalent that even the Pentagon Papers - leaked by Daniel Ellsberg nearly four decades ago - are still classified as Top Secret.

It's little wonder that Ellsberg himself has empathy for WikiLeaks. At a news conference at the National Press Club last week - shortly before going to chain himself to the White House fence in a protest - the 79-year-old Ellsberg said Assange is a hero. Convicting Assange, he said, "would mean that the crown had returned to America . . . and that we're really under a monarchical system of total control of information."

Ellsberg was accompanied by an activist from Assange's Australia, who lectured Americans on free speech. "We thought that America stood firm for the Constitution, for its First Amendment rights," said the activist, Brett Solomon. "If something has changed, then let us know."

That bloke was as insufferable as Assange. But the administration is playing into their hands by trying to keep harmless information secret. On this, there was bipartisan agreement at a House Judiciary Committee hearing following Ellsberg's news conference. Chairman John Conyers (D., Mich.) complained of "rampant overclassification." Rep. Ted Poe (R., Texas) was "very concerned about our own overclassification." Rep. Bill Delahunt (D., Mass.) detected "the trademark of totalitarianism."

Thomas Blanton of the George Washington University National Security Archive said that between 50 percent and 90 percent of classified material shouldn't be, because it creates "vast prairies" of phony government secrets that are impossible to protect.

It achieves little to punish Assange for trespassing on the prairie, whether he's to be prosecuted (as Democrats such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein suggest) or hunted down like a terrorist (as Sarah Palin would have it).

Instead, end the obsessive classification that made Assange possible - and refuse to grant him the martyrdom he desires. President Obama: Forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.

Didn't Oscar Wilde say that?