THE EARLY December arrest in London of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is part of a politically motivated witch-hunt designed to discredit and shut down the site—and to put a chill everywhere on the free flow of information.
WikiLeaks has outraged U.S. leaders in particular by releasing several troves of secret documents relating to war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the most recent cache of confidential U.S. diplomatic cables, to media outlets including the New York Times, Britain’s Guardian newspaper, and Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine.
Revelations from the more than 1,200 WikiLeaks documents published so far are notable for how unremarkable ISR readers would find them. The U.S. runs a spying operation against fellow members of the United Nations Security Council and the UN secretary general. The leaders of the U.S.-allied royal dictatorships in the Middle East are lobbying the U.S. to attack Iran—and are afraid to reveal this fact to their own populations. The U.S. pressured Spain to drop court cases against U.S. personnel accused of war crimes in Iraq and torture at Guantánamo Bay. U.S. Special Forces are operating in Pakistan with the Pakistani government’s consent. And so on.
What the WikiLeaks disclosures show is the everyday duplicity of capitalist statecraft. They highlight the petty contempt in which the U.S. and its allies hold not only their enemies, but also their supposed “friends.” And they confirm much of the analysis of the real aims and methods of U.S. foreign policy that publications like the ISR advance, in contrast to the mainstream media’s apologetics for the powerful. The U.S. isn’t really worried that WikiLeaks will give “aid and comfort” to terrorists. It’s worried that airing its dirty laundry in public will undermine its ability to keep up its deceptions, including those aimed at the American people.
The behavior of the bourgeois press in this affair has been reprehensible. While happily publishing the same material released by WikiLeaks, they have joined in the calls for Assange’s head. It should not surprise us, that the New York Times, which published the infamous 2002 Michael R. Gordon/Judith Miller piece claiming that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, should reflect the government line in its coverage. But some well-known journalists have gone even farther. Washington Post columnist Mark Thiessen wrote that WikiLeaks “is not a news organization; it is a criminal enterprise.” As David Samuels has written in the Atlantic, “the fact that so many prominent old school journalists are attacking [Assange] with such unbridled force is a symptom of the failure of traditional reporting methods to penetrate a culture of official secrecy that has grown by leaps and bounds since 9/11, and threatens the functioning of a free press as a cornerstone of democracy.”
Assange was wanted for questioning in Sweden on sex crime allegations—and had been the target of increasingly hysterical pronouncements from politicians and the media, particularly in the United States. As Assange appeared in court, several prominent activists, including left-wing filmmaker Ken Loach and journalist John Pilger, were on hand and offered to post more than $280,000 in bond to secure his release. They were denied.
Given the nature of the superpower attack on him, the sexual allegations against Assange cannot be taken at face value. Indeed, the charges against him were initially brought and then dropped in Sweden in August. At the time, chief prosecutor Eva Finne announced in a statement that Assange was “no longer wanted.” In September, however, a different prosecutor revived the allegations—after the intervention of Claes Borgström, a Swedish politician who represents the two women who brought the complaints against Assange.
It was not until the latest release from WikiLeaks, consisting of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, that the pressure to arrest Assange really began to ratchet up. Interpol issued a “red notice”—usually reserved for major criminals like international arms dealers and drug kingpins—for Assange. In effect, Interpol was placing Assange on the world’s “most wanted” list. And yet Assange is wanted in Sweden, we are to understand, only for “questioning.”
The howls for Assange’s arrest and the American media’s guilty-until-proven-innocent attitude is in stark contrast to the lack of outrage about the governments and military officials that WikiLeaks has again shown to be guilty of enabling murder, massacres, and torture. While the New York Times has asserted that “there is no public evidence to suggest a connection” between Assange’s arrest and retaliation for the actions of WikiLeaks, reality would suggest otherwise.
The same politicians and media pundits who have little to say about violence against women or women’s rights on most days are suddenly very keen on bringing Assange to “justice.” Meanwhile, as Assange sits in jail, the politicians and military officials who WikiLeaks exposed as having authorized torture and massacres of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan will likely never face a day in court. All that shows how cynical and hypocritical this misuse of the legal system is.
Because of WikiLeaks’ actions in exposing the ugly reality behind the “war on terror,” Assange has had a target on his back for months. U.S. politicians from both sides of the aisle, including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, have demanded that Assange be prosecuted for espionage or other high crimes. New York Rep. Peter King has asked whether WikiLeaks could be designated a “terrorist organization”—a move that would make anyone working or contributing to the site vulnerable to prosecution by the U.S. government.
And then there are those who have called for Assange’s head—literally. Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, for example, stated that the person who leaked the information to Assange should be tried for treason and executed. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, meanwhile, took to Facebook to proclaim that Assange is an “anti-American operative with blood on his hands” who should be “pursued with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.”
The Obama administration, for its part, has stopped shy of calling for Assange to be assassinated—but Attorney General Eric Holder has launched a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks. There is speculation that the Justice Department may already hold a sealed indictment against him, along with a request for his extradition to the United States. Ultimately, U.S. officials are chomping at the bit to get Assange in the United States and make an example out of him.
Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald’s summation of what “Obama justice” consists of is appropriate here:
If you create an illegal worldwide torture regime, illegally spy on Americans without warrants, abduct people with no legal authority, or invade and destroy another country based on false claims, then you are fully protected. But if you expose any of the evils secretly perpetrated as part of those lawless actions—by publishing the truth about what was done—then you are an Evil Criminal who deserves the harshest possible prosecution.
Despite the fact that no WikiLeaks officials have been charged with any crimes related to the release of materials, the site itself has suffered a number of serious attacks. In the days immediately before and after Assange’s arrest, the site had its primary Web address deactivated and its PayPal account frozen. Both Visa and MasterCard stopped processing donations to WikiLeaks, while Amazon canceled its Web hosting services with WikiLeaks after receiving a call directly from Sen. Lieberman’s staff. A PayPal executive later stated that the company’s decision to freeze WikiLeaks’ account was based in part on the State Department’s declaration that the group had acted illegally in publishing classified documents. Except, of course, those affiliated with the operation of WikiLeaks have not yet been charged with any crime.
A December 10 Guardian editorial noted that these companies “are trying to have it both ways: pretending in their marketing that they are free spirits and enablers of the cyber world, but only living up to that image as long as they don’t upset anyone really important.”
The irony about the push by U.S. officials push to close down WikiLeaks, of course, is that the U.S. establishment is highly critical of governments like Iran’s and China’s when they attempt to censor the Internet. As the Washington Post put it, “Authoritarian governments and tightly controlled media in China and across the Arab Middle East have suppressed virtually all mention of the documents, avoiding the public backlash that could result from such candid portrayals of their leaders’ views.”
But when it’s the U.S. attempting to do the censoring and keep official secrets away from the public, suddenly a little “authoritarianism” doesn’t seem so bad. As Greenwald noted:
[W]e’re supposed to have an open government—a democracy—everything the government does is presumptively public, and can be legitimately concealed only with compelling justifications. That’s not just some lofty, abstract theory; it’s central to having anything resembling “consent of the governed.”
The long arm of state surveillance continues to extend further and further into the lives of millions of people, justifying itself on the grounds of a “terrorist” threat. But as WikiLeaks revelations shows, the worst terrorist threat (in the form of lethal, state-sponsored violence) comes chiefly from the U.S. government. It even asserts the right to assassinate U.S. citizens with no more “due process” than a non-reviewable presidential order. In the name of fighting “terror,” the U.S. government holds that it has the right to know every last shred of information about our lives, while at the same time reserving the right to restrict our access to information about its own behavior.
But we have completely abandoned that principle; we’ve reversed it. Now, everything the government does is presumptively secret; only the most ceremonial and empty gestures are made public. That abuse of secrecy powers is vast, deliberate, pervasive, dangerous and destructive. That’s the abuse that WikiLeaks is devoted to destroying, and which its harshest critics—whether intended or not—are helping to preserve.
WikiLeaks has uncovered the ugly reality behind the U.S. “war on terror” much in the same way that journalist Daniel Ellsberg’s turning over the Pentagon Papers for publishing in 1971 helped expose the brutality of the U.S. war in Vietnam. For his efforts, Ellsberg once faced theft and conspiracy charges from the government—as well as the attempts to steal his medical records from his psychiatrist—as part of the government’s attempts to smear him.
He told the New York Observer that those who claim Assange’s actions—and the backlash against him—are any different are wrong. “That’s just a cover for people who don’t want to admit that they oppose any and all exposure of even the most misguided, secretive foreign policy,” Ellsberg said. “The truth is that every attack now made on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was made against me and the release of the Pentagon Papers at the time.”
Today, a new generation of activists all over the world will need to relearn the lessons of what Ellsberg experienced and to stand up in defense of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
“In times when big business and governments attempt to monitor and control everything,” concludes the Guardian editorial, “there is a need as never before for an internet that remains a free and universal form of communication. WikiLeaks’ chief crime has been to speak truth to power. What is at stake is nothing less than the freedom of the internet. All the rest is a sideshow distracting attention from the real battle that is being fought. We should all keep focus on the true target.”