HALIFAX—Even by Jerry Springer standards, the arrest of Julian Assange has elicited ferocious and contrary reactions.
Everyone, including those who work in this business, should be riveted by this story—bearing in mind that the beginning of wisdom is the suspension of judgment. The stakes are huge. A good outcome for free speech is far from certain when the legal dust finally settles.
Assange has already triggered a partisan slagging match in the public arena. In the days after his arrest, social media, where ignorant armies tweet by night, burned like Notre Dame Cathedral. On one side, the Assange groupies; on the other, a cyber lynch mob.
To his admirers, the founder of WikiLeaks is an Internet Robin Hood, stealing from the informationally rich and dishonest, and giving to the poorly informed and manipulated.
The idea behind his massive data dumps is simple. It is a way to inform citizens in hollow democracies about what is really being done by secretive, authoritarian, and occasionally murderous governments—in their name.
Which is why the leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said this after Assange was arrested: “The extradition of Julian Assange to the United States for exposing evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan should be opposed by the British government.”
Corbyn’s shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, agreed: “It is the whistleblowing into illegal wars, mass murder, murder of civilians and corruption on a grand scale that has put Julian Assange in the crosshairs of the U.S. administration.”
To those who despise Assange, like former U.S. senator Joe Biden, the WikiLeaks founder is nothing but a “high-tech terrorist,” deservedly on his way into the clutches of some latter day incarnation of the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Although the single American charge against Assange involves hacking, not publishing, the U.S. is well known for adding charges to an indictment after a target has been successfully extradited. When Daniel Ellsberg was arrested, he faced three charges. By the end of that same year, 1971, the prosecution added eight more felony offences.
The U.S. has 65 days to do that in the Assange case.
The lesson is clear. Any country that would even consider sending Assange to the U.S. before knowing everything he will be charged with is beyond irresponsible.
More people believe that Conrad Black will become a Buddhist than think that the American government has spent millions of dollars and a lot of political capital to put Assange in jail for five years—the maximum penalty under the law he is charged with breaking.
There is a big official hate-on for Assange in the United States that only a life sentence, with all the trimmings of maximum public disgrace, will satisfy. Amongst many other heavy blows against the establishment, Assange has humiliated the hush-hush boys.
Former acting CIA chief John McLaughlin even denies that the raw information released by WikiLeaks was in the “public interest,” or that Assange is a journalist in the traditional sense of that word: “The guy is not a hero. He is an anti-U.S. hacker. If it’s fair to break into Pentagon computers, then it’s fair to break into your computer and mine.”
Spoken like a man who applauded when the National Security Agency spied on every American with a telephone from 2001 forward, millions of times a day—against the privacy laws. The agency continued to collect “metadata” in the form of phone calls and text messages from its own citizens, long after Congress passed a law in 2015 aimed at reining in spooks who thought the Patriot Act meant they could listen in on everybody.
The current U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, describes Assange as a “non-state, hostile intelligence service.” On its best days, that might be a good description of The New York Times, at least from the perspective of the administration Pompeo serves.
Assange provides living proof that being publicly tortured doesn’t always lead to martyrdom.
The WikiLeaks founder is already being stretched on the rack of Fox News for being everything from a Russian stooge to a rapist—though Swedish authorities dropped that case in 2017 after interrogating Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in November of 2016. Surprisingly, Fox News is not Assange’s only media tormentor.
Even some columnists at The Washington Post, which worked with Assange, and published several stories based on his “stolen” data, is editorializing that Assange is not a “free-press hero.” Just so skittish are the American media about landing on the wrong side of the national security establishment.
One of the Post’s columnists, Kathleen Parker, dipped her pen in pure poison to say that Assange’s data drops were not journalism, but “more like feces-smearing by a fishy-smelling ‘cypherpunk.’” Now there’s someone you don’t want writing your obit.
Assange’s fate boils down to the answer to Juliet’s question of Romeo: “What’s in a name?” In this case, everything.
If the founder of WikiLeaks is treated as a journalist, editor, or publisher, no country will be in a hurry to hand him over to the Americans, because that could ignite the passions of free speech and human rights advocates around the world. Any government that knowingly sends Assange into custodial oblivion in the U.S. could find themselves in a long and painful PR firestorm.
But if Assange is found to be a mere cyber-thief guilty of hacking government computers (which he didn’t do), a guy who weaponizes information against some countries but not others, a high-tech narcissist amusing himself at the expense of the world’s high and mighty, he stands a good chance of spending the rest of his life behind bars in the United States.
That should not happen.
Beyond the semantics of what Assange really is, and the vindictive politics of extradition, this much is absolutely clear. There was, and is, a huge public interest involved in the work of WikiLeaks. In a few shining moments, and with great courage, Assange handed millions of people who were staggering around in a midnight of lies imposed on them by their governments a torch. Nothing shines as brightly as facts.
The world would not have known about the brutal Apache helicopter attack by the U.S. in Iraq that slaughtered 12 innocent civilians on the ground, including two Reuters journalists. The triggermen treated the doomed civilians as if they were animations in a video game.
Despite the grotesque footage of the shootings, and the children who survived but were horribly injured, the Apache crew faced no consequences. The military concluded that their actions were consistent with the rules of engagement. Apparently, “collateral murder” is okay.
Without Wikileaks dumping the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, as provided by Chelsea Manning, the world would not have known about detainee torture, and the much higher number of civilians who perished as “collateral damage” from U.S. bombing.
Of the 109,000 deaths that the U.S. military documented in Iraq from 2004 to 2009, 66,000 were non-combatants. And this is the same military that told the American people that they didn’t count bodies, and that their bombs were smart.
Without WikiLeaks, the world would not have known that the State Department trained known Egyptian torturers at FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va.
The world would not have known that the State Department authorized stealing the genetic material of UN members, including the secretary general himself.
Or that the State Department supported corporations in Haiti who were opposing minimum wage legislation for some of the poorest people on Earth.
Or that U.S. military contractors engaged in child trafficking. According to leaked diplomatic cables, DynCorp gave a party for its security recruits, and offered children purchased from traffickers as the “entertainment.” In Afghanistan, the practice is called “bacha bazi” or boy-play.
As a result of all this information, some countries have publicly recognized the good that Assange and WikiLeaks have done.
It was a WikiLeaks dump that showed that the Kaupthing Bank was largely responsible for Iceland’s financial collapse in 2008. As a result of the “radical transparency” of WikiLeaks, Iceland launched the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative.
That country is now a safe haven for whistleblowers, hackers, and internet freedom activists. These days, Iceland calls itself an “evolved democracy.”
All that said, did the world need Wikileaks to publish a hack of Sarah Palin’s email account, complete with a couple of family photos? Probably not.
Did it need the self-righteous smugness that Assange often exhibited when he sought and achieved the limelight? Less of any showboat is usually better.
And if it is true he collaborated with the Russians, something Assange has repeatedly denied, is that okay? Of course not. Because if true, that would reduce him to the status of just another tawdry spy with a cover story that would have impressed John Le Carré.
The plain truth comes down to this: as long as governments attempt to hide history; as long as they suppress, deny, or pervert the truth about their actions; as long as they deprive their citizens of the right to know, there will always be a Julian Assange on their tail. What’s more, at a fundamental level, at the level of the survival of democracy, all of us should be grateful for their work.
Daniel Ellsberg stole documents from the government, and newspapers published them. Assange accepted hacked government documents and massively leaked them to newspapers that published them. Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act with crimes that came with a penalty of 115 years in prison.
He did it anyway.
Because successive U.S. presidents had lied to their citizens about the justification, the conduct, and the progress of a foreign war in which millions perished, including more than 58,000 Americans. The Pentagon Papers were instrumental in halting 20 years of horror in Vietnam. Here is what Daniel Ellsberg had to say about the latest twist in the saga of Julian Assange:
“This is the first indictment of a journalist and editor or publisher … and if it’s successful, it won’t be the last.”
Hyperbole from a fading icon of the Left?
Or the wisdom of a worried man singing a worried song because he has faced the might of Big Brother. Alone.
Just like Julian Assange, warts and all.
Michael Harris is an award-winning columnist and author.
The Hill Times
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