WISE Up, a solidarity group for Julian Assange and whistleblower Chelsea Manning, is due to stage a demonstration outside the Guardian offices on October 22 to protest the paper’s failure to support Assange as the US seeks his extradition in an unprecedented assault on press freedom.
The date chosen for the protest marks the tenth anniversary of the Guardian’s publication of the Iraq war logs, leaked by Manning to Assange and which lie at the heart of the US case to reclassify journalism exposing crimes against humanity as “espionage”.
Here is my full statement, part of which is due to be read out, in support of Assange and castigating the Guardian for its craven failure to speak up in solidarity with its former media partner:
Julian Assange has been hounded out of public life and public view by the UK and US governments for the best part of a decade. Now he languishes in a small, airless cell in Belmarsh high-security prison in London – a victim of arbitrary detention, according to a UN working group, and a victim of psychological torture, according to Nils Melzer, the UN’s expert on torture.
If Judge Vanessa Baraitser, presiding in the Central Criminal Court in London, agrees, as she gives every appearance of preparing to do, Assange will be the first journalist to face a terrifying new ordeal – a form of extraordinary rendition to the United States for “espionage” – for having the courage to publish documents that exposed US war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The Guardian worked with Assange and Wikileaks on vitally important documents – now at the heart of the US case against Assange – known as the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs. The latter were published exactly a decade ago today. They were a journalistic coup of global significance, and the paper ought to be profoundly proud of its role in bringing them to public attention.
During Assange’s extradition hearing, however, the Guardian treated the logs and its past association with Assange and Wikileaks more like a dirty secret it hoped to keep out of sight. Those scoops furnished by Assange and whistleblower Chelsea Manning enriched the paper financially, and bolstered its standing internationally. They also helped to pave its path into the lucrative US market.
Unlike Assange and Manning, the Guardian has suffered no consequences for publishing the logs. Unlike Assange and Manning, the paper has faced no retribution. While it profited, Assange continues to be made an example of – to deter other journalists from contemplating following in his footsteps.
The Guardian owes Assange.
It owes him a huge debt for allowing it to share in the journalistic glory of Wikileaks’ revelations.
It owes him a duty of care as its partner in publishing the logs.
It owes him its voice loudly denouncing the abuse of a fellow journalist for doing the essence of journalism – holding the powerful to account.
It owes him and its own staff, and the young journalists who will one day take their place, its muscle in vigorously defending the principle of a strong and free press.
It owes him, and the rest of us, a clear profession of its outrage as the US conducts an unprecedented assault on free speech, the foundation of a democratic society.
And yet the Guardian has barely raised its voice above a whisper as the noose has tightened around Assange’s – and by extension, our – neck. It has barely bothered to cover the dramatic and deeply disturbing developments of last month’s extradition hearing, or the blatant abuses of legal process overseen by Baraitser.
Chris Hedges speaks with former UK Ambassador Craig Murray about how the extradition hearing for Julian Assange, which Murray attended, has become a Dickensian farce. https://t.co/3QJH41i1zc
The Guardian has failed to raise its editorial voice in condemnation either of the patently dishonest US case for extradition or of the undisguised mistreatment of Assange by Britain’s legal and judicial authorities.
The paper’s many columnists ignored the proceedings too, except for those who contributed yet more snide and personal attacks of the kind that have typified the Guardian’s coverage of Assange for many years.
My latest: George Monbiot, supposedly the Guardian's 'conscience of the left', offered his followers two feeble excuses for failing to raise his voice in support of Julian Assange against the US extradition bid. But this time his excuses simply won't wash https://t.co/ACc0vdN0fF
It is not too late for the paper to act in defence of Assange and journalism. Assange’s rights are being trampled under foot close by the Guardian’s offices in London because the British establishment knows that these abuses are taking place effectively in darkness. It has nothing to fear as long as the media abdicates its responsibility to scrutinise what amounts to the biggest attack on journalism in living memory.
Were the Guardian to shine a light on Assange’s case – as it is morally obligated to do – the pressure would build on other media organisations, not least the BBC, to do their job properly too. The British establishment would finally face a countervailing pressure to the one being exerted so forcefully by the US.
The Guardian should have stood up for Assange long ago, when the threats he and investigative journalism faced became unmistakable. It missed that opportunity. But the threats to Assange – and the causes of transparency and accountability he champions – have not gone away. They have only intensified. Assange needs the Guardian’s support more urgently, more desperately than ever before.
In July 2017, two journalists working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, wrote of a stash of incriminating documents, running into hundreds of pages. They were “secret defence force documents leaked to the ABC”. These documents gave “an unprecedented insight into the clandestine operations in Australia’s elite special forces in Afghanistan, including incidents of troops killing unarmed men and children.”
In exposing these depravities of invasion, adventurism and war, the devotees of secrecy got busy. Bureaucrats chatted; investigations commenced. On June 5, 2019, officers of the Australian Federal Police raided the Sydney offices of the ABC. It was a busy time for the police; Annika Smethurst of News Corp was also the subject of a warrant, having written about discussions about a proposed enlargement of surveillance powers already possessed by the Australian Signals Directorate. Both warrants had been executed pursuant to alleged breaches of official secrecy under the old version of the Crimes Act 1914 (Cth). Legal affairs editor of The Australian, Chris Merritt was alarmed enough to write of a less than brave new world. “Welcome to modern Australia – a nation where police raid journalists in order to track down and punish the exposure of leaks inside the federal government”.
Both warrants were subsequently challenged. The returns for journalism were mixed. In the case of the ABC, they were abominable. In February, the Federal Court Justice Wendy Abraham dismissed the effort by the broadcaster to impeach the warrant. She found the warrant validly drafted and sufficiency clear. Justice Abraham also affirmed that the implied constitutional right to communicate on political subjects was not a personal, enforceable one, merely a restraint on state power. “[T]he notion of speech as an affirmative value has no role to play.”
This formulation of Australian law, miraculously extracted from the worn teeth of the Australian constitution, is designed to render any such rights inoffensive and benign, lest the citizenry get uppity with such ideas as free speech. This state of affairs ought to encourage a move towards a bill or charter of rights, but Australia’s politicians will have none of it. Constitutionally enshrined rights would only inhibit the powers of parliament and frustrate the ever abstract sovereign will.
Smethurst had better luck in invalidating the search warrant on April 15. But the judges of the High Court found against the police the way a teacher might against an essay from a student prone to poor grammar. The warrant in question failed “to identify any offence under section 79(3)[of the Crimes Act]” and significantly misstated “the nature of an offence arising under it.” In short, go back to class and mind your punctuation before searching the homes and workplaces of journalists. The ill-gotten gains of the police – material taken from the Smethurst’s home – could still be kept, guaranteeing her a run of sleepless nights.
The AFP subsequently confirmed that a brief of evidence had been submitted to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDDP), the result of the July 11, 2017 referral received from the Chief of the Defence Force and then acting-secretary of defence. It recommended that charges be made, though only against Oakes.
With Oakes facing a gloomy prospect of being charged, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security released its report on “the impact of the exercise of law enforcement and intelligence powers on the freedom of the press.” The report, with its 16 recommendations, was predictably weak and timorous. At times, it reads like a cosy overview of how government institutions in the country truly appreciate the role of a free press. There are merry references to Australia’s vibrant democracy. It notes such fairly meaningless improvements as the Attorney General’s direction of September 19, 2019 that his consent would be required were the CDPP to initiate prosecutions against journalists.
The power to issue warrants against journalists was barely challenged. At most was a qualifying recommendation that the role of the Public Interest Advocate be expanded. This creature was already an oddity, given the secretive nature of the office. We know little about the credentials of those who occupy the office, nor its actual workings. The committee suggests a more active role for the advocate in dealing with warrant applications against journalists and media investigations concerning breaches of government secrecy. “The PIA must represent the interests of the principles of public interest journalism, and be authorised to request information to clarify elements of the warrant application provided by ASIO or an enforcement agency to enable the case to be built in their submission.” The monstrous chink in this already perforated armour is that the PIA is wholly dependent on the evidence and claims of the government agency. The balancing act ceases to be credible.
With this less than comforting backdrop, it was confirmed on October 15 that the CDDP would not be taking the matter up against Oakes. According to a statement from the AFP, “In determining whether the matter should be prosecuted, the CDPP considered a range of public interest factors, including the role of public interest journalism in Australia’s democracy.” Having applied its own version of a “public interest” test (all government agencies seem to be doing so these days), the prosecutor found no reason to pursue the case despite believing that there was a “reasonable chance” of securing a conviction on three criminal charges.
As with such prosecutions, the public interest is a weapon twisted not in the name of the public’s interest, whose ignorance must be assured, but in the name of the state’s interest, ever reliant upon secrecy. To that end, “The CDPP determined the public interest does not require a prosecution in the particular circumstances of the case.”
The conclusion of the case against Oakes can only be troubling. The CDPP preferred waving the wand of deterrence just in case other journalists might wish to engage in the same practice. After all, there was a “reasonable” chance of securing a successful conviction. Clark, while welcoming the decision, claimed that “the matter should never have gone this far.”
As with the dangerous US Department of Justice indictment against WikiLeaks publisher and Australian national Julian Assange, the very fact of its existence is, in itself, threatening. It is a roaring threat, a promise that publishing national security information that reveals the dark side of state power will be pursued, and, importantly, can be pursued.
The third day of extradition proceedings against Julian Assange at the Old Bailey resumed on the point of politics. Assange as a figure of political beliefs; Assange as a target of the Trump administration precisely for having them. The man sketching the portrait was Paul Rogers, Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University.
It is no mean feat trying to pin down Assange’s political system. Leftward, rightward, with resistance to the centre? Lashings of libertarianism; heavy doses of anti-war and holding the powerful to account? Such figures tend to be sui generis. In his submitted statement to the court, Rogers suggests a uniform theme. “The political objective of seeking to achieve greater transparency in the workings of governments is clearly both the motivation and the modus operandi of Mr Assange and the organisation WikiLeaks.”
On the stand, Rogers described the Assange method of influence and disruption: the release of the war logs, their influence on public opinion regarding the US imperium’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, the revelations of 15,000 unaccounted civilian casualties. The butcher’s bill of the imperium, in other words, was laid bare by the WikiLeaks’ releases.
For Rogers, this approach jarred with various US administrations, but none more so than that of Trump’s. Assange’s entire approach and “what he stands for represents a threat to normal political endeavour.”
James Lewis QC for the prosecution made his effort to narrow, clip and sharpen the focus on Assange, questioning the expanse of political belief being attributed by Rogers. At times, the prosecution seemed suspended in a time capsule, suggesting, for instance, that political opinions were only applicable to governments and leaders. Rogers preferred a more complex picture: the evolving nature of what political opinion might constitute (for instance, it could include “transnational elites” and attitudes towards corporations). The issue of publishing an item or not could also constitute a form of political opinion.
Lewis then went on the attack, grumpy at the length of Rogers’ responses and suggesting that his testimony was biased towards the defence. Why had he omitted the views of such individuals as US assistant attorney Gordon Kromberg, who argued that prosecuting Assange had been a criminal rather than political matter? Again, Rogers took the preferred broad approach. Prosecutors of a certain rank tend to mimic the views of their superiors – that is their due. What mattered were those higher-ups who had initiated a change in policy regarding WikiLeaks to instigate a “politically motivated prosecution”. This could be demonstrated with some plausibility by considering the wider political context of different administrations. The Obama administration had set its heart on not prosecuting Assange; those in the Trump administration had warmed to the idea.
Not quite getting his pound of flesh, Lewis moved on to targeting the reasons why the Obama administration had gone cold on prosecuting Assange. Like many black letter lawyers on this point, the issue of Assange being confined in the Ecuadorean embassy has them in knots. “What would be the point [of arresting Assange] if he’s hiding in the embassy?” posed Lewis. Rogers, rather sensibly, suggested that this would constitute a pressuring move. “It would have made very good sense to bring it at that time, to show a standing attempt to bring Mr Assange to justice.” Lewis had also made a specious point. As investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi points out, individuals such as Edward Snowden have been duly charged despite fleeing the jurisdiction. Practical custody was hardly a necessary precondition to getting that paperwork ready.
Lewis proceeded to till the same ground as that covered in the testimony of Mark Feldstein, attempting to push the suggestion that the case against Assange might yield future charges, at least as believed by himself and his defence team. Rogers offered similar parrying: the Trump administration’s approach to Assange was distinct, its attitudes conveyed through the hostile remarks of former CIA director Mike Pompeo and the then hungry Attorney General Jeff Sessions. A difference in approach might be gathered from President Barack Obama’s commutation of Chelsea Manning’s sentence. This was Trump’s possible counter.
Post-lunch interest then turned to Trevor Timm, Director of Freedom of the Press Foundation. As he points out in the submitted statement, “The decision to indict Julian Assange on allegations of a ‘conspiracy’ between a publisher and his source or potential sources, and for the publication of truthful information, encroaches on fundamental freedoms.” WikiLeaks was a pioneer in secure submission systems such as SecureDrop, one that had been emulated by media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and Al Jazeera.
It was incumbent upon journalists that they “develop relationships with their sources” and attempts to punish publishing activity arising from the use of “leaked documents of public importance” would face First Amendment difficulties.
The Trump administration, however, had proved bolder than its predecessors. The Espionage Act had been previously floated at such journalists as James Bamford, Ben Bradlee, Seymour Hersh and Neil Sheehan. It took Assange’s arrest and charging in 2019 to break with tradition.
The indictment, particularly in alleging that Assange had engaged in a conspiracy with Chelsea Manning to crack a military computer passport for reasons of remaining anonymous, would criminalise a common news practice and the whole pursuit of national security journalism. Were the prosecution permitted “to go forward, dozens of reporters at the New York Times, Washington Post and elsewhere would also be in danger.”
Lewis took umbrage at Timm’s claim, outlined in his statement, that Trump had engaged in an enthusiastic “war on journalism”. The FPF director was unsparing, suggesting that the indictment of the WikiLeaks publisher was part of this war, “and it is no exaggeration to say the First Amendment itself is at risk.” To Lewis, Timm replied with a salient reminder that Trump had tweeted 2,200 times about the press, describing them at stages as the “enemy of the people”. It was “very telling that Trump’s is the first one to try to bring a case like this since the Nixon administration.”
The prosecution preferred returning to that exhausted nag of an idea: that Assange could not be seen as a journalist. A form of fallacious logic came into play: the US Department of Justice had no interest in prosecuting journalists and would be breaching their own prosecutorial guidelines in doing so; Assange was not a journalist, therefore showing appropriate discrimination.
Timm had an appropriate response to this nonsensical approach. “In the US, the First Amendment protects everyone. Whether you consider Assange a journalist doesn’t matter; he was engaging in journalistic activity.” And if the DOJ was in breach of federal rules, it should follow that they be held accountable.
Timm also refused to ingest the prosecution line that the indictment was sufficiently narrow to only cover the publication of documents that had revealed the names of informants working for the US. Other charges in the indictment focused on criminalising the act of possessing the documents. That every claim would implicate journalists across the spectrum, as would “the mere thought of obtaining these documents”. A sinister, dangerous implication.
The prosecution was also caught up in what a “responsible journalist” might do. While the issue of unnecessarily publishing the name of a third party thereby endangering that person might raise matters of ethical responsibility, that, suggested Timm, was a separate question “from what is illegal or legal conduct.” A previous attempt to criminalise publishing the name of a US intelligence source had been made, by Senator Joseph Lieberman among others, in 2010 as a direct response to the WikiLeaks disclosures. But the Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination (SHIELD) Act never became law.
As for whether WikiLeaks had behaved appropriately or not in publishing the entire tranche of uncensored US diplomatic cables, despite it not being responsible for leaking the password to the relevant encrypted file containing the documents, Timm was firm. Governments should not have a hand in making such editorial judgments; the question centred on illegality, something which WikiLeaks could not be accused of.
The highlights of the second day of Julian Assange’s extradition proceedings at the Central Criminal Court in London yielded an interesting bounty. The first was the broader public purpose behind the WikiLeaks disclosures, their utility in legal proceedings, and their importance in disclosing instances of US extrajudicial killings, torture and rendition. The second involved a discussion about the practice of journalism and the politicised nature of the prosecution against Assange.
Human rights attorney Clive Stafford Smith and founder of Reprieve, an organisation specialising in investigating instances of US detention, rendition and disappearances, was called by Mark Summers QC for the defence. The disclosures by WikiLeaks, he claimed, had been important in the issue of challenging the legitimacy of US drone strikes in Pakistan. Successful litigation conducted in that country found such strikes “criminal offences and that criminal proceedings should be initiated against senior US officials involved in such strikes.” A high court in Pakistan had found that they constituted a “blatant violation of basic human rights”. Stafford Smith noted how the drone assassination program “leaked over to narcotics … they were targeting people for death for their involvement in drug trade because it was seen as funding terrorism. I could go on…”
The statement submitted to the court by Stafford Smith also emphasised how the WikiLeaks material disclosed on the treatment of detainees in Guantánamo were “the top of a very important discourse that would seem to be important in the public interest, about the abysmal intelligence used to detain prisoners and make important public policy decisions.” Stafford Smith’s statement also volunteers a twist: that the material published by WikiLeaks on the subject seemed to be “the best face that the US government could put on the crimes it had committed against the Guantánamo prisoners.”
In his testimony, Stafford Smith affirmed the mixed returns of those disclosures. The leaks initially seemed to portray “the very worst that the US authorities confect about the prisoners I have represented”. He was “frustrated” on first reading the WikiLeaks documents, thinking “they would leak what I get to see”. The mosaic, however, was pieced together to disprove the case against his client.
When it came to discussing the issue of enhanced interrogation techniques used by US personnel, Stafford Smith suggested the similarities shown in method to those used in the Spanish Inquisition. “As you go through the documentation WikiLeaks leaked, there are all sorts of things identified, including where people are taken and renditioned … and that was the case in Binyam’s case.” In being part of an effort to hold US officials to account for war crimes, Stafford Smith had a teasing pointer on the implications for WikiLeaks. “Anyone can be sanctioned who is seeking to assist in an investigation which could lead to ICC [International Criminal Court] investigation, which is what WikiLeaks does”. It was a pointed reminder that Assange’s defence team could well fall within the remit of US sanctions currently directed at the ICC by the Trump administration.
In his overall assessment, Stafford Smith suggested that, “The power and value of WikiLeaks disclosures about Iraq and Afghanistan can scarcely be understated, and are of ‘key importance’ to ‘evidence war crimes and human rights violations by the US and its allies.”
All of this left James Lewis QC of the prosecution more than a touch cranky. Stafford Smith had referred to cables that did not form the subject of charges against Assange. They were, claimed Lewis, irrelevant; the US case was only concerned with those documents that had revealed the names of informants. The defence claim is precisely the opposite: that such documents as referred to by Stafford Smith would also be covered by the charges of Assange “communicating” and “obtaining” classified material. The whole show could be the subject of a prosecution on US soil.
Cheekily, Stafford Smith suggested that Lewis was “wrong about the way in which cases are prosecuted” in the US. Merely because such cables were not outlined in the indictment did not suggest prosecutors would not use them in trial. “You cannot tell the court how this case will be prosecuted. You’re making things up.”
Such legal bickering proved too much for Assange. “This is nonsense,” he claimed from the dock. “Apparently my role is to sit here and legitimate what is illegitimate by proxy.” Cue Judge Vanessa Baraitser, who took witheringly to the intervention. “I understand of course you will hear things, most likely many things you would not like, and you would like to intervene but it is not your role.” While Assange remaining in court was “something the court would wish for”, it “could proceed without you.”
A feature that has stood out in the entire endeavour against Assange is the stench of politics. Lewis disagrees; the investigation into Assange and WikiLeaks has been an organic, methodical one, building since 2010 and flowering in 2020. The testimony of journalism academic Mark Feldstein suggested otherwise. He referred to a Washington Postpiece from November 2013 highlighting the decision by the Obama administration to not proceed. Officials from the Justice Department did stress at the time that no “formal decision” had been made, as the grand jury investigating WikiLeaks remained impanelled. But there was “little possibility of bringing a case against Assange, unless he is implicated in criminal activity other than releasing online top-secret military and diplomatic documents.” The implications of prosecuting Assange were evidently clear: to do so would lead to the obvious conclusion that US news organisations and journalists would also face the prosecutor’s brief.
This cautionary attitude was not to be found at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 2017, they were seeking a “head on a pike”. By then, President Donald Trump had moved into an offensive mode against journalists; the then director of the Central Intelligence Agency Mike Pompeo was resolute in categorising WikiLeaks as a hostile non-state intelligence agency, while Jeff Sessions as Attorney-General was all zeal in asking prosecutors to take a closer look at the Assange case.
But the worm had not entirely turned. Federal attorneys such as James Trump, a figure in the prosecution of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who had leaked classified material to journalist James Risen, and Daniel Grooms, demurred. Both were concerned that undertaking such a prosecution would fall foul of the First Amendment, and be plagued by legal and factual challenges.
Feldstein pushed home the points in his testimony in deeming the efforts against Assange political in nature. The scope of the charges had no precedent; the Obama administration had shown reservations in embarking on what would be a fraught process; the wording of the superseding indictment suggested political leanings; and Trump had shown a deep antipathy for the press. Previous efforts to prosecute journalists, he concluded, were “obviously highly political”.
Undeterred, the prosecution resorted to a conventional tactic: accusing the witness of speculating. The reality Feldstein needed to consider was whether names had been revealed in the publication of such documents. Doing so would result in harm. If this had been the case, suggested Feldstein, the prosecution might have simply used the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, a narrower statute for the purpose. Instead, terms such as “conspiracy” and “recruiting” – the sort normally coupled with “terrorist”, had been deployed. Besides, the issue of “harm” tended to be a bread and butter response by governments that was impossible to prove and used to conceal improprieties.
As a case in point, that most pertinent of precedents, the Pentagon Papers, was cited. As Feldstein noted, the arguments made by prosecutors at the time about the consequences of their disclosure – possible prolongation of the Vietnam War, identification of CIA officials, exposure of war plans – were also caught up in the concept of “immediate and irreparable” harm. It subsequently transpired that one prosecutor thought no harm would arise at all. What mattered was the effort by the Nixon administration to question the loyalty of media outlets.
Standard journalistic method, Feldstein reiterated, directs the source, asking what is needed and seeking more information as relevant. The journalist effectively works with the source. Criminalising that as a case of “conspiring” would make the “most of what investigative journalists do … criminal.”
On the point of the journalist’s craft, the prosecution continued to push the precarious argument that the publishing activities of the New York Times were different from that of WikiLeaks. Journalists did not steal or unlawfully obtain information. Here, Feldstein conceded, things could be murky. “We journalists are not passive stenographers. To suggest receiving anonymously in the mail is the only way is wrong.” As to whether he had engaged in publishing such information, Feldstein was unequivocal: not so much “classified documents” but certainly “soliciting and publishing secret information.”
A balanced overview of the day’s proceedings would have found Lewis struggling with the prosecution narrative focusing on alleged harm caused by Assange, the defence resolute in returning to the big picture element of the disclosures. This was too much to expect from the pedestrian reporting of a Fourth Estate more obsessed with Assange the man. From The Guardian to the Daily Beast, only one thing mattered: the warning by Judge Baraitser that Assange should keep silent and avoid any outbursts. As Kevin Gosztola observed, “US prosecutors win the news cycle on Day 2.”
Court hearings in Britain over the US administration’s extradition case against Julian Assange begin in earnest next week. The decade-long saga that brought us to this point should appall anyone who cares about our increasingly fragile freedoms.
A journalist and publisher has been deprived of his liberty for 10 years. According to UN experts, he has been arbitrarily detained and tortured for much of that time through intense physical confinement and endless psychological pressure. He has been bugged and spied on by the CIA during his time in political asylum, in Ecuador’s London embassy, in ways that violated his most fundamental legal rights. The judge overseeing his hearings has a serious conflict of interest – with her family embedded in the UK security services – that she did not declare and which should have required her to recuse herself from the case.
All indicators are that Assange will be extradited to the US to face a rigged grand jury trial meant to ensure he sees out his days in a maximum-security prison, serving a sentence of up to 175 years.
None of this happened in some Third-World, tinpot dictatorship. It happened right under our noses, in a major western capital, and in a state that claims to protect the rights of a free press. It happened not in the blink of an eye but in slow motion – day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
And once we strip out a sophisticated campaign of character assassination against Assange by western governments and a compliant media, the sole justification for this relentless attack on press freedom is that a 49-year-old man published documents exposing US war crimes. That is the reason – and the only reason – that the US is seeking his extradition and why he has been languishing in what amounts to solitary confinement in Belmarsh high-security prison during the Covid-19 pandemic. His lawyers’ appeals for bail have been refused.
Severed head on a pike
While the press corps abandoned Assange a decade ago, echoing official talking points that pilloried him over toilet hygiene and his treatment of his cat, Assange is today exactly where he originally predicted he would be if western governments got their way. What awaits him is rendition to the US so he can be locked out of sight for the rest of his life.
There were two goals the US and UK set out to achieve through the visible persecution, confinement and torture of Assange.
First, he and Wikileaks, the transparency organisation he co-founded, needed to be disabled. Engaging with Wikileaks had to be made too risky to contemplate for potential whistleblowers. That is why Chelsea Manning – the US soldier who passed on documents relating to US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan for which Assange now faces extradition – was similarly subjected to harsh imprisonment. She later faced punitive daily fines while in jail to pressure her into testifying against Assange.
The aim has been to discredit Wikileaks and similar organisations and stop them from being able to publish more revelatory documents – of the kind that show western governments are not the “good guys” managing world affairs for the benefit of mankind, but are, in fact, highly militarised, global bullies advancing the same ruthless colonial policies of war, destruction and pillage they always pursued.
And second, Assange had to be made to suffer horribly and in public – to be made an example of – to deter other journalists from ever considering following in his footsteps. He is the modern equivalent of a severed head on a pike displayed at the city gates.
The very obvious fact – confirmed by the media coverage of his case – is that this strategy, advanced chiefly by the US and UK (with Sweden playing a lesser role), has been wildly successful. Most corporate media journalists are still enthusiastically colluding in the vilification of Assange – mainly at this stage by ignoring his awful plight.
Story hiding in plain sight
When he hurried into Ecuador’s embassy back in 2012, seeking political asylum, journalists from every corporate media outlet ridiculed his claim – now, of course, fully vindicated – that he was evading US efforts to extradite him and lock him away for good. The media continued with their mockery even as evidence mounted that a grand jury had been secretly convened to draw up espionage charges against him and that it was located in the eastern district of Virginia, where the major US security and intelligence services are headquartered. Any jury there is dominated by US security personnel and their families. His hope of a fair trial was non-existent.
Instead we have endured eight years of misdirection by the corporate media and its willing complicity in his character assassination, which has laid the ground for the current public indifference to Assange’s extradition and widespread ignorance of its horrendous implications.
Corporate journalists have accepted, entirely at face value, a series of rationalisations for why the interests of justice have been served by locking Assange away indefinitely – even before his extradition – and trampling his most basic legal rights. The other side of the story – Assange’s, the story hiding in plain sight – has invariably been missing from the coverage, whether it has been CNN, the New York Times, the BBC or the Guardian.
From Sweden to Clinton
First, it was claimed that Assange had fled questioning over sexual assault allegations in Sweden, even though it was the Swedish authorities who allowed him to leave; even though the original Swedish prosecutor, Eva Finne, dismissed the investigation against him, saying “There is no suspicion of any crime whatsoever”, before it was picked up by a different prosecutor for barely concealed, politicised reasons; and even though Assange later invited Swedish prosectors to question him where he was (in the embassy), an option they regularly agreed to in other cases but resolutely refused in his.
It was not just that none of these points was ever provided as context for the Sweden story by the corporate media. Or that much else in Assange’s favour was simply ignored, such as tampered evidence in the case of one of the two women who alleged sexual assault and the refusal of the other to sign the rape statement drawn up for her by police.
The story was also grossly and continuously misreported as relating to “rape charges” when Assange was wanted simply for questioning. No charges were ever laid against him because the second Swedish prosecutor, Marianne Ny – and her British counterparts, including Sir Keir Starmer, then head of the prosecution service and now leader of the Labour party – seemingly wished to avoid testing the credibility of their allegations by actually questioning Assange. Leaving him to rot in a small room in the embassy served their purposes much better.
When the Sweden case fizzled out – when it became clear that the original prosecutor had been right to conclude that there was no evidence to justify further questioning, let alone charges – the political and media class shifted tack.
Suddenly Assange’s confinement was implicitly justified for entirely different, political reasons – because he had supposedly aided Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign in 2016 by publishing emails, allegedly “hacked” by Russia, from the Democratic party’s servers. The content of those emails, obscured in the coverage at the time and largely forgotten now, revealed corruption by Hillary Clinton’s camp and efforts to sabotage the party’s primaries to undermine her rival for the presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders.
Guardian fabricates a smear
Those on the authoritarian right have shown little concern over Assange’s lengthy confinement in the embassy, and later jailing in Belmarsh, for his exposure of US war crimes, which is why little effort has been expended on winning them over. The demonisation campaign against Assange has focused instead on issues that are likely to trigger liberals and the left, who might otherwise have qualms about jettisoning the First Amendment and locking people up for doing journalism.
Just as the Swedish allegations, despite their non-investigation, tapped into the worst kind of kneejerk identity politics on the left, the “hacked” emails story was designed to alienate the Democratic party base. Extraordinarily, the claim of Russian hacking persists even though years later – and after a major “Russiagate” inquiry by Robert Mueller – it still cannot be stood up with any actual evidence. In fact, some of those closest to the matter, such as former UK ambassador Craig Murray, have insisted all along that the emails were not hacked by Russia but were leaked by a disenchanted Democratic party insider.
An even more important point, however, is that a transparency organisation like Wikileaks had no choice, after it was handed those documents, but to expose abuses by the Democratic party – whoever was the source.
The reason that Assange and Wikileaks became entwined in the Russiagate fiasco – which wasted the energies of Democratic party supporters on a campaign against Trump that actually strengthened rather than weakened him – was because of the credulous coverage, once again, of the issue by almost the entire corporate media. Liberal outlets like the Guardian newspaper even went so far as to openly fabricate a story – in which it falsely reported that a Trump aide, Paul Manafort, and unnamed “Russians” secretly visited Assange in the embassy – without repercussion or retraction.
Assange’s torture ignored
All of this made possible what has happened since. After the Swedish case evaporated and there were no reasonable grounds left for not letting Assange walk free from the embassy, the media suddenly decided in chorus that a technical bail violation was grounds enough for his continuing confinement in the embassy – or, better still, his arrest and jailing. That breach of bail, of course, related to Assange’s decision to seek asylum in the embassy, based on a correct assessment that the US planned to demand his extradition and imprisonment.
None of these well-paid journalists seemed to remember that, in British law, failure to meet bail conditions is permitted if there is “reasonable cause” – and fleeing political persecution is very obviously just such a reasonable cause.
Similarly, the media wilfully ignored the conclusions of a report by Nils Melzer, a Swiss scholar of international law and the United Nations’ expert on torture, that the UK, US and Sweden had not only denied Assange his basic legal rights but had colluded in subjecting him to years of psychological torture – a form of torture, Melzer has pointed out, that was refined by the Nazis because it was found to be crueller and more effective at breaking victims than physical torture.
Assange has been blighted by deteriorating health and cognitive decline as a result, and has lost significant weight. None of that has been deemed worthy by the corporate media of more than a passing mention – specifically when Assange’s poor health made him incapable of attending a court hearing. Instead Melzer’s repeated warnings about Assange’s abusive treatment and its effects on him have fallen on deaf ears. The media has simply ignored Melzer’s findings, as though they were never published, that Assange has been, and is being, tortured. We need only pause and imagine how much coverage Melzer’s report would have received had it concerned the treatment of a dissident in an official enemy state like Russia or China.
A power-worshipping media
Last year British police, in coordination with an Ecuador now led by a president, Lenin Moreno, who craved closer ties with Washington, stormed the embassy to drag Assange out and lock him up in Belmarsh prison. In their coverage of these events, journalists again played dumb.
They had spent years first professing the need to “believe women” in the Assange case, even if it meant ignoring evidence, and then proclaiming the sanctity of bail conditions, even if they were used simply as a pretext for political persecution. Now that was all swept aside in an instant. Suddenly Assange’s nine years of confinement over a non-existent sexual assault investigation and a minor bail infraction were narratively replaced by an espionage case. And the media lined up against him once again.
A decade ago the idea that Assange could be extradited to the US and locked up for the rest of his life, his journalism recast as “espionage”, was mocked as so improbable, so outrageously unlawful that no “mainstream” journalist was prepared to countenance it as the genuine reason for his seeking asylum in the embassy. It was derided as a figment of the fevered, paranoid imaginations of Assange and his supporters, and as a self-serving cover for him to avoid facing the investigation in Sweden.
But when British police invaded the embassy in April last year and arrested him for extradition to the US on precisely the espionage charges Assange had always warned were going to be used against him, journalists reported these developments as though they were oblivious to this backstory. The media erased this context not least because it would have made them look like willing dupes of US propaganda, like apologists for US exceptionalism, and because it would have proved Assange right once more. It would have demonstrated that he is the real journalist, in contrast to their pacified, complacent, power-worshipping corporate journalism.
The death of journalism
Right now every journalist in the world ought to be up in arms, protesting at the abuses Assange is suffering, and has suffered, and the fate he will endure if extradition is approved. They should be protesting on front pages and in TV news shows the endless and blatant abuses of legal process at Assange’s hearings in the British courts, including the gross conflict of interest of Lady Emma Arbuthnot, the judge presiding over his case.
They should be in uproar at the surveillance the CIA illegally arranged inside the Ecuadorian embassy while Assange was confined there, nullifying the already dishonest US case against him by violating his client-lawyer privilege. They should be expressing outrage at Washington’s manoeuvres, accorded a thin veneer of due process by the British courts, designed to extradite him on espionage charges for doing work that lies at the very heart of what journalism claims to be – holding the powerful to account.
Journalists do not need to care about Assange or like him. They have to speak out in protest because approval of his extradition will mark the official death of journalism. It will mean that any journalist in the world who unearths embarrassing truths about the US, who discovers its darkest secrets, will need to keep quiet or risk being jailed for the rest of their lives.
That ought to terrify every journalist. But it has had no such effect.
Careers and status, not truth
The vast majority of western journalists, of course, never uncover one significant secret from the centres of power in their entire professional careers – even those ostensibly monitoring those power centres. These journalists repackage press releases and lobby briefings, they tap sources inside government who use them as a conduit to the large audiences they command, and they relay gossip and sniping from inside the corridors of power.
That is the reality of access journalism that constitutes 99 per cent of what we call political news.
Nonetheless, Assange’s abandonment by journalists – the complete lack of solidarity as one of their number is persecuted as flagrantly as dissidents once sent to the gulags – should depress us. It means not only that journalists have abandoned any pretence that they do real journalism, but that they have also renounced the aspiration that it be done by anyone at all.
It means that corporate journalists are ready to be viewed with even greater disdain by their audiences than is already the case. Because through their complicity and silence, they have sided with governments to ensure that anyone who truly holds power to account, like Assange, will end up behind bars. Their own freedom brands them as a captured elite – irrefutable evidence that they serve power, they do not confront it.
The only conclusion to be drawn is that corporate journalists care less about the truth than they do about their careers, their salaries, their status, and their access to the rich and powerful. As Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky explained long ago in their book Manufacturing Consent, journalists join a media class after lengthy education and training processes designed to weed out those not reliably in sympathy with the ideological interests of their corporate employers.
A sacrificial offering
Briefly, Assange raised the stakes for all journalists by renouncing their god – “access” – and their modus operandi of revealing occasional glimpses of very partial truths offered up by “friendly”, and invariably anonymous, sources who use the media to settle scores with rivals in the centres of power.
Instead, through whistleblowers, Assange rooted out the unguarded, unvarnished, full-spectrum truth whose exposure helped no one in power – only us, the public, as we tried to understand what was being done, and had been done, in our names. For the first time, we could see just how ugly, and often criminal, the behaviour of our leaders was.
Assange did not just expose the political class, he exposed the media class too – for their feebleness, for their hypocrisy, for their dependence on the centres of power, for their inability to criticise a corporate system in which they were embedded.
Few of them can forgive Assange that crime. Which is why they will be there cheering on his extradition, if only through their silence. A few liberal writers will wait till it is too late for Assange, till he has been packaged up for rendition, to voice half-hearted, mealy-mouthed or agonised columns arguing that, unpleasant as Assange supposedly is, he did not deserve the treatment the US has in store for him.
But that will be far too little, far too late. Assange needed solidarity from journalists and their media organisations long ago, as well as full-throated denunciations of his oppressors. He and Wikileaks were on the front line of a war to remake journalism, to rebuild it as a true check on the runaway power of our governments. Journalists had a chance to join him in that struggle. Instead they fled the battlefield, leaving him as a sacrificial offering to their corporate masters.
By the late-90s we must have sensed that the shit was hitting the fan. The fire at Waco. The Unabomber envelopes. The downing of Flight 800. The World Trade Center bombing. Blowjobs in the White House. Oklahoma City. Tokyo’s subway sarin attack. The Khobar Towers bombing blamed on bin Laden. The ascent of Atlanta’s radio jockstrap Sean Hannity to national status on Roger Ailes’ newly established Fox News Network. OJ taking off the gloves. Rodney King wondering if we could all just get along. Cruise missiles on Bosnia on the eve of Clinton’s impeachment for blowjobs. Distracted from distraction by distraction, as T.S. Eliot famously put it, years before Karl Rove’s prosaic promise to fuck with reality-based thinking in the wake of 9/11.
As if America didn’t have enough problems, a foot soldier in the Army of God was afoot in the wee hours of July 27, 1996 at Centennial Park in Atlanta, where the Olympics were winding up for the night. Eric Rudolph, formerly of the Army of Exceptionalism — he’d been a special ops soldier in the Airborne 101 — was strolling near some benches behind the park, wearing a green backpack. There were dozens of people milling about. Rudolph sat on a bench and surreptitiously opened his backpack and set a timer on a huge bomb and placed the pack under the bench, then walked away hurriedly. No one saw him.
Rudolph rushed to a phone bank outside a Days Inn a couple of blocks away from the park and called in the bomb threat to 911. He used a plastic device to disguise his voice, and then, according to Kent Alexander’s account in the recently released book, The Suspect, the following took place: Rudolph said, “‘We defy the order of the militia …’ Click. The line went dead. The 911 operator had disconnected him.” Disconcerted at not being taken seriously, Rudolph called back, disguising his voice by pinching his nose, and said: “‘There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have thirty minutes.’ He hung up. The call lasted thirteen seconds.” Confusion followed, with the 911 operator unable to find the Olympic Park address. Transcripts show insufficient urgency followed:
Dispatcher: Zone 5.
911 Operator: You know the address to Centennial Park?
Dispatcher: Girl, don’t ask me to lie to you.
911 Operator: I tried to call ACC, but ain’t nobody answering the phone … but I just got this man called talking about there’s a bomb set to go off in thirty minutes in Centennial Park.
Dispatcher: Oh Lord, child. Uh, OK, wait a minute. Centennial Park, you put it in and it won’t go in?
911 Operator: No, unless I’m spelling Centennial wrong. How are we spelling Centennial?
Dispatcher: C-E-N-T-E-N-N-I—how do you spell Centennial?
911 Operator: I’m spelling it right, it ain’t taking.
Valuable time expired, and the bomb squad, when they were finally called to the scene, had insufficient time to properly clear the area before the bomb went off.
At the start of Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Richard Jewell, the title character is followed by the director as he makes his rounds as an AT&T security guard outside a busy Centennial Park. Goofy and overstuffed, he is immediately seen as an oddball. Offering water to a pregnant woman in such a way that, though thanking him for it, she eyeballs him suspiciously. He confronts a group of drinking teens who diss him. On his way to get help, he sees the bomb under the bench. He asks passersby if the pack belongs to them. Alarmed, he alerts the assigned police crew, urging them to take action immediately, seemingly certain the pack is loaded. Bystanders are pushed to safety by Jewell, and others, when the bomb booms.
Paul Walter Hauser plays the complex character of Jewell, who’s not as dumb as he looks (or sometimes acts), and who gets caught up in a media frenzy that is fuelled by the wild speculation of a misinformed newspaper reporter, played by Olivia Wilde, and the entrapping tactics of the FBI — John Hamm playing the principle scofflaw fed. As the world comes at Jewell like a viral contagion, annihilating his privacy and reputation, he is buoyed up by his mother, played by Kathy Bates (in an Oscar-nominated supporting role) and Sam Rockwell as Watson Bryant, his lawyer and friend.
There’s been considerable controversy over the film’s depiction of the newspaper reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde. Eastwood has taken heat for her depiction, but he didn’t write the screenplay. The script is based upon Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article, “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” and The Suspect, Alexander and Selwen’s account of the bombing and its aftermath — including police investigations and news reporting. Only the latter sets up the scene where Scruggs allegedly received the confirmation from police that Richard Jewell was the primary suspect.
In The Suspect, Scruggs meets up with her source (unrevealed) at a bar — “someone she had known over the years. The source was about as plugged in as it got. She got down to business.” She was seated across from her source, and there was no hanky-panky:
The meeting was strictly off the record—that was understood. They ordered drinks, made small talk. After a few minutes, Scruggs asked the question. Are there any new suspects? Yes, the reply came back. One. “It’s Richard Jewell.” Scruggs’s heart pounded. Bingo. Jewell, the hero. Until now.”
To this day, this source is unknown, although Alexander and Selwen drop a couple of insinuating names in a couple of places.
Compare the Suspect scene above with the screenplay version (45-6) written by Billy Ray. In Ray’s account, Scruggs comes across as an eager beaver, who’ll do anything to get the scoop. Here’s how she’s depicted in the film:
I wouldn’t run it unless I had independent corroboration from a second source. That would put us in a different zone, as you know. (her hand drifting) Tom. You’re about to burst.
She leans in — that open blouse. He’s hard as an anvil.
First time in my life I ever wished I was gay.
Kathy smiles… then Shaw gives it up:
The Bureau’s looking at the security guard. Jewell.
WHOA. Kathy freezes. Did I hear that wrong? Nope. Trying to calm herself, she takes out her notepad.
The scene’s sexual banter is significantly longer in the film. There’s no question that it makes Scruggs look sleazy. But it’s also a condensed, slightly spiced up sum of all parts which Alexander and Selwel suggest throughout The Suspect. Is it Eastwood’s role to change a script for fairness to perceived reality? While Richard Jewell is based on actual events, Eastwood never pretends that his movie is “journalistic,” the way Katherine Bigelow did for Zero Dark Thirty. Did Scruggs sleep with cops to get information? The film says Yes, and The Suspect says Maybe (with a wink).
But Marie Brenner, in her Vanity Fair piece, “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” draws attention to a far more damaging assault on Scruggs’ reputation — the question of attribution in her story on Jewell and her reliance on ‘Voice of God’ journalism. Her lede reads:
The security guard who first alerted police to the pipe bomb that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park is the focus of the federal investigation into the incident that resulted in two deaths and injured more than 100.
Well, says who? Further defamatory sentences follow (here is the article) — without any attribution at all. It’s the Voice of God at work. Ironically, VOG was AJC’s rule: they’d “essentially banned” the expression “sources said” because readers might believe a quote was “fabricated.”
Brenner opens up the possibility that there was no source, per se, at all. And this line is taken further by Alexander and Selwen when they allude to the 1984 LA Olympics Turkish Bus bomb — planted by the ‘heroic’ officer who found the bomb. It may be, The Suspect suggests, that Scruggs had been given the hero-bomb anecdote and ran with it, in her passion to be the one who broke the story. Alexander and Selwen cite previous admonishments: “She was so eager to run with what trusted sources disclosed to her that editors often had to slow her down until she got more corroborating details.” Maybe there was no secondary corroboration.
The worst thing of all is that Jewell didn’t find out that he was a suspect until the AJC piece broke and went wild across the local and national airwaves. Overnight he went from a profile in courage to the profile of a loser — and, if he was imitating the LA ‘bomb hero, not particularly original either. None of it makes Scruggs look good as a reporter. But the AJC, believes the film has gone too far in portraying her as a quid pro quo “floozy,” and in “The Ballad of Kathy Scruggs,” Jennifer Brett complains that the harsh appraisal of Scruggs’ journalism is not balanced. She cites Scruggs’s brother, Lewis, who recalls, “… She was proud the FBI called her about Jewell. She was proud of the way she reported it to begin with.” But she shouldn’t have been proud.
The FBI did a disgraceful job handling the bombing, starting with director Louis Freeh, who micromanaged the investigation, and may have pushed the notion that Jewell be regarded as the prime suspect to his underlings in Atlanta — suspicions drawn from false profiling. It continued with the leak to Scruggs. But the most despicable thing they did was their attempt to entrap Jewell in a fake interview during which they hoped to extract information that ‘only the bomber could know.’ Jewell caught on, called a lawyer, and sought solace and protection behind his forceful and articulate mother, Bobi (played by Kathy Bates). Eventually the FBI conducted an internal investigation of their handling of Jewell, although the FBI later admitted, “We never went after the leak.”
Ultimately, it may be that it was FBI director Louis Freeh’s actions that were under-scrutinized in the half-assed investigation that followed. In The Suspect, Alexander and Selwen make clear that Freeh was calling the shots from Washington, and that he may have pushed the ‘bomb hero’ scenario on the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) of the agency, forcing them to push out a false profile — without independently gathered evidence. Scruggs used their “lone bomber” profile, even though she should have known that Jewell couldn’t have been at the scene and making phone calls up the road — at the same time. He would have needed an accomplice, negating the “lone bomber” theory.
Richard Jewell might have perished emotionally or even have ended up imprisoned for the bombing, if not for his mother’s courage and ability to sway the media, as well as Watson Bryant, his lawyer, who is there when Jewell needs him, yanking back the naive and over-talkative suspect from FBI entrapment. Everyone seemed to be coming at him in his 88 day ordeal, before he was cleared. Not only was there the usual swarming rush to judgement, stoked by the sensationalist media, but he was viciously turned on, suddenly going from hero to goat. NBC Late Show host Jay Leno, was particularly horrid, referring to Jewell as “Una-doofus,” while he was a suspect, and calling him later, after he was cleared, “white trash.”
In the end, as we all know now, Eric Rudolph was arrested almost seven years later, for bombing a gay bar and two abortion clinics. In a plea bargain deal, he also copped to the Olympic Park bombing. Rudolph, an ex 101st Airborne special ops soldier, was a survivalist who went on the lam for five years after the Centennial bombing. He claimed that he was motivated in his bombings by hatred of gays, abortion, and general government over-reach. He fit the profile of a “lone bomber”.
Back in Jennifer Brett’s recent AJC piece, “The Ballad of Kathy Scruggs,” which seeks to correct the image presented of the reporter in the Clint Eastwood film, a friend, Tony Kiss, defends Scruggs, “She was never at peace or at rest with this story. It haunted her until her last breath,” Kiss said. “It crushed her like a junebug on the sidewalk.”
It’s ironic that both Jewell and Scruggs had a thing for cops — and in both cases they were let down, at great cost to their lives and reputations. The event produced a convergence of ill-will and evil rarely seen: media manipulations, police corruption, political and social reactionaries, insensitive Late Show jokes, a Christian terrorist who likes to blow people to Kingdom Come, frenzy and sensationalism.
Neither ever recovered. Jewell died aged 44; Scruggs died at 43.
So-called overseas reps of China’s Uyghur ethnic group filed evidence at the International Criminal Court (ICC) to spark an investigation on alleged human rights violations. But are the reports founded on strong evidence? (story starts at 2:00)
An Omaha police officer escorts freelancer Megan Feeney, a camera dangling from her zip-tied hands, on June 1, 2020. (Aaron Sanderford/Omaha World Herald).
NOTE: We are taking next weekend off to take care of personal needs. The newsletter will be back in two weeks. – KZ and MF
Government attacks on the media are escalating as the battle for the narrative grows in importance.
For the last decade, stories produced and amplified by the democratized media have put the power structure at risk. People saw government documents showing war crimes and violations of international law. We all saw police killing unarmed people and extreme militarized violence in response to nonviolent protests. These stories have been magnified by people realizing they are the media and sharing stories in their networks on a variety of platforms.
To maintain control, the power structure needs to stop people from knowing the truth. The recent RAND Report on the future of warfare cites the following concern: “As smartphones and social media saturate the developing world, militaries will find themselves harder pressed to control both what images the public sees and the narrative surrounding operations.”
Powerholders are striking back. This article focuses on two aspects of this conflict – the new indictment brought against Julian Assange this week and the attacks on media by the police during the nationwide uprising against police violence. Part of the job of each of us is to let them know we see what they are doing to try to hide the truth of their actions. We must hold them accountable for the false narrative they produce and their efforts to criminalize those who are the truthtellers and work to put out the true narrative those in power want to suppress.
Collateral murder video provided to Wikileaks.
Federal government’s new indictment against Assange based on smears
The leading truthteller who is under attack is Julian Assange. The prosecution of Assange will define freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and our right to know in the 21st Century.
This week the federal government sought to bolster its bogus case against Assange with more false and misleading claims in another superseding indictment. The centerpiece of the indictment remains the 17 Espionage Act counts for the publication of documents leaked by Chelsea Manning exposing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and illegal global diplomatic intrigues. The federal government did not add new charges but instead sought to mischaracterize Assange as a hacker because the charges based on the Espionage Act are problematic. The Espionage Act has never been used against a journalist and extradition from the UK is not allowed for political prosecutions. The prosecution of a journalist for reporting the truth about US foreign policy is clearly a political prosecution.
The federal government sought to define Assange as a hacker using speeches he gave at conferences calling for transparency and describing the power of government whistleblowers who share documents and hackers who acquire them. The government twists important political arguments made by Assange about the need to expose corruption and crimes of government, especially the US government, as conspiring with hackers.
They also sought to claim Assange and his colleagues at Wikileaks were conspiring with hackers because of the assistance they gave to Edward Snowden to avoid capture by the US government and move to Russia for political protection. Sarah Harrison of Wikileaks is described as a co-conspirator for her heroic role in saving Snowden from prosecution even though she is not charged with any crime. Other Wikileaks members are included as co-conspirators.
The new indictment points to statements made by Assange and other Wikileaks members at the Chaos Computer Club conference in Germany on December 31, 2013. Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, and Harrison participated in a panel discussion called, “Sysadmins of the World, Unite! A Call to Resistance.” This effort to turn a public speech by Assange into a hacker-conspiracy shows the desperation of the government to convict Assange. Kevin Gosztola writes in Shadowproof that “At no point does the Justice Department attempt to connect the alleged ‘recruitment’ of ‘hackers’ or ‘leakers’ to an actual individual, who heard these words and acted upon them.”
The original indictment, which claimed Assange assisted Chelsea Manning in acquiring classified documents, was obviously false. Manning had security clearance and legal access to the documents she leaked and did not need to hack the files. She had already downloaded the documents on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanomo Bay, and State Department cables before contacting Assange. During the extradition hearings it was revealed she asked Assange to help her acquire prohibited video games and music for her military colleagues. Assange did not even provide help to accomplish these innocuous objectives.
The government’s desperation is made glaringly clear in this new indictment as almost all of the new material has been on the public record in one form or other, for six years or longer. They date back to Assange’s speeches to public conventions of computer experts in the Netherlands and Malaysia, in 2009 and 2010.
As has been true with each of these indictments, the government is seeking to criminalize normal journalistic practices. This includes encouraging people with inside information to provide the media with documents that are in the public interest. Assisting whistleblowers with avoiding prosecution is common practice. Glenn Greenwald says you can find very detailed instructions on the New York Times and Washington Post websites about how to safely be a whistleblower. He describes it as the “duty of a journalist to help their source not get caught.”
The investigation of Julian Assange began in the Obama-Biden administration. While Trump praised Wikileaks during his campaign, Mike Pompeo made it his goal to prosecute Assange and destroy Wikileaks to prevent any journalist anywhere in the world from reporting on US war crimes and corruption.
This prosecution is a threat to the fundamental purpose of the First Amendment that allows people freedom of speech to criticize the government without being punished for doing so. The First Amendment is not a protection of corporate media or some narrow classification of journalists but protects all people. The Assange case is important because Wikileaks has democratized the media by giving people a method to expose crime and corruption of governments and corporations. And, it is important because the US is prosecuting an Australian journalist, writing from the UK about the United States, thereby putting people at risk not just in the United States but anywhere in the world.
Police assault Australian media crew in front of the White House.
National uprising exposes attacks on media
The national uprising against police violence and the killing of people in communities of color are exposing more efforts to suppress the truth. This comes from arrests, harassment, and violent attacks on media reporting on the protests and showing police violence. Newsrooms are also complicit by suppressing reporting.
Charles Baker writes in Business Insider that in early June, “in Minneapolis, local law enforcement took aim at Linda Tirado, a photojournalist, and shot her in the eye as she covered protests over the police killing of George Floyd. They later subjected a black journalist from CNN to wrongful arrest. In Louisville, TV reporter Kaitlin Rust and her crew were targeted by local cops who peppered them with non-lethal bullets during a live broadcast.” This led to an open letter to police endorsed by groups such as the Society of Professional Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the National Press Club to stop the devastating targeting of journalists.
The police also served a subpoena from the county prosecutor’s office for videos, photos, and audio captured by reporters for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com during recent protests in downtown Cleveland, thereby making journalists into an arm of the police. Also in Cleveland, police banned the media from covering protests.
This century there has been a dramatic increase in awareness of government and corporate corruption, state violence, and systemic oppression. The internet and social media platforms have given everyone the tools to expose what is going on. It is this awareness that has fueled the rise in consensus that there are significant crises, that the current systems can’t address these crises and that we need new systems. The facade of democracy is fading. That we live in a failed state is becoming obvious. And now we have a summer of rebellion beginning with the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd.
The powerholders are afraid because they can no longer control the narrative. Even those within their institutions, the corporate media, are breaking ranks and refusing to be complicit. The ruling class will do whatever it can to wrest that control back even if it means arrests and intimidation of people, breaking the law, and violating the Constitution.
The prosecution of Julian Assange, assaults on the media, and censorship of alternative voices are all an attack on our right to know. Knowledge is power. We must not lose the right to know what our government, state actors, and corporations are doing.
Julian Assange’s extradition hearing will be in September. The latest superseding indictment is another attempt to smear Assange’s reputation and weaken his public support. It is no coincidence that it came out just as the revelation of his two young children was garnering greater sympathy and Australian 60 Minutes did a favorable show on him. We must defend Assange by countering the smears, getting the truth out, and showing up for him. DefendWikileaks.org is one place to get information about what is happening and how to take action.
In this era, we all are protectors of the right to know. We encourage you to question what you see in the corporate media (and that includes the so-called public media like NPR), support independent media, and make it your responsibility to share information that counters false narratives. Learn how to be the media by covering injustice where you see it. It’s as simple as writing a letter to the editor or a blog, taking photos and videos with your phone, and sharing articles on social media.
The pilot episode of subMedia’s brand new show, System Fail, looks at the incendiary riots that have swept across the United States in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and the state’s desperate attempts to bring things back under control.
Featuring an interview with Oluchi Omeoga, co-founder and core organizer of the Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block.