December 6, 2010

Nicole Colson reports on the furor over the latest documents from WikiLeaks and the attempts to smear--or worse--the muckraking Web site's founder Julian Assange.

U.S. POLITICIANS are baying for the blood of Julian Assange, head of the muckraking Web site WikiLeaks.

The latest release from WikiLeaks--this time consisting primarily of some 250,000 leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, about half of which are classified, either at the "confidential" or "secret" level--has politicians and pundits demanding that the Web site be shut down and Assange immediately jailed...or worse.

Reaction from Republicans was the loudest, of course. Rep. Peter King of New York called for Assange to be jailed under the Espionage Act and 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.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called Assange "a high-tech terrorist" on NBC's Meet The Press and said that if it's found that Assange hasn't actually violated the law by releasing the cables, then the law should be changed to allow retroactive prosecution.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

Then, of course, there are the politicians who think Assange and anyone else associated with WikiLeaks should be assassinated. Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said that the person who leaked the information to Assange should be tried for treason and executed. Conservative Weekly Standard editor and Fox News contributor William Kristol stated that he believes that the CIA should "neutralize" the WikiLeaks founder.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, meanwhile, took to Facebook to proclaim that Assange is an "anti-American operative with blood on his hands."

Assange is not a journalist "any more than the 'editor' of al-Qaeda's new English-language magazine Inspire is a 'journalist,'" claimed Palin. "His past posting of classified documents revealed the identity of more than 100 Afghan sources to the Taliban. Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders?" Palin said.

Jeffrey Kuhner of the Washington Times went even further. In an article titled "Assassinate Assange," he wrote that "Julian Assange poses a clear and present danger to American national security. The WikiLeaks founder is more than a reckless provocateur. He is aiding and abetting terrorists in their war against America. The administration must take care of the problem--effectively and permanently." The piece was accompanied with a mock poster of Assange--with a target and bloody splotches over it and the words "Wanted Dead or Alive."

Fox News' Bill O'Reilly allowed that Assange should have the benefit of a trial--but that he should be executed when it's over.

FOR ITS part, the Obama administration avoided explicit calls for Assange to be murdered. But it's clear that the administration would jail him, at the very least, if it gets the shot.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced an investigation into any criminal wrongdoing by WikiLeaks, warning, "This is not saber-rattling." Calling the WikiLeaks probe "an active, ongoing criminal investigation," Holder told reporters: "To the extent that we can find anybody who was involved in the breaking of American law, who put at risk the assets and the people I have described, they will be held responsible; they will be held accountable."

Obama's White House has reportedly barred all "unauthorized" government employees from viewing WikiLeaks. Likewise, the Pentagon has ordered the branches of the U.S. military to tell service members that the site is off-limits for both public and personal usage.

The attitude of Washington appears to be that it can limit the damage from this latest WikiLeaks release and "put the genie back in the bottle," so to speak, by sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton into "damage control mode" to smooth over the ruffled feathers of U.S. allies, while going after WikiLeaks and Assange to prevent any future leaks.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced that she supports rewriting and expanding the Espionage Act of 1917 to make it easier to prosecute WikiLeaks. Sen. Joe Lieberman, chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, has been particularly aggressive, alternately threatening and cajoling various U.S. Web service providers and other companies into cutting off WikiLeaks. was first to stop hosting the site, reportedly less than 24 hours after being contacted by Lieberman's staff. According to Talking Points Memo, Lieberman's staff "called Amazon to ask about it, and left questions with a press secretary, including, 'Are there plans to take the site down?'" Soon after, Amazon booted WikiLeaks for "unspecified" violations of the company's terms of use.

As Lieberman's spokeswoman Leslie Phillips told reporters, "Sen. Lieberman hopes that the Amazon case will send the message to other companies that might host WikiLeaks that it would be irresponsible to host the site."

Mission accomplished.

After Amazon caved, Seattle-based software company, Tableau, removed charts uploaded by WikiLeaks, according to the New York Times, "in response to Sen. Joe Lieberman's public statement that companies should stop helping the whistle-blowers." This is despite the fact that the charts only summarized the material--counting the number of documents per country, etc--and didn't provide any details of the leaked memos beyond generalities.

WikiLeaks' domain-name service provider, EveryDNS, was also battered by denial of service attacks, and the Internet payment site PayPal has since frozen the account of the German foundation accepting donations for WikiLeaks. (The static IP address for the site remains accessible.)

As noted, PayPal froze the account because of supposed "illegal activity":

PayPal's public statement doesn't detail the "illegal activity" WikiLeaks promotes, but presumably, it's the leaking of classified information. Sometimes such leaks are indeed illegal. And sometimes classified leaks--legal or not--reveal warrantless wiretapping of Americans, secret CIA prison networks and massive government waste hidden in black budgets. The reasoning PayPal offers for its newfound intolerance for WikiLeaks would seem to apply equally well to the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The irony about the push by U.S. officials 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. In fact, few in the mainstream media have called out U.S. political figures for their attempts to censor the documents and prevent information about the reality of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the ugly truth of world "diplomacy," from reaching the public.

As's Glenn Greenwald noted:

Note that Lieberman here is desperate to prevent American citizens--not The Terrorists--from reading the WikiLeaks documents which shed light on what the U.S. government is doing. His concern is domestic consumption. By his own account, he did this to "send a message to other companies that might host WikiLeaks" not to do so. No matter what you think of WikiLeaks, they have never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crime; Lieberman literally wants to dictate--unilaterally--what you can and cannot read on the Internet, to prevent Americans from accessing documents that much of the rest of the world is freely reading.

The Internet, of course, is rendering decrepit would-be petty tyrants like Lieberman impotent and obsolete: WikiLeaks moved its website to a Swedish server and was accessible again within hours. But any attempt by political officials to start blocking Americans' access to political content on the Internet ought to provoke serious uproar and unrest.

ASIDE FROM facing calls for his assassination from various media personalities and politicians, Julian Assange is now a wanted man based on allegations that seem suspect, to say the least.

Interpol recently issued a "red notice" announcing that Assange is wanted for questioning over sexual assault charges in Sweden, and in a statement given to NBC News, the Swedish Prosecution Office said Assange had been "detained in his absence, charged with rape, sexual molestation and illegal coercion." A Swedish court has refused to allow Assange to appeal against an arrest warrant.

While details of the allegations remain sketchy--a variety of reports indicate the accusations against Assange fall far short of rape--one matter that is certain is that Interpol's issuing of a red notice--which is typically reserved for violent criminals, international drug lords and war lords--for Assange is wild overreach. Rape is a serious allegation that ought to be investigated--but it's impossible to take the charges against Assange at face value given the nature of the attack on him by the world's superpowers.

Instead, it seems likely that the Swedish charges, as well as the Interpol notice, are designed to get the Australian-born Assange into custody in a country that will, eventually, be willing to extradite him to the U.S. to face prosecution for whatever "crimes" American prosecutors can conjure up around the WikiLeaks revelations.

But the international manhunt for Assange 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 proved are guilty of enabling murder, massacres and torture.

It isn't even that the latest WikiLeaks revelations are so shocking. Compared to earlier WikiLeaks exposés of U.S. troops engaging in war crimes, undisclosed civilian casualties, and complicity in torture in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cables showing that U.S. diplomats compared Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev to Batman and Robin are pretty mild.

Beyond the diplomatic name-calling, of course, there are important revelations in the new documents--including the fact that the Obama administration pressured the Spanish government to drop a criminal probe into Bush administration officials' complicity in torture, and that the head of the Bank of England got caught pressuring Conservative Party politicians to carry out harsher austerity measures, in violation of his job.

But even the most damaging WikiLeaks revelations are not very surprising. It has always been the case that behind the mask of "diplomacy" and fine-sounding rhetoric, there exists a snarling band of cynical politicians, willing to go to any expense to preserve U.S. dominance.

The reason the chorus of official fury over WikiLeaks is so loud is that WikiLeaks is continuing to expose the real aims at the heart of U.S. wars--a desire for power and conquest, and a willingness to run roughshod over human rights to accomplish them.

Each WikiLeaks "dump" of documents has produced a standard response from government officials. First come claims that the release of information is a threat to national security, then the contradictory assertion that "there's nothing new to see." And much of the U.S. mainstream media repeats both lines, interchangeably, ad nauseum.

Focusing on Julian Assange and the supposed "threat" he poses is far easier for politicians and the media than dealing with the disclosures of U.S. complicity in massacres and torture. As Glenn 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."

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.

There are people who eagerly want that secrecy regime to continue: namely, (a) Washington politicians, permanent state functionaries and media figures whose status, power and sense of self-importance are established by their access and devotion to that world of secrecy, and (b) those who actually believe that--despite (or because of) all the above acts--the U.S. government somehow uses this extreme secrecy for the good.

The latest word is that Assange and WikiLeaks are planning to release documents from a major U.S. bank next--possibly Bank of America. We can only hope WikiLeaks gives giant corporations the same black eye it's given to the U.S. government--and we continue to defend its right to do so.

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