Why we stand with WikiLeaks

December 17, 2010

Nicole Colson looks at the latest developments in the case of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange--and how this attack is part of a spreading government assault on free speech.

U.S. AUTHORITIES seemed closer to attempting to manufacture an excuse to bring WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the U.S. to face charges.

This week, amid reports that a grand jury had been convened in Virginia to consider charges against him, Assange, backed by dozens of supporters, appeared in court in Britain and was granted bail on December 16.

Ostensibly, Assange is wanted for questioning concerning rape and sexual assault allegations in Sweden--but Swedish prosecutors are already talking publicly about the conditions under which they would hand Assange over to the U.S. for prosecution for his work on WikiLeaks.

This makes it crystal clear that authorities are using accusations of the serious crime of rape in the most cynical and opportunistic way.

A British judge granted Assange bail on December 14--on the condition that $373,000 be posted to secure his release, and that he agree to electronic monitoring, house arrest and the surrender of his Australian passport (Assange is an Australian citizen). But Swedish prosecutors appealed this ruling. Two days later, a British court upheld the bail order, while adding even more restrictions--Assange was released to the home of journalist Vaughan Smith.

Julian Assange speaks to the press outside a central London court building after his release on bail
Julian Assange speaks to the press outside a central London court building after his release on bail (Adrian Dennis | AFP)

"If justice is not always an outcome, at least it is not dead yet," he said to the cheers of supporters as he walked out of court. "I hope to continue my work and continue to protest my innocence in this matter--and to reveal as we get it, which we have not yet, the evidence from these allegations."

Assange and his legal team now have less than a month to prepare their case opposing his extradition to Sweden. According to his lawyers, since he has not formally been charged with a crime, but is wanted for questioning, there is a legal issue about whether Sweden actually has the right to extradite him.

AS THE furor over WikiLeaks has grown--especially in the U.S., where calls for Assange's extradition, prosecution (and even assassination) have grown increasingly strident from both Democrats and Republicans--Assange has also attracted a growing number of supporters who see his prosecution as politically motivated and a threat to freedom of speech around the globe.

The International Federation of Journalists, which represents more than 600,000 journalists worldwide, condemned what it called a "political backlash" against WikiLeaks. Christopher Warren, the head of Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance, Australia's largest media union, argued that "attacks on WikiLeaks can also be seen as attacks on the Australian media outlets which have worked with the organization to publish leaked material."

Dozens of Australia's most prominent journalists have signed onto a statement of support sent to Prime Minister Julia Gillard (who has vowed her own investigation into whether Assange has committed a crime against Australia) that reads:

In essence, WikiLeaks, an organization that aims to expose official secrets, is doing what the media have always done: bringing to light material that governments would prefer to keep secret.

It is the media's duty to responsibly report such material if it comes into their possession. To aggressively attempt to shut WikiLeaks down, to threaten to prosecute those who publish official leaks, and to pressure companies to cease doing commercial business with WikiLeaks is a serious threat to democracy, which relies on a free and fearless press.

Several rallies have been held in Sydney and other Australian cities, including one drawing 800 people on December 15.

This defiant support of Assange is in stark contrast to the reaction of much of the U.S. media--which was either silent about, or agreed with, growing calls by politicians from both main parties to see Assange tried for his work on WikiLeaks.

But with each day, as it becomes more and more clear that the U.S. government is intent on seeing Assange extradited and tried for releasing classified information, even the complicit U.S. media has begun to recognize implications of the attack on Assange. If Assange and WikiLeaks can be prosecuted, then surely any reporter or publication releasing classified information or information obtained by government whistleblowers would also liable for prosecution.

As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald noted:

The New York Times' Eric Lichtblau and the Washington Post's Dana Priest--both of whom won Pulitzer Prizes for publicly exposing classified programs of the Bush administration--warned that prosecuting WikiLeaks would endanger investigative journalism generally. The Denver Post editorialized that the idea of prosecuting WikiLeaks "is about the only one in recent memory that has attracted bipartisan support in Washington" but "is ill-conceived and fraught with problems," and that "acquiring and publishing information is at the heart of the definition of a free press, which has substantial First Amendment protections."

Even the government-revering Washington Post editorial page came out in opposition to prosecuting WikiLeaks...recognizing that "the government has no business indicting someone who is not a spy and who is not legally bound to keep its secrets" and that "doing so would criminalize the exchange of information and put at risk responsible media organizations."

A petition circulated by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and signed by Daniel Ellsberg, Barbara Ehrenreich, Arundhati Roy, Noam Chomsky and other prominent progressives points out:

Throughout this episode, journalists and prominent media outlets have largely refrained from defending WikiLeaks' rights to publish material of considerable news value and obvious public interest. It appears that these media organizations are hesitant to stand up for this particular media outlet's free speech rights because they find the supposed political motivations behind WikiLeaks' revelations objectionable.

But the test for one's commitment to freedom of the press is not whether one agrees with what a media outlet publishes or the manner in which it is published. WikiLeaks is certainly not beyond criticism. But the overarching consideration should be the freedom to publish in a democratic society--including the freedom to publish material that a particular government would prefer be kept secret. When government officials and media outlets declare that attacks on a particular media organization are justified, it sends an unmistakably chilling message about the rights of anyone to publish material that might rattle or offend established powers.

Even Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff for Colin Powell when he was Secretary of State under George W. Bush--including years when some of the State Department cables released by WikiLeaks were published--joined a group of former government officials in a letter of support for Assange that states: "WikiLeaks has teased the genie of transparency out of a very opaque bottle, and powerful forces in America, who thrive on secrecy, are trying desperately to stuff the genie back in."

REPUBLICANS AND the right wing are clamoring the loudest for Assange's head. But for its part, the Obama administration has aggressively pursued Assange--and is challenging the overall right of the press to reveal government information, even when it includes evidence of previously hidden war crimes.

Recent reports suggest that a grand jury may have been empaneled in Alexandria, Va. "We have heard from Swedish authorities there has been a secretly empaneled grand jury in Alexandria...They are currently investigating this," Assange's lawyer Mark Stephens told Al Jazeera, referring to WikiLeaks. "I think that the Americans are much more interested in terms of the WikiLeaks aspect of this," Stephens added.

The Bush administration was notorious for its attacks on civil liberties and free speech, and progressives condemned them. But it's now clear that the Obama administration has continued the trend--and appears to be taking an even more severe stance against those who would leak government information. As Glenn Greenwald noted:

The Obama DOJ has launched nothing less than a full-on war against whistleblowers; its magnanimous "Look Forward, Not Backward" decree used to shield high-level Bush criminals from investigations is manifestly tossed to the side when it comes to those who reveal such criminality....

[I]f current reports are correct--that the Obama DOJ has now convened a grand jury to indict WikiLeaks and Julian Assange--this will constitute a far greater assault on press freedom than anything George W. Bush managed, or even attempted. Put simply, there is no intellectually coherent way to distinguish what WikiLeaks has done with these diplomatic cables with what newspapers around the world did in this case and what they do constantly: namely, receive and then publish classified information without authorization...

To criminalize what WikiLeaks is doing is, by definition, to criminalize the defining attribute of investigative journalism. That, to be sure, is a feature, not a bug, of the Obama administration's efforts.

ANOTHER LESS-talked-about aspect of the case are the appalling conditions that 22-year-old Bradley Manning--the U.S. soldier who accused by the government of turning over massive amounts of information to WikiLeaks, including the "Collateral Murder" video showing U.S. troops engaging in the murder of civilians in Iraq, documents showing U.S. complicity in war crimes and torture in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the more recent leaked diplomatic cables.

According to reports, Manning has been detained for five months in a military brig in Quantico, Va., under cruel conditions as a so-called "Maximum Custody Detainee." He is subject to 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement and constant surveillance, has been refused sheets or pillows for his bed, and is not allowed even to exercise in his cell. For the single hour he is allowed out of his cell each day, he is barred from watching the news or any current events programs, as well as from speaking to reporters.

The government is almost certainly aiming to eventually try Manning for crimes including transferring classified data and delivering national defense information to an unauthorized source--and there is speculation that if the U.S. is eventually able to extradite Assange to the U.S., he may be charged as an accomplice to Manning.

According to the New York Times, the Justice Department is "looking for evidence of any collusion" between WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning--"trying to find out whether Mr. Assange encouraged or even helped" the Army private leak the documents. If it finds such evidence, federal prosecutors will "charge him as a conspirator in the leak, not just as a passive recipient of the documents who then published them."

Such a charge poses a serious threat to free speech, because it threatens any journalist who might arrange to receive classified information and documents directly from government officials or other whistleblowers.

The reason that the material Manning is alleged to have leaked was classified is only because it shows the ugly truth about U.S. wars and imperialism. In many cases, the revelations in WikiLeaks documents aren't surprising to anyone who is critical of the U.S. empire--but the government wants to keep it out of the public eye at all costs.

As Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the famed Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, has repeatedly noted, if Manning is guilty of leaking the information, then he is a hero, not a criminal. "To call [Manning and Assange] terrorists is not only mistaken, it's absurd and slanderous. Neither of them are any more terrorists than I am, and I'm not," he said.

FOR JUST a small taste of the hypocrisy in the Obama administration's drive to get its hands on Assange, consider that Washington has repeatedly refused to extradite 23 U.S. CIA agents who were convicted in absentia in Italy in November 2009 for their role in abducting Osama Mustafa Hassan, an Egyptian imam, from a street in Milan in 2003.

Hassan, who had political asylum in Italy when he was kidnapped in a joint CIA and Italian military intelligence operation, was eventually flown to Egypt, where he says he was tortured as part of George W. Bush's "extraordinary rendition" program.

Those who carried out these actions, because they were sanctioned by the U.S. government, will never see a day in prison--indeed, they are being shielded by the Obama administration for their crimes. Meanwhile, U.S. officials hope to exploit Sweden's attempt to extradite Assange in order to bring him to the U.S.--whether or not he is ever tried on the charges over which he is wanted for questioning in Sweden.

Lawyer Mark Stephens told Al Jazeera, for example, that he has been informed that Swedish authorities have said that if Assange is extradited to them, "they will defer their interest in him to the Americans...It does seem to me that what we have here is nothing more than a holding charge." The United States wants Assange detained, he said, so "ultimately they can get their mitts on him."

Indeed, in a statement posted on the Swedish Prosecution Authority's Web site, Marianne Ny, the prosecutor in charge of the Assange case, has already raised the possibility of Assange being extradited to the U.S.

That Swedish prosecutors are already talking about handing Assange over to the U.S. for prosecution should give the lie to the idea that Assange was jailed merely because he is wanted for questioning on the charges in Sweden.

Instead, international leaders--who care little for women's rights in the best of times--are using the very serious allegations of rape and sexual assault as a cover for their drive to prosecute Assange for his work with WikiLeaks. Just as with the sudden calls to "liberate" Afghan women in the run-up to the war in Afghanistan, we should not take their sudden zeal for women's rights at face value.

As Katrine Axelsson of the group Women Against Rape pointed out in a letter to Britain's Guardian newspaper:

Many women in both Sweden and Britain will wonder at the unusual zeal with which Julian Assange is being pursued for rape allegations...Though Sweden has the highest per capita number of reported rapes in Europe and these have quadrupled in the last 20 years, conviction rates have decreased. On April 23, 2010, Carina Hägg and Nalin Pekgul (respectively MP and chairwoman of Social Democratic Women in Sweden) wrote in the Göteborgs-Posten that "up to 90 percent of all reported rapes never get to court. In 2006, six people were convicted of rape though almost 4,000 people were reported."...

There is a long tradition of the use of rape and sexual assault for political agendas that have nothing to do with women's safety. In the South of the U.S., the lynching of Black men was often justified on grounds that they had raped or even looked at a white woman.

Women don't take kindly to our demand for safety being misused, while rape continues to be neglected at best or protected at worst.

In reality, the prosecution of Assange is part of a government war on dissent that comes in the context of raids and subpoenas of left-wing and antiwar activists in Chicago and the Twin Cities seeking to criminalize support for, among other things, the growing movement for justice for the Palestinian people.

They want to chill our right to dissent. If we are to prevent that, we must stand in defense of the right of Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks to expose the crimes committed by the U.S.

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