Within moments of Julian Assange entering a UK courtroom on 11 April 2019, what has been obvious for almost a decade was confirmed: the US government has always intended to extradite and prosecute this publisher for publishing.
We knew in 2011, thanks to whistleblowers, that US private intelligence companies casually discussed the existence of a sealed indictment as a known fact. We knew also, thanks to FOI requests, that Australian diplomats reported from Washington, DC, that the US investigation into WikiLeaks’ 2010 publications was ‘unprecedented both in its scale and nature’. And as Jonathan Cook recently observed regarding Ecuador’s decision to grant asylum to Assange, ‘No state in the world gives a non-citizen political asylum to avoid a rape trial. The asylum was granted on political grounds. Ecuador rightly accepted Assange’s concerns that the US would seek his extradition and lock him out of sight for the rest of his life’.
Ecuador also granted asylum due to the fact that Assange was so obviously without ‘the adequate protection and help that he should receive from the State of which he is a citizen’. Australian prime ministers of both flavours have spent a decade playing a dead bat, speaking reassuringly of consular assistance as though Assange were just some backpacker with a lost passport. ‘Mr Assange will get the same support that any other Australian would…he’s not going to be given any special treatment’, as Scott Morrison put it back in April.
With a change of president in Ecuador, and new president Lenín Moreno’s acceptance of a well-timed $4.2-billion IMF loan, Assange also lost the protection and help of Ecuador when UK police were invited into the sovereign territory of the embassy to arrest him on 11 April. US investigators were invited in a week later to comb through his belongings, including materials related to his legal defence, jeopardising even further the potential of a fair trial or hearing.
After nine years, two different administrations, the empanelling of untold numbers of grand jurists and the jailing of Chelsea Manning for a third time, the initial sole charge laid against Assange, widely reported as conspiracy and hacking, was in fact the criminalisation of the common journalistic practice of protecting the anonymity of a source. What is described in that indictment is an unsuccessful attempt to create an additional password to conceal the identity of Manning, who already had access to the materials. Assange’s legal counsel warned that this was just the thin end of the wedge, and that more would follow. On 24 May, a superseding indictment listed another seventeen charges focused on common journalistic practices like obtaining, receiving and publishing information. This is the first use of the Espionage Act of 1917 against a journalist for publishing, and it is breathtakingly wide in scope. In both documents there is a fixation on a phrase Assange used, ‘curious eyes never run dry’. The indictments repeatedly attempt to imbue these words with qualities that would transform them into solicitation, when what Assange is guilty of here is aphorism.
Since he was carried defiant and struggling, bearing a copy of Gore Vidal’s History of the National Security State, from the Ecuadorian embassy, Assange has spent twenty-three hours of each day in his cell at Belmarsh prison. This is the place known as Britain’s Guantanamo Bay due to its harsh conditions and reputation for holding terrorism suspects without charge or trial. Since early March, whistleblower Manning has been in a detention facility in Virginia for refusing to testify against Assange. Her objections, in part, go to the existence of secret grand juries as corrosive to the rule of law. In these star chambers, which now exist only in the United States and Liberia, no judges are present, jurors are not screened for bias, the rules of evidence do not apply and there is no right to remain silent.
The dragnet may not stop with Assange and Manning. On the same day that Assange was arrested, Swedish privacy activist Ola Bini was arrested in Ecuador, and he has been held in El Inca prison with no charges or evidence brought against him thus far, besides the books he reads, the technology he owns and his friendship with Assange.
Who is next? An Australian citizen is now facing 175 years in a US jail for publishing information in the public interest from Europe, causing journalists and publishers around the world to reflect on this very question. Friends and supporters of Assange are, too. Despite ten years of concerted character assassination, he has a lot of friends and supporters, including both of us. We got to know him after the major releases of 2010, when the fury of the US national security state began to harden into persecution and revenge. Between us, we have spent Christmases and New Year’s Eves in the Ecuadorian embassy, visiting as often as we could to bring cheer, flannies, Violet Crumbles and solidarity. We are in good company there; Assange is supported by high-profile activists, celebrities and political figures and many other citizens the world over, despite concerted and sustained attacks on WikiLeaks in general and Assange’s character in particular.
Strategies to destroy WikiLeaks created by data-mining giant Palantir (started with seed funding from the CIA investment arm), security firm HBGary and the US Army were leaked by Anonymous to WikiLeaks, which helps to explain some of the industrial-scale vitriol dumped on Assange—everything from accusations that he’s a terrorist or a Russian asset to claims of unwashed socks, an uncared-for cat and faeces smeared on the walls of the embassy.
At the time, the US Army’s Counterintelligence Centre investigation described WikiLeaks as a ‘news organisation’ and Assange as a ‘writer’ and ‘journalist’ that had ‘show[n] journalist responsibility to the newsworthiness or fair use of the classified document’. The US Army’s stated goal is to ‘deter, damage and destroy’ the organisation that depends on ‘trust as their most important center of gravity’. The strategy to destroy WikiLeaks is multifaceted, involving the targeting of journalists like Glenn Greenwald and other supporters. One particularly revealing Palantir slide reads: ‘Media campaign to push the radical and reckless nature of WikiLeaks activities. Sustained Pressure. Does nothing for the fanatics but creates concern and doubt amongst moderates’. It also encourages agents to ‘feed the fuel between the feuding groups. Disinformation. Create messages around actions to sabotage or discredit the opposing organization. Submit fake documents and then call out the error’.
While not all feuding among WikiLeaks supporters over the years is caused by the mischief of infiltrators, it certainly explains some of the supernatural levels of self sabotage that have occurred. The disinformation campaign has been much more effective in encouraging an echo chamber of distorted media coverage and public perception by media organisations that had greatly benefited from WikiLeaks materials before turning on the organisation. Canonical among recent efforts, the Guardian printed—and has never retracted—a wholly fictitious front-page story in November 2018 involving imaginary visits by Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort to the embassy, helping to feed the impression of collusion between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign.
UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer recently described ‘a relentless and unrestrained campaign of public mobbing, intimidation and defamation against Mr. Assange’. According to the expert, this included an endless stream of humiliating, debasing and threatening statements in the press and on social media, but also by senior political figures, and even by judicial magistrates involved in proceedings against Assange. ‘In the course of the past nine years, Mr. Assange has been exposed to persistent, progressively severe abuse ranging from systematic judicial persecution and arbitrary confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy, to his oppressive isolation, harassment and surveillance inside the embassy, and from deliberate collective ridicule, insults and humiliation, to open instigation of violence and even repeated calls for his assassination’. In his remarkable report following a visit to Assange in Belmarsh, the Rapporteur stated, ‘In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution I have never seen a group of democratic States ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonise and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law’.
Coverage of events in Sweden is a case in point. This was not an investigation of alleged sexual offences in isolation. This investigation started one month before a Swedish election and in between the release of the Afghan and the Iraq War logs, when the US government was aware that Assange was walking around with access to 251,000 diplomatic cables with intent to publish. This case started when there was a 120-person Pentagon task force in operation. Assange stayed in Sweden for five weeks to be questioned and sought permission from authorities to leave the country, which was granted. The senior prosecutor, Eva Finne, had dropped the investigation not because she didn’t believe the women—she did—but because she said that from the alleged conduct there was no indication of criminality. Assange and his lawyers repeatedly stated his willingness to be interviewed in London either in person or by video link, as so many others had done during the same period under routine mutual-assistance arrangements, or to come to Sweden if an undertaking could be made that he would not be extradited to the United States. This context is seldom acknowledged, nor is the fact that this case was a preliminary investigation only—and it still is after its reopening, despite many outlets continuing to claim that Assange faces charges. There have never been charges. Instead, careful work by Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi has exposed the extraordinary role of the UK Crown Prosecution Service in frustrating and delaying Swedish prosecutors’ attempts to either progress or abandon the investigation, leaving both accusers and accused without access to any form of justice. After reopening the investigation following Assange’s arrest, a Swedish court rejected the prosecutor’s request for his detention on the grounds that it was disproportionate. The investigation will continue without Assange’s extradition to Sweden.
In any event, the indictments for which Assange is now imprisoned have nothing to do with Sweden, Russia, Trump or mistreatment of his cat. They are a straightforward attempt to prosecute a publisher for committing acts of journalism. The US justice department’s case will hinge on whether it can successfully redefine national-security journalism as a form of espionage, which has cast a chill across the Western world’s establishment publishers. Even those who have spent years demonising Assange have balked at this lunge of extraterritorial executive power by the US government.
One who seemingly hasn’t understood the significance of what’s at stake is Australian journalist Peter Greste, who was the subject of a worldwide public campaign for release after he was jailed by the Egyptian government for his reporting in 2014. Greste for some reason has decided to provide cover for those who seek to strip Assange of First Amendment protections, claiming in an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald in April 2019 that Assange was not a journalist.
Assange has been a card-carrying member of the MEAA as a journalist since 2009. For his work, he has been presented with the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism in 2011, the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, the Economist’s New Media Award, the Amnesty International New Media Award and a dozen others. In addition to his recognition as such by the US Army, cited above, he was recognised as practising journalism by the High Court of the United Kingdom in its ruling of 2 November 2011, the first line of which described Julian Assange as ‘…a journalist, well known through his operation of WikiLeaks’.
Greste rehashes the falsehood that WikiLeaks and Assange simply dumped the 2010 documents online. In fact, the organisation entered into partnerships with multiple mainstream media outlets to ensure verification, redaction and analysis. In the end, it was the thoughtless publishing of the password by Guardian journalists that rendered the entire release public. Greste states that WikiLeaks provides no context or analysis, which a few moments on its website will contradict. WikiLeaks doesn’t simply dump material received by whistleblowers; it is verified—with a 100-per-cent accuracy record to date—and analysed, with introductory and explanatory material as well as summaries and examples provided with almost every release.
WikiLeaks and Assange have been explicit about the ‘scientific journalism’ they have innovated, where the source material is provided alongside analysis so that readers can verify truths for themselves, without having to rely solely on gatekeepers. This form of journalism values not only the scandals and clickbait but the archive that provides deep context and insights into how power and institutions actually work. This form of journalism serves to democratise the number of eyes on the primary evidence of crime scenes, so that lawyers, journalists and interested citizens can scrutinise the material that exposes wrongdoing.
Whatever the views of those who want to define journalism in a particular way so as to expose this publisher to life in prison, the American Civil Liberties Union called it ‘an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration’s attacks on journalism, establishing a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets’.
Exposing government decision making and criminal activity has triggered President Trump to declare the media to be the enemy of the people. This newly explicit attitude, now put into effect by his justice department, isn’t new. The US Department of Defense likened war journalists to spies in the June 2015 Law of War Manual, stating that in some situations journalists can be treated as ‘unprivileged belligerents’. The manual goes on: ‘Reporting on military operations can be very similar to collecting intelligence or even spying. A journalist who acts as a spy may be subject to security measures and punished if captured’. The New York Times editors said that the manual made journalists’ work ‘more dangerous, more cumbersome and subject to censorship’.
Access to the truth, and the freedom to publish it, analyse it and act on it are among the things that separate democracies from dictatorships. The Trump administration, with its openly authoritarian attitude to the US press corps and those reporting on things it doesn’t like, is demanding that all of us now make a decision on where we stand.
Where Australian governments stand—regardless of party—is in obedient lock step with the Five Eyes alliance, the intelligence-sharing and mass-surveillance arrangement that has been ongoing between the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand since 1947. At the height of the Cold War, Professor Des Ball asserted that Australian governments shrouded surveillance agencies, facilities and decisions in more secrecy than their Five Eyes partners, showing less regard for the privacy rights of citizens and more aggressively quashing peaceful democratic resistance. One explanation lies in the fact that Australia is the only jurisdiction within the group that doesn’t have human rights enshrined in law, making it an ideal jurisdiction for far-reaching powers for intelligence agencies, metadata laws and the dirty work of the breaking of encryption. One of those new laws, informally known around the Attorney-General’s Department as ‘the WikiLeaks amendment’, broadened ASIO’s reach to spy on Australians overseas in 2011, while other laws pushed through the parliament would make it easier for Assange to be extradited from Australia.
No one watching these laws rushed through our parliament by the Coalition and the ALP—indistinguishable when the ‘national security’ spell is cast—could be surprised that they are being used to target national-security journalism, whether it be conducted by the Murdoch press or the ABC. What is surprising is that the New York Times—one-time WikiLeaks partner and thereafter its detractor—is now recognising Australia as the most secretive democracy and editorialising on the linkage between the treatment of Assange and the life or death of a free press, as are other latecomers.
In June 2019, the Australian Federal Police came through the doors of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s home, and then the ABC’s offices in Sydney, sending a chill across Australia’s media establishment. Suddenly, the reality of a state crackdown on national-security journalism has come home; the raids were linked directly with stories about Australian Signals Directorate spying powers and allegations of war crimes committed by Australian personnel in Afghanistan. The parallels are too strong to ignore: this is precisely the kind of publishing that has cost Assange a decade of his life and may cost him a great deal more.
Throughout the last nine years, while arbitrarily detained, maligned and defamed, Assange has sounded warning after warning after warning on the threats to freedom of the press through public appearances by video, by submissions to Australian parliamentary inquiries, and through publishing information in the public interest, even when doing so severely disadvantaged his legal situation. Still, somehow, believing that courage is contagious, Assange awaits his fate in Belmarsh prison, his well-being in the hands of others. ‘I am defenceless and am counting on you and others of good character to save my life’, he wrote in a letter to journalist Gordon Dimmack in May 2019. ‘Truth ultimately is all we have.’
What have we learned from WikiLeaks?
Here are a few of our favourite leaks, covering many institutions, issues, governments and countries, each provided by a whistleblower who trusted this platform to publish in order to bring about reform of how political, corporate and media elites operate. Each release has shared genuine information about how governments, companies, banks, the UN, political parties, jailers, cults, private security firms, war planners and the media actually operate when they think no one is looking:
- Cables were used in evidence to reveal the truth about the United Kingdom’s establishment of a marine reserve around Diego Garcia: it was to protect the US base and prevent the Chagos Islanders from ever returning home.
- The Minton Report detailed how Dutch multinational company Trafigura had dumped toxic waste in Ivory Coast. WikiLeaks provided the report that had been suppressed through a super injunction, including to the affected 108,000 people.
- El-Masri, a completely innocent German citizen, snatched off the streets, detained, tortured and dumped on the street in Albania, took a case to the European Court of Human Rights, using six cables in evidence.
- The Syria Files provided extraordinary and timely insight into the Assad regime through over two million emails from 680 Syrian political figures, ministries and associated companies and the regime’s international security contracts.
- The United States has a manual for unconventional warfare that was created in 2008 for US Special Forces for when they are overthrowing a government. Explicitly stated is the media’s role in advancing the goals of US national power.
- Saudi Arabia offered a bribe to the United Kingdom of $100,000 to ‘help’ the UK campaign to be on the Human Rights Council. Part of the deal, offered by the United Kingdom, was a vote swap that saw Saudi Arabia leading the Human Rights Council.
- The IAEA had warned Japan about safety issues at nuclear plants in 2009, years before the Fukushima disaster, particularly that its power plants could not withstand powerful earthquakes.
- The Obama administration spied on UN leadership and personnel, authorising theft of biometric data (DNA, fingerprints, retina scans) and passwords.
- TPP, TTIP and TISA major trade agreements drafted and negotiated in secret without proper democratic oversight were seen by those affected when WikiLeaks provided multiple draft chapters and negotiating positions to the public, fuelling social-justice and fair-trade movements.
- Iraqi prisoners were tortured and abused by Iraqi police and soldiers, and US forces were involved in the death and maiming of more than 200,000 people in Iraq.
- The Guantanamo Files exposed systematic and routine violations of the Geneva Conventions and abuse of 800 prisoners as young as fourteen and as old as eighty-nine at Guantanamo Bay.
- The Collateral Murder classified US military video showed a helicopter gunship slaying eighteen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad, including two Reuters journalists and their rescuers, documenting a war crime.
- The Global Intelligence Files revealed the inner workings of private intelligence firm Stratfor, which services the US government and large corporations such as Bhopal’s Dow Chemical Company, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and numerous government agencies.
- The National Security Agency (NSA) World Leaders Targets revealed interceptions of NSA targets, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s meetings with heads of state, Prime Ministers Berlusconi and Netanyahu, President Hollande, the Japanese cabinet, the UNHCR and the World Trade Organization.
- In 2016 a corrupt multibillion-dollar war by Western and Chinese companies grabbed uranium and other mining rights in the Central African Republic (CAR) and escaped paying for the environmental consequences.
- Safety and security issues with the UK’s Trident nuclear-weapon system were revealed to WikiLeaks by Royal Navy Able Seaman William McNeilly.
- Cash payments were made to Indian MPs for their support of a US–India nuclear deal.
- Suppressed video footage was released of the 1995 sodium-spill disaster that led to the closure of Japan’s Monju fast-breeder reactor following the 2008 announcement that the reactor would be reopened.
- Burma shipped 10,000 tons of rice to feed poor North Korea as payment for sophisticated conventional weapons. The cable references a business source stating that exchanges of weapons for food had gone on for more than five years.
- Australia worked with Britain, Canada, Japan and others to undermine the cluster munitions treaty, ensuring that deploying US cluster bombs on their soil was not precluded by the convention.
- Over 650,000 critical documents relating to Russia under Vladimir Putin have been published, including releases about surveillance contractors in Russia.