The vilification of Julian Assange

It is difficult to believe that the campaign against the whistleblower Julian Assange is not politically motivated, says Jeremy Seabrook.

THE contrast is striking between the release by Daniel Ellsberg of the so-called Pentagon Papers in 1971 relating to the conduct of the Vietnam War and Julian Assange's WikiLeaks disclosures in 2010 of - among other things - the prosecution of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The response of the public in the 1970s - when there was a highly organised peace movement with widespread popular support - was quite different from that in this enlightened 21st century. Then, the anger was directed at the falsehoods and crimes of government revealed by investigative journalists. Today, 'whistleblowers' have become akin to traitors, and Julian Assange, Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden are made out to be the villains, since they have made transparent what ought to have remained in the lengthening shadows of government secrecy.

Was the 20th century a time of 'innocence', when official mendacity was regarded as a scandal, while this late, more knowing age acknowledges that duplicity and lies are the indispensable stuff of international politics? Are we wiser now or simply more cynical?

Assange's publication of secrets has been accused - without evidence - of endangering the lives of personnel in the 'diplomatic, military, law enforcement and intelligence communities'. These fraternities have little to do with any popular idea of what constitutes a 'community'. Authority demands trust in its superior wisdom, and bludgeons the public into silent acquiescence when it invokes the big ideas of 'national security', 'democracy' and 'freedom'. These high ideals require an all-enveloping cloak of concealment, since protecting them apparently involves activities spectacularly at odds with the values they are supposed to embody.

Ruling castes and elites everywhere are unforgiving. They accept 'mistakes', especially when these are long past, since they can claim to be penitents under constant instruction from the 'lessons of history'; but they are implacable when shown to be dissembling and fraudulent in their present or recent dealings in the world. The only thing to provoke even greater anger is when they are made to look ridiculous. The 'crime' of WikiLeaks was that it exposed them to both.

It is worth recalling a few of the disclosures to give a sense of why world leaders (those fleeting, transient figures who claim such exalted status for themselves) have been so agitated.

Assange, an Australian citizen, set up WikiLeaks in 2006. WikiLeaks describes itself as 'a multi-jurisdictional public service designed to protect whistleblowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public'. According to the initial batch of US diplomatic cables published in 2010 (issued between 1966 and 2010), Saudi Arabia had urged the United States to bomb Iran in order to 'cut off the head of the snake'. The brother of (the then) President Karzai of Afghanistan was said to be on the payroll of the CIA, and involved in the opium trade in that unhappy country. The Australian government planned to create a firewall to prevent people from gaining access to websites deemed 'unsuitable'. The US Army manual for soldiers dealing with detainees in Guantanamo was published. Among other disclosures were the dumping by the company Trafigura of a mass of toxic waste in West Africa; a list of members of the racist British National Party; Pope Benedict's refusal to deal with claims of sex abuse in the Catholic Church; and Sarah Palin's e-mails.

More damagingly, military logs relating to the war in Afghanistan and Iraq were published. The US and the UK eavesdropped on the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the weeks before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In April 2010 a video was released showing US forces in 2007 killing nine Iraqis from a helicopter, an attack in which two Reuters journalists also perished. The US military explained that these were 'believed to have been insurgents'. The mistreatment of prisoners by Iraqi security forces included beatings, electrocution and rape. The US pressured Germany not to prosecute CIA officers for torture and rendition. The UK assured the US that the scope of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war would be limited in such a way as to protect US interests.

The subsequent history is well known. Bradley Manning, intelligence analyst in the US Army, was denounced by a colleague and convicted of stealing and disseminating 750,000 pages of classified documents to WikiLeaks. He - later she - was found guilty in 2013 of 20 of 22 charges and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Manning was, according to the UN special rapporteur on torture, subjected to 'cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment', since he was kept in solitary confinement for a year. During the trial, the defence argued that he was struggling with the issue of gender identity at the time.

Julian Assange was detained in Sweden in August 2010. A warrant for his arrest was issued for questioning on one charge of sexual molestation and one of rape. The following day it was withdrawn, but the investigation continued. Later in the year, he was detained in Britain after Sweden issued an Interpol Red Notice and International Arrest Warrant (a distinction often not conferred on minor delinquents like people traffickers, mass murderers and drug lords). He appealed against extradition to Sweden, which was refused; and after rejection by the UK Supreme Court of the appeal in 2012, Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy, where he has remained since.

Mystery surrounds the circumstances of the accusations. The women he is alleged to have assaulted cannot be named in Sweden, but both are reported to have been 'supporters' of WikiLeaks. Rumours swirl around what took place - was the sex consensual, was there a question of refusal to use a condom, was there coercion, were the women police informers?

Assange denies the offences, and his legal team believe the extradition order is orchestrated by the US, where, were he to be tried in that jurisdiction, he would run the risk of the death penalty. The Swedish foreign minister is on record as saying that there can be no question of extradition to a country where a sentence of death is a possibility, but the former US Attorney-General stated that officials were pursuing 'a very serious criminal investigation into Assange and WikiLeaks'.

It should, perhaps, be noted that accusations of sexual crime are a certain - and easy - way to discredit people. In the intensely sexualised countries of the West, sex has been elevated into a basic necessity of life like food and water, but it is also treated with prurient and puritanical fascination. Sexual scandal has been a useful means to ruin the reputations of innocent people, as the recent examples in the UK of the false accusations of rape against the late Lord Brittan, Minister in the Thatcher government, and of child molestation against Lord Bramall, 92-year-old former head of the Army, have shown.

The Swedish prosecutors have finally, after three years, agreed to come to London to interview Assange. It is not as though there was no precedent for this. It was reported by the Italian magazine L'Espresso that the Crown Prosecution Service had advised against their visiting Britain, on the grounds that it would assist his defence.

The British government has refused to allow Assange to leave the Ecuadorean embassy, either to take advantage of the asylum that country has granted him or even to seek medical help. In February 2016, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared that Assange had been 'arbitrarily detained', since he may not leave his diplomatic sanctuary without arrest or extradition. The British government responded by pointing out that he was 'avoiding lawful arrest' and that he was not detained but was a voluntary fugitive. Extraordinarily, the gaming company Paddy Power has been taking bets on the expected time of Assange's release: a telling comment on the issues of high principle this issue is supposed to represent.

In any case the statute of limitations in Sweden for the charge of sexual molestation has already passed, and the charge of rape will expire in 2020. Police 'encircled' (an expression redolent of the battlefield rather than of diplomacy; and indeed, one government minister even suggested 'storming' the building) the Ecuadorean embassy in London. In 2015 the police presence was reduced, when the bill for ensuring Assange remained in captivity had exceeded 10 million.

The vitriol poured upon Assange by global elites is itself the strongest evidence of WikiLeaks' central theme, explored in a new book, The WikiLeaks Files, published by Verso in 2015. The complicity of a majority of 'world leaders' in the US imperial agenda demonstrates a profound contempt for the democracy to which they ritually defer. By means of US 'soft power', trade, economic policy and, where necessary, military intervention and torture, the self-aggrandisement and extension of US control and influence lies at the heart of a fictive 'international community', the concentrated capacity of which has been called into play to discredit Assange.

The response of Sarah Palin may be taken as characteristic of the selective libertarianism of the Right, when she said the work of WikiLeaks was 'sick anti-American espionage'. Asked 'why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursued al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders?', US Vice-President Joe Biden called Assange a 'high-tech terrorist'. That such a concentration of power should be brought to bear upon a single individual suggests not the invincibility of the behemoth, but its vulnerability in the world of open secrets and borderless information which it has itself facilitated.

It is impossible to believe that the campaign behind the pursuit of Julian Assange is not politically motivated. The sexual allegations against him cannot be fairly or impartially investigated, because his inclusion in Interpol's 'most wanted' list of criminals in December 2010 linked them inextricably to the embarrassment he had brought to global wealth and power. The accusation of rape is grave, but it is obscured by the shifting interplay between legalism, justice and morality, that curiously abstract - but far from profitless - triangular trade in the geometry of contemporary imperialism.

Jeremy Seabrook is a freelance journalist based in the UK. His latest book is The Song of the Shirt (published by Navayana).

*Third World Resurgence No. 307/308, March/April 2016, pp 58-59