Assange: The Heartless View

As one of my conversational sparring partners mentioned the other day, the Assange case is unique amongst current affairs. Very few issues straddle the span of international, regional and technical politics whilst creating this particularly bizarre sort of the theatre.

When Assange crept onto the scene several years ago I was lukewarm in my assessment of him, based mainly in the feeling that while what he and Wikileaks were doing seemed roguishly heroic and essential to the greater good as embodied by full transparency and accountability, it also felt irresponsible and dangerous to the facts of the real world. Today I feel that had the content of the leaks over those years been closer to a revelation, as opposed to an affirmation of what one could have easily imagined was the filthy, nasty and unspoken truth, then I would have given more praise.

Governments and corporations suffer from, and are complicit in, corruption. The USA committed war crimes and were thoroughly and arrogantly lacking in deference to their international counterparts in the political sphere. People do bad things, are involved in bad things and don’t like other people to know. But effectively we do know. And not just because Wikileaks told us, as while they did deliver the irrefutable evidence, there already exists a monstrous, hydra-like global informational juggernaut in the form of news media, journalism and the internet. Thanks to this, I doubt Wikileaks could honestly claim to have disseminated much that hadn’t been previously conceived of as the assumed truth or conspiracy.

Indeed, despite Assange often lambasting the inferior works of the world’s press as compared to WL’s particular charter as a safe haven for whistle-blowing, there are many fine investigative journalists still at work. Jeremy Scahill alone has published enough material on less-than-savoury US military exploits to create a realistic picture of what happens in today’s wars.

This doesn’t make Wikileaks redundant to any extent, as the definitive proofs they offered us were infinitely more decadent and juicy than the frustrated articles written by tired and jaded, but actual, journalists. The audaciousness of it was also thrilling. There could be no denying the sly pleasure taken from picturing a legion of disparate international official’s heads exploding at any point during the golden years of 2006 to late 2010. This rampant loss of control was, for certainly as long as I’ve taken a keen interest in observing the world, unprecedented.

However, as previously mentioned, it also struck a nerve of uncertainty, and never more palpably than when Assange himself was taking centre stage. Here was a man quite discernibly infatuated with himself and his self-determined mission, who rose from the murky community of “hactivism” where paranoia and a dislike of the “establishment” is almost requisite. The recent escalation of his story, starting with rape allegations in September 2010 and resulting presently in his effective incarceration at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London has completely changed the Wikileaks narrative.

Watch his interview at the 2010 TED conference, only months prior to the first allegations emerging.

Now, I fully appreciate that the only conclusions one could draw from a personal assessment of character and demeanour would be dubious at best. But naturally I have an emotional response to this interview that in my case speaks of a preacher indulging himself quite liberally, and enjoying it. One reason for this is simply that Assange is there, once again as the face and voice of an organisation that otherwise seems intent on remaining highly discreet in it’s membership and activities, with the obvious exception of generating huge publicity around it’s leaks. Second is this telling exchange in the interview when discussing the leak of the 2004 Kroll report, that detailed corruption in the now former Moi administration, but was suppressed.

Anderson – “So, your leak really, substantially, changed the world?”

Assange – “Yes”

The statement is essentially factually accurate enough, if one assumes by ‘your leak’ Anderson implied ‘Wikileaks’ or ‘the whistle-blower you enabled’. But factor in the overall tone of the interview and an adulating audience who almost universally by show of hands proclaim their support for Assange, and this oversight of syntax becomes maybe less innocuous. The fact that Julian Assange and Wikileaks have become almost synonymous entities is the product of his public actions, and has far less do with an irreplaceable, technical role in an organisation of like-minded and highly capable individuals.

In keeping with my negative theme, I challenge the notion that Wikileaks requires any form of ambassador to function properly, an idea that I believe is corroborated by an excellent CNN article by Micah Sifry.

The discontentment expressed by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Birgitta Jonsdottir is generally clear, and without question in the aftermath of Assange’s sexual scandal. With such a weight of personal baggage about his neck, Assange should distance himself as much as possible from the work he ostensibly loves if he doesn’t want to damage it. What I find more intriguing about this piece was that it reinforced my emotional view, first established by Khatchadourian’s article for the New Yorker, that Assange, far from being the altruistic crusader for transparency and freedom of information, has strong megalomaniacal tendencies that certainly in the past two years have fractured Wikileaks.

And therein lies the dissonance that surrounds his defence of himself throughout this drama. Completely ignoring the specifics of the case, the Swedish judicial process, the UK’s diplomatic position and the looming shadow of the USA’s agenda, Assange has in effect defended himself as Wikileaks.

Speaking from the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy he, in neglecting to mention the ongoing process that implicates him in potentially serious sexual malfeasance, completely failed to distinguish between that and the broader picture of, notably, the US government’s feud with Wikileaks due to over half a decade of activism. Of obvious significance are the astounding events of 2010 in the form of the diplomatic cables, the “Collateral Murder” video and, of course Bradley Manning.

Let’s be clear. Currently the most severe action taken against Wikileaks is a banking embargo and a clandestine Grand Jury, neither of which have yielded either an effective cessation of activity or actionable charges. This however was the leaked intelligence document created by the Army Counterintelligence Center in 2008 and marketed by Assange, as you can see, in the most reactionary fashion. The document actually discusses WL’s potential threat to US Army security and poses methods to suppress or deter whistle-blowers. I infer from this that Assange either calculated to further agitate authorities and whip up his support base, is delusional, or a combination of the two. Whichever is more true, it appears that Assange has no intentions of a workable relationship with these authorities and has positioned himself as their enemy, regardless of the actual extent of their attempts to impede WL or the whistle-blowers who supply it.

Daniel Domscheit-Berg provides valuable insight into this aspect of Assange’s temperament in his 2011 publication where he details his “disenchantment with the organization’s lack of transparency, its abandonment of political neutrality, and Assange’s increasing concentration of power.”

However, this broad analyses of Assange, Wikileaks and the clamouring governments around them becomes only more interesting when stacked against the specifics of the ongoing rape allegations. As mentioned, it is actually the most overt attempt at judicial action taken against Assange and, if you choose to associate them in this matter as Assange clearly does, WL. Given the heinously speculative nature of the motives behind this fairly aggressive campaign to remove the man to Sweden, I won’t take the risky measure of expressing a firm view as to whether I believe this process is legitimate or trumped up. My general disposition is anti-conspiratorial but there are elements you can’t ignore such as the raft of concerning issues raised by Naomi Wolf who also refers to the patently unusual involvement of Karl Rove, unearthed by Andrew Kreig for the Huffington Post.

But as you can see in Wolf’s article, unusual seems to be her primary criticism. The pieces when thrown together form an unconventional picture but then what about this situation is conventional? Assange has now been inside the Ecuadorian Embassy for going on three months in a diplomatic stand-off of farcical proportions, allying himself with a government that in his totalitarian interpretation of transparent values could be no better than the USA , in defiance of a nation in Sweden that has possibly less natural association with this brand of conspiracy than the Welsh National Assembly.

If we assume for a moment the pending charges are utterly false, that if extradited to Sweden Assange will be immediately extradited to America to face, as yet, also unformulated charges, what are the implications and consequences? In my mind, they don’t run much farther than a miscarriage of justice against one man whose pleasure it was to ruffle the feathers of just about every government that ever was. To suggest a punishment against him would be as extreme as death is utterly naive and a total misinterpretation of the culture of American governance. Assange perhaps believes that because an Apache helicopter crew callously gunned down a group of civilians that he might suffer similar inhumanity but I think there is an immensely important thing to remember about “Collateral Murder”.

That video does not speak to me of a systemic culture of conspiracy to murder, but only of a systemic culture of conspiracy to conceal colossal mistakes. These mistakes are hugely detrimental to the image of a nation rife with PR problems and a global mission statement that would require an unrealistically impeccable enacting to not be seen in heavily negative terms. I do not for a moment condone the circumstances around the video as they do encapsulate the arrogant and careless nature responsible for it, but to conflate this with any care for the physical safety of Julian Assange is ludicrous. Insofar as he facilitated this grand embarrassment and in doing so was complicit in the breaking of severe laws, it makes perfect sense that the USA wants a reasonable measure of justice. How much you sympathise with that view will entirely determine your perspective on the integrity of their methodology in achieving this.

If, on the other hand, the ‘charges’ are true, that Assange did sexually assault one or both of the plaintiffs then things are more simple. The UK should extradite him to Sweden in order to serve the appropriate sentence at which point the USA, if presenting a valid legal complaint, can request his further extradition into their custody for yet further punishment. The UK and Sweden would both be forced by the European Court of Human Rights to secure binding statements protecting Assange from inhuman treatment at any point during the custodial process, and so justice will have been served without any technical infringements. Assange and his die-hard support base would probably be no less furious about this eventuality than the former scenario, owing to the belief that he, having been a part of good works, is exempt from law. This anger would no doubt be compounded by the shared belief in this community that government in general is implicitly on the wrong side of the argument for having ever tried to conduct it’s more unpleasant pursuits covertly.

At the beginning of this piece I referred to the lesser significance of the greater good as compared to the responsibilities of the real world. It must be very easy to stand on the outside of the machinations of government and rage at their injustices and occasional all-out crimes. It is also very easy to hail a person who associates himself with a form of goodness by exposing these evils. The final point that needs to be continually enforced is that Assange isn’t even at the core of revealing these things to us. The whistle-blowers are the heroes of this story, the people who are actually on the inside and choose to risk themselves and their livelihoods to better inform the public as to how corporate and governmental entities conduct themselves.

My praise for Assange ends at the point of having been varyingly integral to what thus far has been the most effective and prolific of havens for these people. They, unlike Assange, valued the anonymity that was available to them and so respected the dangers of what they were involving themselves in. Whether the current dilemma for Assange is false or true, he resides now in a situation of his own making. I have very little pity.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Assange: The Heartless View

  1. Before beginning this response, I should say that I agree for the most part with the general position outlined above and the conclusions you draw. For example, there is no doubt in my mind that the true heroes of the wikileaks story are, as you point out, the anonymous sources who take such huge risks without reaping any of the glory (or notoriety) that Assange seems to attract. Their actions are ethical in a strictly Kantian sense insofar as they commit themselves freely to the task of exposing injustice without any of the pathological inducements which seem to motivate Assange. To do good for its own sake is admirable particularly when, as Bradley Manning’s case unfortunately demonstrates, the penalties suffered by individuals who are reidentified are so severe. Moreover, I would also agree that the conflation of the figure of Assange with Wikileaks should be avoided since it only serves to hamper the work of a unique organisation.
    Notwithstanding these areas of agreement, there are a few points raised in the article which I’d like to draw your attention to. Foremost of these is your speculative assessment of the possible consequences of Assange’s extradition to Sweden:

    “If we assume for a moment the pending charges are utterly false, that if extradited to Sweden Assange will be immediately extradited to America to face, as yet, also unformulated charges, what are the implications and consequences? In my mind, they don’t run much farther than a miscarriage of justice against one man whose pleasure it was to ruffle the feathers of just about every government that ever was.”

    This seems to imply (and by all means correct me here if I’m wrong) that a miscarriage of justice against Assange would be an acceptable eventuality given the fact that feathers have been ruffled. It is difficult for me to accept this for several reasons. First of all, the obvious rebuke (and perhaps the reply Assange himself would offer) is that if governments are irritated or embarrassed by the exposure of various secret injustices, it may discourage them from continuing to engage in these unjust practices. To offer up Assange to the Americans (via Sweden) would be to give credence to the US governments position that the wikileaks organisation is essentially engaging in espionage and must be stopped.

    “To suggest a punishment against him would be as extreme as death is utterly naïve and a total misinterpretation of the culture of American governance.”
    Agreed. I don’t see any likelihood of a death penalty. That said, we do know that the US military has engaged in practices such as water boarding which some would regard as amounting to torture. The American’s would also most likely be extremely curious about the inner machinations of the wikileaks organisation and, of course, Assange would be in a position to enlighten them. Given the Americans’ track record and curiosity, could we really guarantee that Assange would not be submitted to water boarding or some equally unpleasant interrogation technique? Several senior American officials (including Newt Gingrich) have already called for Assange to be treated as an enemy combatant. If we can’t guarantee that Assange won’t be tortured (and I don’t believe we can), it is surely our obligation to ensure that Assange does not fall into American hands.

    “If, on the other hand, the ‘charges’ are true, that Assange did sexually assault one or both of the plaintiffs then things are more simple. The UK should extradite him to Sweden in order to serve the appropriate sentence at which point the USA, if presenting a valid legal complaint, can request his further extradition into their custody for yet further punishment. The UK and Sweden would both be forced by the European Court of Human Rights to secure binding statements protecting Assange from inhuman treatment at any point during the custodial process, and so justice will have been served without any technical infringements.”

    The problem here, as above, is that in practice Sweden has failed to live up to its legal obligations (see: Repatriation of Ahmed Agiza and Muhammad al-Zery). A recent history of co-operation with the CIA should give us pause for thought before giving up Assange to Sweden.

    There is a further reason we should be cautious in this instance. The fact is, like it or not, that Assange is a figure head for the promotion of transparency and investigative journalism around the world. The impact of his extradition to the US will be felt most sharply by those who are doing similar work and operating in the West. If the UK co-operates with Sweden and the US in this instance, it will send a message to all those involved in Wikileaks and beyond that they could suffer the same fate if caught.

    To summarise my position: the extradition of Assange would be immensely damaging for Wikileaks both because Assange could provide them with information enabling the disruption of Wikileaks activities, and because an extradition from the UK to the US via Sweden would shatter the confidence of those working for Wikileaks and of those providing them with material. If we accept that Wikileaks is doing valuable work (and I think we share this position) then we must also prioritise the safety and confidence of those involved in the gathering and dissemination of Wikileaks’ material.

    The biggest problem with my position is that it legally and politically impossible to implement at this stage. Assange has already exhausted every legal opportunity available to him. Appeals have been heard and rejected. Given the situation today, it would be impossible for Assange to remain in the UK because it would make a mockery of our legal process. This is why the Assange case is effectively a kind of double-bind (damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t) scenario: if he goes to Sweden, the Wikileaks organisation could be fatally weakened, but if he is allowed to remain in the UK (or even holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy), our legal system is openly rendered impotent.

  2. You raise some very good points.

    First, I was rather too loose in broadly asserting that a miscarriage of justice would be acceptable, but I would still defend a more considered position that Assange presents exempting factors that allow for unfortunate, but arguably justifiable, extralegal measures. Further analyses of the architecture of Wikileaks would, I believe, also go some way towards mitigating possible damages to the organisation should extradition occur. The major case for justification lies in Assange’s increasingly erratic and politicised release of classified information. The early leaks had a far more apolitical tone and were more in line with the values of transparency for the goal of enforcing good conduct. We can look at the majority of their activity up to 2010:

    the Kroll Report detailing corruption in Moi’s Kenya
    the SOP protocols for Camp Delta
    membership details of the far-right UK BNP
    telephone intercepts that triggered the Peruvian oil scandal
    evidence of illicit financial manoeuvres at Kaupthing Bank prior to Icelandic crisis
    evidence of Trafigura Beheer BV’s illegal toxic waste dumping in Côte d’Ivoire
    the intercepted emails that triggered UEA’s “Climategate” scandal
    evidence of misuse of internet censorship in Australia, Denmark and Thailand

    In 2010 the picture changes somewhat. The alleged leak of the diplomatic cables by Bradley Manning was initially handled with caution when we only saw the Reykjavik 13 cable in February 2010. By the end of November of that year, Wikileaks had collaborated with El Pais, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, Le Monde and The New York Times in a coordinated mass-leak of a further 220 cables with a further 2,017 to be released up to January 2011. At this point however Wikileaks lost control and it was in fact the misplaced trust of Assange in David Leigh that resulted in the encryption pass-phrase for the cables being published in Leigh’s book in February. By September 2011 all 251,287 cables were released under Assange’s instructions. From that alone I begin to infer that Assange either does not possess an adequate degree of responsibility and judgement to conduct affairs of a highly sensitive nature or had decided that the full release of the cables was worth the obvious further embarrassment to many, but above all, the US government.

    2010 also saw two other highly damaging leaks that could very strongly be argued were part of a new theme of targeting the USA. These were of course the Afghan and Iraq War documents of July and October 2010 respectively. The content of these leaks were far more important than the relative gossip of the cables (with the notable exception of it’s impact in Tunisia, which arguably gave birth to the Arab Spring) but there is an underlying factor of grave concern to a government that goes beyond any element of detail. This is simply the concern that would spring from the unauthorized release of any proprietary or classified information, let alone the deluge that occurred in 2010.

    The motivation behind this fairly relentless battery of shameful evidence is in my opinion quite clearly defined by the previously mentioned 2008 Army Counterintelligence Center report on Wikileaks, received and re-marketed by Assange as “US Intelligence planned to destroy Wikileaks”. The reality of this report is that it very much reflects the same tone of response seen in the Joint Services Protocol 440 document, created by British Intelligence in October 2009. I have two main areas of thought regarding this, the first being that Assange took particularly unwarranted issue with the American report. The second, and perhaps more likely, is that in the face of observing perfectly rational attempts by successive governments to secure their information in light of this unprecedented entity in Wikileaks, Assange became irrationally combative. He then went for the jugular, so to speak, with a series of leaks designed to inflict maximum PR damage on these governments.

    At this point, how can Assange be regarded as possessing a neutral and responsible agenda? Is he not a legitimate threat in the wake of 2010 to these governments? Is he therefore an individual, given his very evident capabilities of avoiding authorities, worth pursuing with means that (if he were, in a crude example, a murderous drug baron) could actually be seen as creative instead of underhanded?

    In addressing your next point about the dangers to Wikileaks should Assange be ‘captured’, I can primarily refer you back to the Micah Sifry article. It discusses the meeting of those figures who form the dedicated core of Wikileaks in September 2010 and the subsequent departure of several key members, especially the mysteriously titled “Architect”. This person was apparently responsible for the highly technical elements that allowed whistle-blowers to safely leak information, a system and skill set that was removed in direct relation to Assange’s personal issues and professional conduct within Wikileaks. I therefore argue that his continued involvement with Wikileaks is damaging enough. And in an organisation that has, broadly speaking, thrived under it’s methodology of covert operations in changing locations, with an ever changing support base of volunteers, could Assange even at this point, let alone further down this horribly complex diplomatic road, have a valuable working knowledge of the enterprise? I seriously doubt he is afforded his typically hands-on approach within the confines of the Ecuadoran Embassy.

    Almost as a side note, I need to briefly ridicule the credibility and authority of US government figures like Gingrich when making statements like the one you referenced. They are definitively reactionary mouth-pieces who should be broadly ignored for the sake of good debate. But I forgive you.

    And I think finally I need to respond to Sweden’s role in this and your mention of the repatriation of Ahmed Agiza and Muhammad al-Zery. One cannot deny it is a mark against the government of the time, but that time was a particular one. This was a process that occurred immediately in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, and while I don’t argue that it was therefore the right decision, I believe it is prudent to factor in the unique and uncertain mood that was gripping the ‘West’. It could be argued that this was not an incident that reflects Sweden’s usually exemplary approach to human rights, but rather reflects an aggressive US agenda and a global community trying to navigate this against the desire for restraint. That is to hypothetically state that while Sweden would not contribute directly in aggression, they would be willing to forgo some discretion in the name of cooperating.

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