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.