[Editor's note: Every generation has its lodestone for speaking truth to power. And in the early age of the Internet, there's no more important journalist and disruptive force than Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.org. From exposing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan to the torture and abuse of innocents at Guantanomo Bay to publishing evidence the Democratic National Committee conspired to cheat voters from nominating anyone other than Hillary Clinton, Assange has made enemies of the rich and powerful around the world. And now, with his arrest last month and pending extradition to the United States, there is no more important milestone than the fate of Julian Assange and how it will impact journalism and press freedoms for generations. We offer this excerpted article below as a primer to know more and do more to increase awareness about the civic value of Julian Assange's efforts.]
Ever noticed, whenever someone inconveniences the dominant western power structure, the entire political/media class rapidly becomes very, very interested in letting us know how evil and disgusting that person is? It’s true of the leader of every nation which refuses to allow itself to be absorbed into the blob of the U.S.-centralized power alliance, it’s true of anti-establishment political candidates, and it’s true of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Corrupt and unaccountable power uses its political and media influence to smear Assange because, as far as the interests of corrupt and unaccountable power are concerned, killing his reputation is as good as killing him. If the public can be paced into viewing him with hatred and revulsion, they’ll be far less likely to take WikiLeaks publications seriously, and they’ll be far more likely to consent to Assange’s imprisonment, thereby establishing a precedent for the future prosecution of leak-publishing journalists around the world. Someone can be speaking 100-percent truth to you, but if you’re suspicious of him, you won’t believe anything he’s saying. If they can manufacture that suspicion with total or near-total credence, then as far as our rulers are concerned, it’s as good as putting a bullet in his head.
Those of us who value truth and accountability need to fight this smear campaign in order to keep our fellow man from signing off on a major leap in the direction of Orwellian dystopia. A big part of that means being able to argue against those smears and disinformation wherever they appear.
What follows is my attempt at creating a tool kit people can use to fight against Assange smears wherever they encounter them, by refuting the disinformation with truth and solid argumentation.
This article is an ongoing project which will be updated regularly where it appears at CaitlinJohnstone.com as new information comes in and new smears spring up in need of refutation. Given the dozens of smears, some of which are published below, one can only see two possibilities:
(1) Julian Assange, who published many inconvenient facts about the powerful and provoked the wrath of opaque and unaccountable government agencies, is literally the worst person in the entire world, or …
(2) Julian Assange, who published many inconvenient facts about the powerful and provoked the wrath of opaque and unaccountable government agencies, is the target of a massive, deliberate disinformation campaign designed to kill the public’s trust in him.
As it happens, historian Vijay Prashad noted in a recent interview with Chris Hedges that in 2008 a branch of the U.S. Defense Department did indeed set out to “build a campaign to eradicate 'the feeling of trust' of WikiLeaks and their 'center of gravity' and to destroy Assange’s reputation.”
Smear: “He is not a journalist.”
Yes he is. Publishing relevant information so the public can inform themselves about what’s going on in their world is the thing that journalism is. Which is why Assange was just awarded the GUE/NGL Award for “Journalists, Whistleblowers and Defenders of the Right to Information,” why the WikiLeaks team has racked up many prestigious awards for journalism, and why Assange is a member of Australia’s media union. Only when people started seriously stressing about the very real threats that his arrest poses to press freedoms did it become fashionable to go around bleating “Assange is not a journalist.”
The argument, if you can call it that, is that because Assange doesn’t practice journalism in a conventional way, there’s no way his bogus prosecution for his role in the Manning leaks could possibly constitute a threat to other journalists around the world who might want to publish leaked documents exposing U.S. government malfeasance. This argument is a reprisal of a statement made by Trump’s then-CIA director Mike Pompeo, who proclaimed that WikiLeaks is not a journalistic outlet at all but a “hostile non-state intelligence service” – a designation he made up out of thin air the same way the Trump administration designated Juan Guaido the president of Venezuela, the Golan Heights a part of Israel, and Iran’s military a terrorist organization. Pompeo argued that since WikiLeaks was now this label he made up, it enjoys no free press protections and shall therefore be eliminated.
So they’re already regurgitating propaganda narratives straight from the lips of the Trump administration, but more importantly, their argument is nonsense. Once the Assange precedent has been set by the U.S. government, the U.S. government isn’t going to be relying on your personal definition of what journalism is; they’re going to be using their own, based on their own interests. The next time they want to prosecute someone for doing anything similar to what Assange did, they’re just going to do it, regardless of whether you believe that next person to have been a journalist or not. It’s like these people imagine that the U.S. government is going to show up at their doorstep saying “Yes, hello, we wanted to imprison this journalist based on the precedent we set with the prosecution of Julian Assange, but before doing so we wanted to find out how you feel about whether or not they’re a journalist.”
Smear: “He was hiding from rape charges in the embassy.”
No, he wasn’t; he was hiding from U.S. extradition. And his arrest this month under a U.S. extradition warrant proved that he was right to do so.
People who claim Assange was “hiding from rape charges” are necessarily implicitly making two transparently absurd claims: one, that Assange had no reason to fear U.S. extradition, and two, that Ecuador was lying about its official reasons for granting him asylum – that, in fact, the Correa government was just in the business of protecting people from rape charges for some weird reason.
For its part, the Ecuadorian government was crystal clear in its official statement about the reasons it was providing Assange asylum, saying that “there are serious indications of retaliation by the country or countries that produced the information disclosed by Mr. Assange, retaliation that can put at risk his safety, integrity and even his life,” and that “the judicial evidence shows clearly that, given an extradition to the United States, Mr. Assange would not have a fair trial, he could be judged by a special or military court, and it is not unlikely that he would receive a cruel and demeaning treatment and he would be condemned to a life sentence or the death penalty, which would not respect his human rights.”
A lot of the rank-and-file Assange haters you’ll encounter on online forums are just completely clueless about what political asylum is and how it works, because they receive their information from the same mass media which led 70 percent of Americans to still believe Saddam was behind 9/11 six months after the Iraq invasion. They either believe that (a) Assange found some strange loophole which enabled him to hide from all criminal charges simply by staying in an embassy, without any permission from that embassy’s government, or that (b) the Ecuadorian government hands out political asylum willy-nilly to anyone who’s been accused of sexual assault. These beliefs can only be maintained by a rigorous determination not to think about them too hard.
Assange wasn’t hiding from justice; he was hiding from injustice. His sole concern has only ever been avoiding extradition and an unjust trial, which was why he offered to go to Sweden to be questioned if they would only provide assurances that he wouldn’t face onward extradition to the U.S. Sweden refused. America refused. Now why would they do that? If Sweden were really only interested in resolving a rape investigation, why wouldn’t they provide assurances that they wouldn’t extradite him to the United States in order to accomplish that?
The fact that Assange was perfectly willing to travel to Sweden and see the investigation through is completely devastating to the “he’s hiding from rape charges” smear, and it casts serious doubt on the “he’s a rapist” smear as well.
The U.S. government tortured Chelsea Manning. Trump’s current CIA Director was called “Bloody Gina” because of her fondness for torture on CIA black sites. He had every reason to be mortally afraid of extradition, and to remain so. The correct response to anyone claiming Assange should have done anything which could have allowed him to be extradited is, “How well do you think you’d fare under torture, tough guy?”
Smear: “He’s being prosecuted for hacking crimes, not journalism.”
No, he’s being prosecuted for journalism. Assange is being prosecuted based on the exact same evidence that the Obama administration had access to when it was investigating him to see if he could be prosecuted for his role in the Manning leaks, but the Obama administration ruled it was impossible to prosecute him based on that evidence because it would endanger press freedoms. This is because, as explained by The Intercept’s Micah Lee and Glenn Greenwald, the things Assange is accused of doing are things journalists do all the time: attempting to help a source avoid detection; taking steps to try to hide their communications; and encouraging Manning to provide more material. This is all Assange is accused of; there is no “hacking” alleged in the indictment itself.
Joe Emersberger of Fair.org notes the following:
Now Assange could be punished even more brutally if the U.K. extradites him to the U.S, where he is charged with a “conspiracy” to help Manning crack a password that “would have” allowed her to cover her tracks more effectively. In other words, the alleged help with password-cracking didn’t work, and is not what resulted in the information being disclosed. It has also not been shown that it was Assange who offered the help, according to Kevin Gosztola (ShadowProof 4/11/19). The government’s lack of proof of its charges might explain why Manning is in jail again.
The indictment goes even further, criminalizing the use of an electronic “drop box” and other tactics that investigative journalists routinely use in the computer age to work with a confidential source “for the purpose of publicly disclosing” information.
The only thing that changed between the Obama administration and the Trump administration is an increased willingness to attack journalism. Assange is being prosecuted for journalism.
Furthermore, there’s every reason to believe that this new charge which the Trump administration pulled out of thin air is only a ploy to get Assange onto U.S. soil, where he can be smashed with far more serious charges including espionage. Pentagon Papers lawyer James Goodale writes the following:
“Under the U.S.-U.K. extradition treaty, one cannot be extradited from the United Kingdom if the extradition is for “political purposes.” This explains why the indictment does not contain any charges alleging that Assange conspired with the Russians to impact the 2016 presidential election. It may also explain why the indictment focuses on hacking government computers rather than on leaking stolen government information, in as much as leaking could be characterized as being done for political purposes.”
When Assange arrives in the United States through extradition, as many expect he will, the government will then be able to indict him for his participation in that election. It is not out of the question that the government will come up with additional charges against Assange.
If that happens, Assange will not be spending the five years behind bars for computer offenses that his current charge allows; he’ll be spending decades.
“I don’t think Julian is looking at five years in prison, I think he’s probably looking at 50 years in prison,” said CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, who was the first person tried in the U.S. for leaking classified materials to a journalist under Obama’s crackdown on whistleblowers.
“I think that there are many more charges to be considered for Julian,” Kiriakou added. “I would expect a superseding indictment, possibly to include espionage charges.”
There is no legitimate reason to feel confident that this won’t happen, and there are many reasons to believe that it will. All for publishing truthful documents about the powerful. Assange is being prosecuted for journalism.
It’s also worth noting here that President Executive Order 13526, section 1.7, explicitly forbids the classification of material in order to hide government malfeasance, meaning it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that Manning did not in fact break a legitimate law, and that those prosecuting her did.
“In no case shall information be classified, continue to be maintained as classified, or fail to be declassified in order to: (1) conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error; (2) prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency,” the section reads, while Manning’s lawyer has argued the following:
“The information released by PFC Manning, while certainly greater in scope than most leaks, did not contain any Top Secret or compartmentalized information. The leaked information also did not discuss any current or ongoing military missions. Instead, the Significant Activity Reports (SIGACTs, Guantanamo detainee assessments, Apache Aircrew video, diplomatic cables, and other released documents dealt with events that were either publicly known or certainly no longer sensitive at the time of release.”
There was no legitimate reason for what Manning leaked to have been classified; it was only kept so to avoid U.S. government embarrassment. Which was illegal. To quote Assange: “The overwhelming majority of information is classified to protect political security, not national security.”
Smear: “Well, he jumped bail! Of course the U.K. had to arrest him.”
Never in my life have I seen so many people so deeply, deeply concerned about the proper adherence to the subtle technicalities of bail protocol as when Sweden dropped its rape investigation, leaving only a bail violation warrant standing between Assange and freedom. All of a sudden I had establishment loyalists telling me how very, very important it is that Assange answer for his horrible, horrible crime of taking political asylum from persecution at the hands of the most violent government on the planet to the mild inconvenience of whoever had to fill out the paperwork.
This smear is soundly refuted in a lucid article by Simon Floth, which was endorsed by the Defend Assange Campaign. Floth explains that under British law bail is only breached if there’s a failure to meet bail “without reasonable cause,” which the human right to seek asylum certainly is. The U.K. was so deeply concerned about this bail technicality that it waited a full nine days before issuing an arrest warrant.
After the Swedish government decided to drop its sexual-assault investigation without issuing any charges, Assange’s legal team attempted last year to get the warrant dropped. The judge in that case, Emma Arbuthnot, just happens to be married to former Tory junior Defence Minister and government whip James Arbuthnot, who served as director of Security Intelligence Consultancy SC Strategy Ltd with a former head of MI6. Lady Arbuthnot denied Assange's request with extreme vitriol, despite his argument that British law does have provisions which allow for the time he’d already served under house arrest to count toward far more time than would be served for violating bail. The British government kept police stationed outside the embassy at taxpayers’ expense with orders to arrest Assange on sight.
This, like America’s tweaking the law in such a way that allows it to prosecute him for journalism and Ecuador’s tweaking its asylum laws in such a way that allowed it to justify revoking Assange’s asylum, was another way a government tweaked the law in such a way that allowed it to facilitate Assange’s capture and imprisonment. These three governments all tweaked the law in unison in such a way that when looked at individually don’t look totalitarian, but when taken together just so happen to look exactly the same as imprisoning a journalist for publishing inconvenient truths.
Smear: “He is a Trump supporter.”
No, he wasn’t. He hated Hillary “Can’t we just drone this guy?” Clinton for her horrible record and her efforts as Secretary of State to shut down WikiLeaks, but that’s not the same as supporting Trump. His hatred of Clinton was personal, responding to a complaint by a lead Clinton staffer about his role in her defeat with the words “Next time, don’t imprison and kill my friends, deprive my children of their father, corrupt judicial processes, bully allies into doing the same, and run a seven-year unconstitutional grand jury against me and my staff.”
And he wanted her to lose. Desiring the loss of the woman who campaigned on a promise to create a no-fly zone in the same region that Russian military planes were conducting operations is perfectly reasonable for someone with Assange’s worldview, and it doesn’t mean he wanted Trump to be president or believed he’d make a good one. Preferring to be stabbed over shot doesn’t mean you want to be stabbed.
In July 2016, Assange compared the choice between Clinton and Trump to a choice between cholera and gonorrhea, saying, “Personally, I would prefer neither.” When a Twitter user suggested to Assange, in 2017, that he start sucking up to Trump in order to secure a pardon, Assange replied, “I’d rather eat my own intestines.” Could not possibly be more unequivocal.
Assange saw Trump as clearly as anyone at the time, and now he’s behind bars at the behest of that depraved administration. Clinton voters still haven’t found a way to make this work in their minds; they need to hate Assange because he helped Hillary lose, but when they cheer-led for his arrest they’re cheering for a Trump administration agenda. These same people who claim to oppose Trump and support the free press are cheerleading for a Trump administration agenda which constitutes the greatest threat to the free press we’ve seen in our lifetimes.
Assange has never been a Trump supporter. But, in a very real way, those who support his imprisonment are.
Caitlin Johnstone is an Australian (where Assange is from) independent journalist whose further writings can be found at CaitlinJohnstone.com.