The media is largely missing one of the most important stories of our time. Not that it’s a surprise, with most of our corporate-consolidated media landscape focused on shareholder interests and other political establishment-friendly news.
Here’s the scoop: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, recently arrested from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he faces extradition to the US, may become a sacrificial lamb upon the alter of secrecy for those in power. This story may seem trivial the way much of the media is portraying it, but at stake here is the very press freedom that journalists in the US use to uncover uncomfortable truths when our institutions stray from ethics and morality. The ‘right of the public to know’ is in the crosshairs.
For readers not versed in the Julian Assange or WikiLeaks story, here’s a quick too-busy-for-a-deep-dive version:
Assange, an Australian, is the founder of WikiLeaks, an organization that publishes information, often classified, by anonymous sources. From their website, WikiLeaks says that “Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public”. “One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth”.
True to their word, much of the source material they publish is made publicly available here and has been widely cited and used by many media organizations in order to uncover uncomfortable truths. Here are a few notable examples:
- Classified US military documents and reports detailing war crimes committed in Iraq, as well as State Department cables
- Hillary Clinton/DNC emails showing collaboration to prevent Bernie Sanders winning the 2016 Democratic Primary
- CIA hacking phones, TVs, and social media- including remote activation of devices
- The US using the World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund) as “financial weapons” against other governments
- Evidence exposing the torture of Guantanamo Bay prisoners
The content that WikiLeaks publishes with the crucial help of whistleblowers is damaging to many of those in powerful positions, who seek to cover up information which is potentially damaging to them.
Of the military and State Department leaks published by Assange with the help of Army whistleblower Bradley Manning, US officials began targeting Assange. It is important to note that those going after Assange and WikiLeaks point out that (bold is mine):
“To be clear – such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government”. Additionally, “Wikileaks has put at risk… the lives and work of these individuals”
Despite this statement, no apparent link or evidence to any deaths or lives at stake have been provided.
The Obama Administration set records for going after whistleblowers and the press, and considered legally targeting Julian Assange himself via prosecution after publishing classified US documents. The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald points out that of the Obama administration:
“It spent years exploring whether it could criminally charge Assange and WikiLeaks for publishing classified information. It ultimately decided it would not do so, and could not do so, consistent with the press freedom guarantee of the First Amendment. After all, the Obama DOJ concluded, such a prosecution would pose a severe threat to press freedom because there would be no way to prosecute Assange for publishing classified documents without also prosecuting the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and others for doing exactly the same thing.”
The Trump Administration, as will be shown, is taking a different approach.
Assange himself is a controversial figure. Involved in a couple sexual assault allegations in 2010 when he was in Sweden, Assange has been a wanted man for almost 10 years.
Attorney Nils Melzer mentions of Assange’s most recent case:
“”He was in Sweden at the time,” Melzer said. “He immediately went to a police station himself and said, ‘Could I please make my statement and participate in this?’ Sweden law prohibits the publication of the name of the complainant and the suspected offender in a sexual offense case. His statement was taken. Two or three days later, the prosecutor closed the case, saying, ‘There was no evidence of any crime being committed at all.’ ””
Three days later a different prosecutor reopened the case. Melzer notes that:
““They asked him to come back to Sweden for questioning,” Melzer said. “Then Mr. Assange became a little bit suspicious. ‘I thought we had dealt with this. What is the issue?’ He was afraid that he was being called back so Sweden could surrender him to the U.S.””
Assange then sought refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London after being granted asylum by Ecuador’s then president Rafael Correa. Despite being confined to what amounts to an apartment for years, Assange continued his work at WikiLeaks until his recent arrest.
Newly elected Ecuadorian president, Lenin Moreno, angered over WikiLeaks publishing reports of a corruption scandal against him, then claimed Assange violated his asylum while hacking officials:
“Mr. Assange has violated the agreement we reached with him and his legal counsel too many times,” Moreno said in the interview in the city of Guayaquil. “It is not that he cannot speak and express himself freely, but he cannot lie, nor much less hack private accounts or phones.”
Despite Moreno’s accusations, Assange appears to be a political football, here.
In an alleged deal between Vice President Mike Pence and President Moreno, Ecuador would 1) adopt the US position regarding overthrowing Maduro in Venezuela, 2) end South American economic integration (classic divide and conquer tactics), and 3) revoke Assange’s asylum status, where London authorities could then arrest him. In exchange, Ecuador would receive a $4.2 billion loan from the IMF (International Monetary Fund).
Soon after the deal was struck, Assange was arrested on April 11, “on behalf of the United States authorities” according to a police statement, in London after his asylum status was removed.
Where Obama aggressively went after whistleblowers and the press who published damaging information, Obama recognized the threat to freedom of the press and the 1st Amendment by actually convicting whistleblowers and their publishers like Assange’s WikiLeaks. Doing so would set a legal precedent allowing the government to imprison any and all news organizations who publish secret and classified information. It’s unclear what the 1st Amendment would even apply to at that point.
The Trump Administration does not have this view and is willing and eager to prosecute Assange. The Nation’s Bruce Shapiro writes that:
“Like Nixon, Trump has no obvious interest in prosecuting leaks of years-old controversies that damage the reputation of a past administration. But like Nixon, he will seize any opportunity to weaken an independent press.
Trump also understands—better than Nixon did—American journalism’s chronic lack of solidarity.”
In addition to a lack of solidarity, the press oftentimes merely functions as a mouthpiece for those in power.
Hear the silence so loud
Consider the reporting found here, here, here, and here. Notice that these articles contain facts that are essentially accurate, but completely miss the big picture: what Assange’s prosecution will mean for their very own organizations and journalists. Once a reader understands this about our media- that they many times report stories (biased or not) and still mislead the public by what they do or don’t publish, mainstream media will start making sense. This has been explained before.
The Administration may even be aided by some Democrats, who, as Greenwald discusses:
“But the grand irony is that many Democrats will side with the Trump DOJ over the Obama DOJ. Their emotional, personal contempt for Assange – due to their belief that he helped defeat Hillary Clinton: the gravest crime – easily outweighs any concerns about the threats posed to press freedoms by the Trump administration’s attempts to criminalize the publication of documents.”
The charges against Assange can be officially found here:
Readers will notice that the first 17 counts relate to attempting, obtaining, and disclosing national defense information which has been discussed above. Curiously, count 18 is another story.
As has been noted, Conspiracy to Commit Computer Intrusion is akin to hacking. But what makes count 18 important is this: since Assange wasn’t hacking in the normal sense, but instead attempting to access documents via a different account than Manning (his source) to protect Manning’s anonymity, the indictment has broad applicability to journalists everywhere. It is seen as an ethical responsibility for journalists to protect the anonymity of sources, who would otherwise be easily and quickly targeted.
If journalists have an ethical responsibility to protect the anonymity of their sources, a successful prosecution of Assange can make this ethical responsibility a direct violation of the law.
In other words, Assange being found guilty will mean that a legal precedent is established allowing the US government to legally target whistleblowers, journalists, or news organizations for publishing information by “those not entitled to receive it”, as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi reports.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say virtually every reporter who’s ever done national security reporting has at some time or another looked at, or been told, or actually received copies of, “national defense” information they were technically “not entitled to receive.”
Anyone who covers the military, the intelligence community, or certain congressional committees, will eventually stumble – even just by accident – into this terrain sooner or later. Even I’ve been there, and I’ve barely done any reporting in that space.”
What happens from here
On May 1st 2019, Assange was jailed by the UK for skipping bail after Ecuador removed his asylum status. The sentence is 50 weeks, and he is expected to be extradited to the US before he is released from custody.
Following this story is akin to watching a train wreck in slow motion- the consequences for press freedom will prove dire if Assange ends up extradited and convicted. Media organizations will do well to note John Donne’s famous line “never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”