-by Skip Kaltenheuser
President Biden can shore up the journalism on which democracy depends. He can cease government threats to journalists and prove he values government transparency. Stopping the prosecution-- persecution-- of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange accomplishes this. Assange remains imprisoned in London as the US seeks his extradition on specious charges, including actions journalists routinely engage in.
The morning of April 5th, 2010, I attended the Wikileaks news conference at the National Press Club. Afterwards, my stomach felt like a lead ball. Assange presented the July 12, 2007 attack by two US Apache helicopters, firing 30mm cannon on civilians in an Iraqi suburb, most clearly unarmed and exhibiting no hostilities. Dead included two Reuter’s journalists. One clearly carried a camera. Unarmed men were killed trying to rescue a seriously wounded Reuter’s employee. A slain rescuer’s two children in their destroyed van were grievously wounded. The cavalier comments of the pilots as they filmed are terrifying. How many they killed is unclear because families lived in a building targeted when unarmed men entered it. Estimates range from 12 to over 18. The Army’s story to Reuters was less than candid. Reality descended when Chelsea Manning provided Wikileaks with the tape.
Millions viewed the “Collateral Murder Tape” online, as well as interviews with one of the soldiers who rescued the children - Ethan McCord recounts how it impacted him, and the wider PTSD forever wars inflict on our soldiers. In our fog of war reliable count of the hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan remains elusive. Those who prefer such dark reveals remain buried see Assange as someone to destroy.
US military budgets remain on crescendo. The world’s top five arms dealers, and twelve of the top twenty-five, are American. Assange is bad for business.
"Someone’s not going to like this" was predictable. Assange stepped into the crosshairs of fame, targeted by powerful disinformation systems. Politicians and media pundits, some of the latter still joined at the hip with America's military/intelligence/industrial complex, chimed in. Some called Assange a traitor-- never mind he’s Australian-- and high tech terrorist, even calling for his assassination. So dark was the picture painted that even sympathetic writers feel obliged to begin with “Whatever you think of Assange…”
When Wikileaks revealed the DNC gamed the 2016 Democratic Party primaries, the punditry judged democratic derailments not newsworthy when the higher good was resistance to Trump.
Distortions linger. How many know Assange sought Pentagon and State Department help in redacting sensitive information, and was refused? That he worked diligently with newspapers to determine information that should be held back, until a newspaper editor published an access password that let everyone pull everything? Or that Robert Mueller found no evidence connecting Assange and Russia? That Paul Manafort never met with Assange in Ecuador’s embassy in London? Or that no harm was caused to anyone in other countries who was working with the US government? Media ran faster with narratives ripping Assange than questioning or correcting them.
Claiming Assange is outside publishing boundaries is a conceit that who, what, when, where, why and how requires formal training, or an official imprimatur. Never mind the international journalism awards Wikileaks quickly garnered, the uncovered bedrock for important stories that enabled accolades to news organizations building on Wikileaks revelations.
A decade ago Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed government lies about the Vietnam War by leaking the Pentagon Papers, told me government's objective going after him was a UK-styled Official Secrets Act that undermines First Amendment protections. Beyond criminalizing leaking classified materials, it would criminalize seeking and publishing them.
I recently asked James C. Goodale, who defended the NY Times in that case, if that’s still the aim. “Yes,” Goodale says, “closing the circle, prosecuting those who receive and publish leaks. The wild over-classification of documents systematically confuses confidentiality with national security, deterring finding out and revealing what government does. It’s already put a chill on journalists covering the military establishment, and leaks are drying up. Assange engaged in journalistic endeavors." Goodale is alarmed that despite overwhelming recognition of this by international journalist and human rights organizations, American media remains mostly comatose regarding the peril.
It remains illegal to classify information "to conceal inefficiency, violations of law, or administrative error; to prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency.” Presumably that includes war crimes. Yet the secretive among us are classifying tens of millions of items a year, a perpetual fog machine.
Despite the Obama Administration’s unprecedented pillorying of whistleblowers who revealed government wrongdoing, including CIA torture, it chose not to pursue Assange because of challenges disentangling him from papers like the NY Times that used his revelations. The Trump Administration jumped that line. The Biden Administration follows. Relevance is constantly refreshed, such as by all the noble pronouncements on protecting journalism and freedom of expression, including from the Biden Administration, on World Press Freedom Day, ignoring applicability to Assange. And now there is the bellwether of government secretly obtaining reporters’ cell phone records, presumably to determine sources. Another, in May drone whistleblower Daniel Hale was jailed months ahead of his July sentencing. Grind the sources down.
The importance of Assange’s effort to inform the public of what the powerful in government and commerce choose to keep hidden from them is underscored by trends in media ownership. With the purchase of Tribune Publishing by Alden Global Capital, hedge funds now control half of American daily local newspaper circulation. The vultures among them shrivel staff and investigative resources. When media companies throw down partisan preferences, they ignore, minimize or spin stories that don’t support their narratives. They avoid ruffling the stove-piped consumers they cultivate. They are bipartisan in one regard, being ever mindful of the industries that advertise heavily with them, or in which they have financial interests. Corporate investors and board members often have multiple interests beyond enlightening the public. Take BlackRock, one of the Wall Street outfits that own large swaths of the NY Times. It’s heavily invested in defense companies, and has increasing interests abroad, including China and Saudi Arabia. Many owners certainly have reasons not to antagonize government. Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post, has been seeking Pentagon contracts for Amazon worth billions. He now seeks a $10 billion dollar bailout for his Blue Origin space company.
Not that journalists laboring in a wobbling, insecure industry pay close attention to the interests of those buttering their bread when deciding what ink to spill. Just that Assange is handy for bringing important stories to media that might get them the attention that should be paid. Pursuing Assange demonstrates collapsing ideals of justice. There is the specter of government attorneys claiming the First Amendment doesn’t apply to foreign journalists and non-US citizens. Authoritarian regimes oppressing journalists applaud when America dissipates protection of speech. London’s long extradition hearing gave Assange the Hannibal Lecter treatment. He was in a glass cage, often incommunicado with his lawyers. Assange is on the autism spectrum. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, says what Assange endures is psychological torture. “Violations of due process revealed by hearing testimony, including spying on Assange’s meetings with his lawyers and journalists by a security firm working with US intelligence officials, even discussing kidnapping or poisoning Assange, should shock any judicial conscience,” says Goodale. It is inescapable that some prefer Assange dead. “Why?” ought to occupy the minds of investigative journalists. The hearing’s January outcome echoes nightmares of Orwell and Kafka. The British judge said nothing protecting press freedom. Instead, she refused extradition because Assange might commit suicide in draconian US prisons. Then she put him not in house arrest but back in isolation in Prison Belmarsh, notorious for brutality and suicide. There Assange sits, as he has for two years, as the U.S appeals. President Biden seeks to end decades of war in Afghanistan. Chances of success there were dashed by the horrid aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Though Biden’s been mercurial describing his support of that invasion, it’s hard to imagine regret doesn’t weigh heavy. Consider that had Wikileaks been operable prior to the invasion, lies about WMD’s and Al-Qaeda alliances might have been exposed, preventing that tragic opening of Pandora’s Box.
If America truly values an informed public, the persecution of Julian Assange must end.
The essay above is an expanded version of one in theLA Progressive. That publication belongs to a coalition which, with the Courage Foundation is supportive of Julian Assange and of the current month-long US tour by Assange’s father and brother, John and Gabriel Shipton. Related panel discussions, with an impressive diversity of knowledgeable participants across eighteen cities, can be followed here.