WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has taken refuge in Ecuador’s embassy in London rather than be extradited to Sweden to face sex-abuse accusations. But Assange’s ordeal reflects a larger and more troubling American hostility to truth-tellers who point the finger at Washington, says Lawrence Davidson.
June 27, 2012
In 2006, Julian Assange and associates founded the WikiLeaks website with a noble and necessary goal. WikiLeaks aimed at forcing the world’s governments to act with greater transparency and therefore possibly rule more justly.
It was Assange’s opinion that if governments were less able to lie and keep secrets, they would be less prone to break their own and international laws, or at least more likely to adhere to a general rule of decency allegedly shared by their citizenry.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at a media conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo credit: New Media Days / Peter Erichsen)
This was a truly heroic undertaking. What did WikiLeaks do to accomplish this task? It created a web-based non-governmental window on government activity through which it made public those official lies and secrets. This information was supplied to it by whistle blowers the world over.
Soon WikiLeaks was telling the world about "extrajudicial killings in Kenya … toxic waste dumping on the coast of Cote d’Ivoire … material involving large banks … among other documents." None of this got Assange into great trouble. The simple fact is that the ability of states such as Kenya and the Ivory Coast to reach out and crush an organization like WikiLeaks is limited.
However, in 2010 the website started publishing massive amounts of U.S. diplomatic and military documents, including damaging information on procedures at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and a video documenting lethal attacks on civilians in Iraq.
It was at this point that Assange, as the editor-in-chief of Wikileaks, became a criminal in the eyes of the U.S. government. The hero, ferreting out facts about official wrongdoing, now became the hunted. Rep. Peter King, R-New York, an Islamophobe who unfortunately chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, labeled WikiLeaks a "terrorist organization" and said that Assange ought to be "prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917."
On the Democratic side of the aisle, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, claimed that Assange had harmed the national interest and "put innocent lives at risk" and therefore should be prosecuted for espionage.
Actually, a good argument can be made that the stupid and corrupt policies of American politicians have done much greater harm to objectively defined national interest, particularly in the Middle East. In addition, there is no evidence that any of WikiLeaks’ actions have resulted in any loss of "innocent lives." However, none of this can save Assange.
Who Is the Real Criminal?
One of the serious questions raised by the case of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange is just who is a criminal? If an organized crime syndicate commits illegal acts and some outside party reveals its activity, the syndicate might mark the witness for punishment. However, which one is the real criminal?
Lots of governments act like organized crime syndicates. If you ask Rep. King or Sen. Feinstein what they think about the behavior of, say, Russia in Chechnya or China in Tibet, they are likely to describe that behavior as criminal. And, if Assange had just exposed the sins of Russia or China, he would be praised within the halls of Congress.
But what happens when the U.S. government behaves like an organized gang of criminals? After all, a very good case can be made that the leaders of the United States are systematically violating their own Constitution with policies like indefinite detention.
In recent decades, the government’s behavior has violated more moral precepts than one cares to count, from the Vietnam War through the invasion and occupation of Iraq, resulting in millions of deaths. Then there is the practice of torturing suspected, but not actually convicted, terrorists, and the current use of drone attacks which kill more civilians than targeted enemies.
Along comes WikiLeaks and Assange to bear witness against some of these acts. Washington marks him for punishment. But just who is the real criminal?
It is to the enduring shame of most of the U.S. media that they did not, and still can’t, manage a straight answer to that question. The establishment press has always kept its distance from Assange, asserting that he was not a "real" journalist. This no doubt reflects the attitudes of its basically conservative owners and editors.
For instance, the New York Times executive editor, Bill Keller, once called Assange a "smelly, dirty, bombastic … believer in unproven conspiracy theories." He did this even while his own paper selectively dipped into the 391,832 Pentagon documents that WikiLeaks had divulged.
Even then the information was used in the most innocuous fashion. I think it is fair to say that investigative journalism at a local (city or state) level still goes on in the U.S., but at the national level it has become an increasingly rare phenomenon.
Though a noble and necessary effort, Assange’s WikiLeaks experiment always faced very high odds, particularly in the U.S. This is because its revelations play themselves out within the context of an establishment culture that has long ago turned the great majority of people into subservient true believers.
True believers in what? In the essential goodness of their nation as it operates in the world beyond its borders. Therefore, transparency might be acceptable for one’s local political environment where the mayor turns out to be corrupt, but foreign policy is something else again.
For Americans in the post-9/11 age, foreign policy boils down to promoting democracy and development on the one hand, and protecting the citizenry from terrorists on the other. Within that frame of reference, it is nearly impossible for Americans to conceive of their national government as purposefully acting like a criminal organization. They just refuse to believe it.
Particularly in the context of the so-called "war on terror," most Americans see nothing noble or necessary about exposing the government’s clandestine operations. Thus, when Julian Assange points out the criminal behavior of those supposedly defending the nation, most citizens are going to feel indignant and rally around the flag. The messenger is soon the one who is seen as criminal and dangerous because he is undermining national security.
There are no greater adherents to this point of view than the political and military leaders who claim to be defenders of the nation. For them the old Barry Goldwater saying, "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice" excuses all excesses. WikiLeaks both challenged and embarrassed them by making their innumerable excesses public. Thus, be they Democrats or Republicans, the so-called champions of homeland security are determined to silence him.
U.S. authorities have latched onto an exaggerated sex scandal in Sweden in which Assange is sought for questioning (though as yet not charged with any crime). They have pressured the Swedes to extradite Assange from his present UK residence when it would be much easier and efficient (as Assange has offered) for Stockholm to send court representatives to England to perform the questioning.
So why do it the hard way? Because, once in Sweden, the head of WikiLeaks could be given over to the Americans (something the British will not do). Assange will not cooperate in this game. As Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, "as a foreign national accused of harming U.S. national security, he has every reason to want to avoid ending up in the travesty known as the American judicial system."
When he recently lost his UK court battle against extradition, he sought asylum in the embassy of Ecuador, a country whose leaders are sympathetic to Assange’s plight. True to form, American media comment on Assange’s appeal for asylum has been disparaging.
Julian Assange is now a hero on the run. And, he is probably going to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Even if he makes it to Ecuador, he will need bodyguards to protect him from kidnapping or worse. As one Pentagon spokesman put it, "If doing the right thing is not good enough for [Assange] then we will figure out what other alternatives we have to compel [him] to do the right thing."
And what do America’s leaders regard as the "right thing" in this case? Obviously, keeping silent about Washington’s doing the wrong thing. That is the nature of our world.
Submerged in a culture defined by the educational and informational dictates of our leaders and their interests, many of us cannot recognize when we are being lied to or misled. And, if someone tries to tell us what is happening, they sound so odd, so out of place, that we are made anxious and annoyed. So much so that, in the end, we don’t raise a finger when the messenger is hounded into silence.
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.