The freedom to communicate and to share has entered a new era. The power promised by this freedom, by the Internet, is immense, so much so that it frightens entrenched institutions. Governments, militaries, corporations, banks: They all stand to lose the control they exert over society when information they suppress runs free. Yet some of the most ardent advocates for the free Internet have become targets of these very institutions, forced to live on the run, in exile or, in some cases, in prison.
Julian Assange is perhaps one of the most recognized figures in the fight for transparency and open communication. He founded the website WikiLeaks in 2007 to provide a safe, secure means to leak electronic documents. In 2010, WikiLeaks released a shocking video taken from a U.S. military attack helicopter, in which at least 12 civilians are methodically machine-gunned to death in New Baghdad, a neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq. Two of those killed were Reuters journalists. Throughout the massacre, the Army radio transmissions are heard, a combination of grimly sterile orders to “engage” the victims and a string of mocking exchanges among the soldiers, belittling the victims and celebrating the slaughter.
Will the internet remain a free and open platform for communication, or a commodity controlled by a few corporations, censored and surveilled by the U.S. national-security apparatus?
On the heels of the video’s publication, WikiLeaks provided three more major document releases, with hundreds of thousands of classified documents, from official U.S. military communications about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which allowed direct research into, for example, the scale of civilian casualties in those wars. WikiLeaks also revealed hundreds of thousands of U.S. State Department cables, exposing dark, cynical realities of U.S. diplomacy. The secret cables are credited with fueling the Arab Spring, especially the overthrow of the corrupt, U.S.-supported regime in Tunisia.
While the WikiLeaks website managed to protect the identity of the source of these remarkable leaks, an FBI informant pointed the finger at a U.S. soldier, Pvt. Bradley Manning. Serving in U.S. military intelligence in Iraq, Manning was frustrated with U.S. military abuses. He allegedly copied the trove of files and delivered them to WikiLeaks. Manning was arrested and thrown into solitary confinement, in conditions the United Nations labeled “torture.” Manning was court-martialed. After conviction and sentencing to 35 years in an Army prison, Manning announced his intention to transition to a woman, and formally changed her name to Chelsea Manning. One month ago, Manning wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times, “I believe that the current limits on press freedom and excessive government secrecy make it impossible for Americans to grasp fully what is happening in the wars we finance.”
WikiLeaks investigations editor Sarah Harrison is British but now lives in Berlin. When Edward Snowden leaked his trove of National Security Agency documents in Hong Kong, Harrison flew there. She and WikiLeaks provided key assistance to Snowden as he made his way to political asylum in Russia. Harrison is concerned that if she returns to her native England, she will be arrested. I caught up with her in Bonn, Germany, where she told me: “Britain has a Terrorism Act, which has within it a portion called Schedule 7, which is quite unique ... it gives officials the ability to detain people at the border as they go in or out or even transit through the country. This allows them to question people on no more than a hunch, giving them no right to silence, no right to a lawyer."
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Also in Berlin is U.S. citizen Laura Poitras, the first journalist to respond to Snowden in his efforts to leak the NSA documents. She convinced Glenn Greenwald to travel with her to Hong Kong, launching the Snowden era in U.S. national-security reporting. Poitras had already been detained and aggressively questioned many times on entering the United States, very likely for her unflinching exposes on the U.S. national-security system.
Greenwald, a U.S. citizen, chooses to live in Brazil. Since the Snowden revelations, on advice of his lawyers, he avoided visiting his home country. Poitras and Greenwald finally did return to the U.S. to collect the prestigious George Polk Award for their journalism. Three days later, they were part of the teams at The Guardian and The Washington Post that won the Pulitzer Prize.
Then there is Edward Snowden. He has been charged with espionage for making one of the largest and most significant leaks in U.S. history, which has sparked a global debate around surveillance, privacy and the national-security state. This weekend, The Guardian published an interview with Hillary Clinton. She said Snowden should return to the United States, where he could mount a vigorous legal and public defense. The day after, I asked Julian Assange what he thought. He replied: “The U.S. government decided to smash Chelsea Manning—absolutely smash her—to send a signal to everyone: Don’t you ever think about telling people what’s really going on inside the U.S. military and its abuses. And they tried to smash also the next most visible person and visible organization, which was WikiLeaks, to get both ends - the source end and the publishing end.”
I interviewed Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has been holed up for the past two years. Ecuador has granted him political asylum, but he fears that if he steps foot out of the embassy, he will ultimately be extradited to the United States, landing him in a U.S. prison for years to come for his work with WikiLeaks.
At the heart of his case, and of so many others, is the question of whether the Internet will remain a free and open platform for communication, or a commodity controlled by a few corporations, censored and surveilled by the U.S. national-security apparatus.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.