WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange remains arbitrarily detained in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. As he is in a critical situation under a special protocol imposing prison-like surveillance, news emerged that shed light on the grave danger he has been facing. Last week, the Washington Post reported that the US Justice Department, in what appeared to be an error of cut and paste in their court filing, inadvertently disclosed criminal charges against Assange exist under seal.
Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson responded to the revelation of a secret US government’s prosecution against the publisher, by noting that it confirms what Assange and his legal team have been suspecting. She pointed out how a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks started in 2010 in relation to disclosures made by WikiLeaks in partnership with other major newspapers revealing the evidence of US war crimes. She made it clear that this risk of his extradition to the US has been the reason why Assange sought and was granted asylum by Ecuador in 2012.
This public confirmation of a US indictment sent a huge alarm to civil liberty groups in the US. The ACLU issued a statement, noting how this sealed indictment violates the Constitution and prosecuting journalists for publishing classified documents would set a dangerous precedent for press freedom. Now that this sealed indictment is out in the open, validating Assange’s fear of leaving the embassy, the public is given an opportunity to see the true nature of his plight for freedom. What is now being revealed is the war on the First Amendment waged by the US government, targeting the Western journalist who has published materials in the public interest at a scale that has never been seen before.
The war on the First Amendment
The spark for this war was quietly lit in 2008 with US intelligence’s plan to destroy WikiLeaks, viewing the website as an information security threat to the US army. It got inflamed in 2010 shortly after the whistleblowing site published the trove of US classified military records of the Afghan war, revealing around 20,000 deaths by assassination, massacre and night raids, and the Iraq War Logs, that informed people in Iraq and the international community about 15,000 civilian casualties previously unreported.
As the White House downplayed the significance of these disclosures, US Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen called WikiLeaks publications “reckless” and “irresponsible”. While there is not a single shred of evidence that any of these disclosures caused anyone harm, the Pentagon deflected its own crimes and aggressively tried to attack the messenger with a bombastic line of “they have blood on their hands”.
Assange as a spokesperson of this new multi-national media organization came under attack with an intense campaign of character assassination. The preliminary investigation of his alleged sexual misconduct involving two women in Sweden who explicitly denied the accusation of rape was turned into a full blown legal battle trapping him in London where the local press criminalized him as a rapist.
Right after WikiLeaks’ publication of the US diplomatic cables, the vilification of Assange intensified by high profile US political figures. The former Vice President Joe Biden branded Assange as a high-tech terrorist, while a former Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich calling him an “enemy combatant”, who deserves to be executed.
WikiLeaks also has faced massive coordinated political retaliation. On November 29, 2010, the US Attorney General publicly confirmed the existence of a secret grand jury investigation into disclosures of classified information made by WikiLeaks. In December 2010, Amazon removed WikiLeaks from their server after being pressured by US officials. Then, signaled by the US State Department, private paying processing companies such as VISA, MasterCard, PayPal, Bank of America and Western Union engaged in extrajudicial financial blockade against WikiLeaks, reportedly destroying over 95 % of their revenue. Meanwhile, WikiLeaks associates were repeatedly harassed at borders.
Whistleblowers as casualty of war
This attack on WikiLeaks is an escalation of Obama’s war on whistleblowers. Before Snowden’s revelations, former National Security Agency analysts, Thomas Drake, William Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe and Edward Loomis were alarmed by widespread government surveillance and decided to speak out.
Thomas Drake, former NSA senior executive who blew the whistle on secret mass surveillance programs, spoke about how he came to witness his own government actively violating the privacy and freedom of its citizens in the name of national security and decided not to remain silent. He said, “I took an oath to defend the constitution. Here I am finding myself defending the constitution against my own government, a government that I did not recognise, an alien form of government. I had to stand up to it.”
Drake, who faced 35 years in prison before the government charges against him were unexpectedly dropped, also alerted the public about the government’s war on whistleblowers:
“We are seeing an unprecedented campaign against whistleblowers and truthtellers: it’s now criminal to expose the crimes of the state. Under this relentless assault by the Obama administration, I am the only person who has held them off and preserved his freedom. All the other whistleblowers I know have served time in jail, are facing jail or are already incarcerated or in prison.”
John Kiriakou became the first CIA officer to confirm the use of torture and to face jail time for challenging the legality of the US torture program. Before going to jail, he spoke of his decision:
“I took my oath seriously. My oath was to the Constitution. On my first day in the CIA, I put my right hand up, and I swore to uphold the Constitution. And to me, torture is unconstitutional, and it’s something that we should not be in the business of doing … If you see waste, fraud, abuse or illegality, shout it from the rooftops, whether it’s internally or to Congress.”
While Obama was relentlessly prosecuted whistleblowers more than all other previous administrations combined, corporate media effectively kept the battlefield out of public sight. These whistleblowers who fought to hold the ground for truth became an invisible casualty of this war on the First Amendment, who were made to quietly endure suffering.
Frontline of the battle
As the unchecked power of the national security state grew, expanding its territory in cyberspace with increasing surveillance and censorship, a new stream of dissidents emerged on the Internet. WikiLeaks courageously entered into a frontline of the battle in defense of the First Amendment. With unprecedented technical infrastructure that enables anonymous submission of documents, it provided an avenue for a new generation of whistleblowers to exercise free speech that has been stifled in traditional channels.
The former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, the source behind WikiLeaks major publications including the raw footage of a US airstrike killing innocent civilians in Iraq, first reached out to the established media outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, but was not taken seriously by editors. When the mainstream press turned away, she chose to put her trust in the non-profit media organization that was little known at that time.
Manning’s act of courage became contagious, creating a wave of whistleblowers. By following the step of his forerunner, political activist Jeremy Hammond exposed the inner workings of the pervasive surveillance state. At the sentencing hearing, he explained how he perfectly understood the consequences of his action and that it was against the law, yet he felt a duty to confront injustice. Then came Edward Snowden who revealed the NSA mass surveillance. In one of the addresses he made, Snowden also described his act as a public service and connected it with non-violent civil disobedience that Dr. King, a leader of civil rights movement employed to challenge the racist laws
As disclosures of government corruption began to challenge the legitimacy of authorities, the war on whistleblowers has escalated to a new level. Recent public confirmation of the US government’s secret charges on Assange has shown the empire’s expansion of a combat zone, to include journalists and publishers as its target. Although there is no clarity as to what charges are filed against Assange, the data that Google handed over to the US government in order to assist the prosecution of WikiLeaks’ staff indicated that alleged offenses include espionage.
The Espionage Act of 1917 is a US federal law, created after World War I for wartime prosecutions. This outdated law does not allow a public interest defense and prevents whistleblowers from having their motivations considered in court, making it impossible for them to defend their acts and receive a fair trial. Manning was convicted and Snowden charged under the Espionage Act by President Obama.
Now this law that was used to imprison whistleblowers is weaponized to punish those who report on government crimes. Commenting on imminent withdrawal of asylum for Assange by the Moreno government and his risk of prosecution in the US, Glenn Greenwald, journalist at The Intercept noted how Obama’s Justice Department was eager to prosecute Assange and WikiLeaks for the crime of publishing classified documents, but chose not to do so, due to concerns that it would set a precedent which could strip away the First Amendment protection for the press. Yet he contended that the Trump administration made it clear that they have no such reservation.
Tradition of civil disobedience
The possibility of the US government charging Assange who is not American, and didn’t publish in the US under its laws, probably for ‘espionage’ is extremely alarming. What is this crime of ‘aiding the enemy’ that the US government is eager to convict this transnational journalistic organization for? WikiLeaks, the organization that claimed to derive its source of inspiration from American founding ideas, with cryptography as a non-violent democratic weapon, helped American people to engage in the tradition of civil disobedience. By doing so, Assange, an Australian citizen, enabled the vital function of American democracy.
The idea of civil disobedience was presented by American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, as a critical component of checks and balances of governmental power. Thoreau, who believed that “government is best which governs least” (1957, p. 235), put forward the idea of civil disobedience, reminding the moral responsibility of ordinary people to defy the illegitimate authority of the state and restrict its power.
Thoreau engaged in the act of civil disobedience, to oppose slavery and went to a prison for refusing to pay a poll tax that supported the US war against Mexico. For him, the method of civil disobedience offered a way for people to create laws that reflect the true values of society and improve democracy that was inherited from the forebears.
He posed the questions:
“Is a democracy, such is we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.” (1957, p. 256)
This father of civil disobedience asked, “… Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?” (p. 236). He aimed to institute a new form of government that places conscience as the highest law, allowing each individual to freely explore what is right in their hearts with obligation to act out of their own knowing. He noted, “Unjust laws exist: Shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” (p. 242). Through his own act of civil disobedience, he has shown how only by each person’s adamant refusal to obey the dictates of unjust laws can we bring real accountability of the government and enshrine ideals into laws.
Conscience of America
Contrary to the ideals of equality and liberty at its foundation, from the onset of the US constitutional republic, unaccounted power has always existed, manifested in the founders’ internal contradiction over slavery, genocide of natives and oppression of minority rights. The Declaration of Independence was said to be the promise and the Constitution was its fulfillment. What bridges between the ideals in the original document and laws were ordinary people who are capable of developing their own moral conscience and bearing true faith and allegiance to it.
As WikiLeaks pushed the boundaries of free speech, the world has seen the rise of the power of ordinary people. The late attorney and President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Michael Ratner, who witnessed Manning read her prepared statement at the military court facility in Fort Meade, Maryland, recognized her as the conscience of America.
Through its scientific journalism, publishing primary source material in its full archives, WikiLeaks gave this conscience of America the maximum political impact for it to inform the public, in order to redeem the nation that has lost its own course. In this war of a tyrannical state on the First Amendment, Assange became a lightning rod to take all the heat, so ordinary people can uphold these ideals that are inscribed in their hearts, defending them against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
As the invisible beast inside the US government devours the hearts of these brave young patriots, WikiLeaks acted as a shield. This was demonstrated in their extraordinary source protection. After Snowden identified himself as the source behind the NSA files, aggressive prosecution quickly rolled out from Washington. As Snowden was stranded in Hong Kong, it was then the investigations editor at WikiLeaks and journalist Sarah Harrison who risked her life to secure his asylum.
Call for duty
Just as the Founding Fathers of the United States, by revolting against the autocratic rule of King George were regarded as traitors, by aiding ordinary people expose and defy unjust secret law, WikiLeaks too has been branded as an enemy of the state. Trump’s Secretary of State and the former CIA director, Mike Pompeo calls WikiLeaks a non-state hostile intelligence agency, claiming that the organization threatens American values and needs to be shut down. Members of the US Congress urged the Ecuadorian President to persecute Assange, calling him a “dangerous criminal” and a “threat to global security”. While all these vicious verbal attacks are thrown at him, Assange remains in confinement, over the past months, being completely shut out from the outside, being continually deprived of fresh air, access to medical care and sunlight by the UK government in violation of UN rulings.
All wars start and are fueled by lies and propaganda. Once it was the Vietnam War, where under the command of the US President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Gulf of Tonkin lies unleashed military forces into Southeast Asia. Then came the invasion of Iraq with the former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech at the UN, falsely claiming Iraq had ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’. This battle against free speech is another secret war of this empire. It now has become a fog of war, where with the hype of Russia Gate that was created out of thin air, the public was prevented from seeing who the real enemies are.
As Trump’s administration now carries on Obama’s legacy, vowing to destroy WikiLeaks for engaging in publishing activities that are protected under the First Amendment, American people are slowly coming to see their own government’s dirty war that has been waged in their name.
By trying to prosecute Julian Assange, America is betraying its own ideals. As this government that proclaims to be the greatest nation on the earth now heads toward its own destruction, each of us are called to respond to the duty of civil disobedience. Can we the people break silence to end this war and defend those who fought for the ideals that founded this nation? Solidarity across political lines can create the greatest anti-war movement that this country has ever seen. Outcome of this battle matters not only for the freedom of Assange, but for the liberation of America and realization of its own ideals that this country once stood for the world.