What is at stake here, absent any hyperbole, is the very existence of a free press, writes Danny Sjursen.
“WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks.”
~ Donald Trump, Oct. 10, 2016, Wilkes-Barre, PA
“This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove.”
~ Donald Trump, Oct. 31, 2016, Warren, MI
Back in the day, not so long ago, The Donald loved him some WikiLeaks. He said so on at least five occasions out on the campaign trail – in Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and Michigan. That was when WikiLeaks, ostensibly at least, served his purposes by releasing hacked DNC emails that were rather unflattering to his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The MAGA crew must’ve agreed with him regarding the Julian Assange-headed web publication at the time: Trump carried all four battleground states, which propelled him into the White House. He’s had more than three years, now, to acclimate to his new digs and, somewhere along the way, pulled a 180 on Assange, whom his administration now labels “an enemy of the state who must be brought down.” So it is that this week, Assange began the fight – perhaps, quite literally, for his life – in the U.K. against the Justice Department’s stated intent to extradite and try him in the United States.
A journalist, a publisher, has been labeled by the U.S. government as an “Enemy of America.” Now that’s dangerous language with scary historical precedent in America and abroad. Recall that the term has been used against “unfriendly” press elements by others: the military junta in Myanmar; Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez; Russia’s Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, President Richard “The press is your enemy“ Nixon; and, you know, Cambodia’s Pol Pot, and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, for starters.
In our own history, press suppression, especially in times of war, is as American as apple pie. During World War I, the (still on the books) 1917 Espionage Act was used to wage all-out combat against any and all critical media sources. Sometimes persecution bordered on the Orwellian absurd. For example, in September 1918, even The Nation was banned from the mail for four days by the U.S. Postal Service simply for criticizing the pro-war labor leader Samuel Gompers.
The relatively muted coverage of this press-freedom fight-of-our-times in the mainstream American media is as remarkable as it is disturbing. But it isn’t surprising. Besides a few brief spikes in coverage – often focused as much on her transgender status or that blatantly accused her of treason – the same can be said of Assange’s alleged co-conspirator, former army intelligence analyst, Chelsea Manning. Consider Manning, herself a longtime – and still unfree – political prisoner, collateral damage in the ongoing Assange martyrdom saga.
For her role in passing the documents in question to WikiLeaks, the Obama Justice Department slapped her with a 35-year federal prison sentence – one of the most draconian ever handed down for a leaker. She served seven years before receiving an 11th-hour communtation (but, notably, not a full pardon) from President Barack Obama. Now, Chelsea, in an admirable, high-risk, display of courage, has refused to testify against Assange. That show of integrity landed her back in jail a time or two, where, notably, she remains at the time of writing.
For his “sins,” Assange likely faces even harsher punishment if extradited to and – almost invariably, in this political climate – convicted in a U.S. court. He could serve 175 years if found guilty on the 18 counts – most under the archaic Espionage Act – he’s been charged with. That’s a long bid. It seems the U.S. government has lost all sense of scale, maybe even sanity. For example, the just nine convicted perpetrators of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq – a global scandal that, empirically, created far more “terrorists, and thus contributed to more American deaths than anything Assange has been accused of – were all enlisted soldiers, none higher ranking than a staff sergeant. The top prison sentence meted out was 10 years; the rest ranged from 0-3 years. Sure, a few officers received verbal or written reprimands – slap-on-the-wrist admonishments, these – and one female brigadier general was relieved and reduced one rank. As for Assange, though, 75 years is warranted? Give me a break.
Some of the more remarkable revelations, so far, from this week’s hearing have involved the totally believable (given the agency’s sordid history) Assange-defense-team claims of U.S. intelligence (read: CIA) threats and shenanigans against the defendant. These include allegations that U.S.-induced Spanish security company employees conducted surveillance on Assange whilst he was in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and, potentially even discussed kidnapping or poisoning him. It all reads like a bad John le Carre spy novel – which is precisely why I wouldn’t rule it out.
Case Hinges on Allegations
The case against Assange, meanwhile is rather weak. It hinges on vague, furtive, and unproven allegations, according to the administration lawyers, that he “knowingly placed lives at risk,” by publishing the leaked files. Specifically, James Lewis, acting for U.S. authorities, told the court that: “The U.S. is aware of sources, whose redacted names and other identifying information was contained in classified documents published by WikiLeaks, who subsequently disappeared.” Sounds ominous, huh? Well, wait for it – Lewis then continued with the stunning admission: “although the U.S. can’t prove at this point that their disappearance was the result of being outed by WikiLeaks.”
Sounds like hearsay. Isn’t that inadmissible in court? And the U.S. government can’t prove that WikiLeaks had these detrimental effects? Call me crazy, but I was under the silly impression that “proof” was the name of the game in the legal system. Bottom line, even after the egregious record of intelligence community lies peddled during the run-up to the Iraq War and regarding the CIA torture program (for starters), the American people are expected to just blindly trust these clowns. Count me out.
Furthermore, British law states that extradition may not move forward if the requesting nation’s criminal charges are “politically-motivated,” which, the defense team asserts the case against Assange is. Of course, it is patently politically-motivated. However much the administration’s lawyers deny it – “the lady doth protest too much?” – Assange’s real crime, from the perspective of the government, was to embarrass them by exposing widespread U.S. war crimes and concomitant coverups. All information, mind you, that We the People had a right to know.
Free Press at Stake
What is at stake here, absent any hyperbole, is the very existence of a free press. And, in today’s increasingly globalized information sphere, it matters not, really, that Julian Assange happens to be an Australian national. See, in an even aspirational free society, the benefit of the doubt in such cases ought go to the publisher, the journalist, the writer. As Thomas Jefferson wrote the very year the current U.S. Constitution was crafted, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Given such “radical” – especially for the 18th century – sentiment, can there be much doubt where our third president would (at least theoretically) fall on the Assange issue?
These complaints, mind you, aren’t simply a low-hanging-fruit Trump-swipe either. Saint Obama set the precedent and foundations of press censorship that Trump is now running with. Recall that Obama went after more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all other previous presidents (over the course of a century) combined. Furthermore, his wanna-be, aspirational successor, Joe Biden is on the record calling Assange a “high-tech terrorist.” So, if Obama can be said to have set up the pins, Trump is poised to roll a strike. The Donald has, however, taken matters a dangerous step further that could, in the near future, pose an existential threat to the very existence of permissive publication of sensitive information.
This all sets a rather dangerous precedent. Leakers have long been prosecuted and punished by the U.S. government. Publishers? Not so often. That’s a line few administrations will cross. Even Espionage Act-enthusiast Obama flinched, and decided not to charge Assange. Regarding the Obama Justice Department’s thinking the Washington Post reported in 2013, that:
“Justice officials said they looked hard at Assange but realized that they have what they described as a “New York Times problem.” If the Justice Department indicted Assange, it would also have to prosecute the New York Times and other news organizations and writers who published classified material, including The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper.”
So, mainstream American publishers – of newspapers, online sites, and even cable news producers – really ought to brush up on their Evelyn Beatrice Hall; you know her oft-quoted, but rarely practiced profession: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Ultimately, it matters not whether one likes Assange, shares his worldview, or even approves of his tactics. The name of the civil libertarian game must instead be a press-sovereignty solidarity that transcends the person of Mr. Assange. Love him or hate him; like WikiLeaksor loathe it; the most powerful American press organizations must close ranks with Assange. Almost assuredly, The Washington Post, New York Times, and the rest of their establishment ilk will not. Mark my words: they will rue the day they didn’t.
For when Trump – or whatever potential monster that follows him – pulls out the legal precedent from a past Assange conviction to prosecute, say, The New York Times, when that paper someday publishes something that embarrasses or angers the governing administration, who will be there to speak up for the nation’s “newspaper of record?” Reflecting on Nazi state oppression and his conclusion that common Germans’ complicity made it possible, Martin Niemoller famously wrote about how:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
As in mid-20th century Germany, so today, in 2020 America. Only, let me propose a modified version of Niemoller’s quote that’s highly relevant to the mainstream press:
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and contributing editor at antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” His forthcoming book, “Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War” is now available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet. Check out his professional website for contact info, scheduling speeches, and/or access to the full corpus of his writing and media appearances.
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