This is Part 2 in a series on Julian Assange’s legal case and trial-by-media. In Part 1, I discussed the value of Wikileaks.
A document released by Wikileaks shows that as far as back as 2008, under the Bush administration, the US Defense Intelligence Agency already had Wikileaks on its “manhunting target list”. They planned to attack the trustworthiness of Wikileaks:
Web sites such as Wikileaks.org use trust as a center of gravity by protecting the anonymity and identity of the insiders, leakers, or whistleblowers. The identification, exposure, termination of employment, criminal prosecution, legal action against current or former insiders, leakers, or whistleblowers could potentially damage or destroy this center of gravity and deter others considering similar actions from using the WikiLeaks.org Web site.
Effectively, this was the US military declaring psychological war against Wikileaks.
The first shot fired in that psychological war was the smear that Wikileaks had endangered people’s lives by releasing war documents. For example, America’s then-Vice President Joe Biden accused Assange of being a “high-tech terrorist” who had “put lives in jeopardy”. Yet just three days earlier he said Wikileaks had done “no substantive damage” except “embarrassing” the US. And later during Chelsea Manning’s court-martial, the military’s own lawyer Robert Carr admitted that nobody died due to the leaks. At the time Assange pointed out: “Secretary Gates speaks about hypothetical blood, but the grounds of Iraq and Afghanistan are covered with real blood.”
There is a legitimate legal argument that the material leaked by Manning should never have been secret in the first place, citing a President Executive Order signed by, ironically, Obama:
In no case shall information be classified, continue to be maintained as classified, or fail to be declassified in order to:
(1) conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error;
(2) prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency
Wikileaks has released internal emails from intelligence firm Stratfor revealing that as early as June 2010, before the Swedish allegations, Stratfor’s Vice President Fred Burton proposed kidnapping Assange during a visit to the US:
As a foreign national, we could revoke Julian Assange’s] travel status and deport. Could also be taken into custody as a material witness. We COULD have a sealed indictment and lock him up. Depends upon how far along the military case is.
Burton’s emails also said a number of other things which I think speak for themselves:
- “Not for Pub — We have a sealed indictment on Assange.”
- “Assange is going to make a nice bride in prison. Screw the terrorist. He’ll be eating cat food forever.”
- “Take down the money. Go after his infrastructure. The tools we are using to nail and de-construct Wiki are the same tools used to dismantle and track [al-Qaeda]. Thank Cheney and [Bush]. Big Brother owns his liberal terrorist arse.”
- “Move him from country to country to face various charges for the next 25 years. But, seize everything he and his family own, to include every person linked to Wiki.”
- “Bankrupt the arsehole first, ruin his life. Give him 7-12 yrs for conspiracy.”
- “I look forward to Manning and Assange facing a bajillion-thousand counts of espionage.”
- “The delay could be figuring out how to declassify and use the Aussie intel on Wiki… The owner is a peacenik. He needs his head dunked in a full toilet bowl at Gitmo.”
Is it really so paranoid for Assange to fear being delivered into the hands of these people?
In July (again before the Swedish accusations), an unnamed source told the New York Times that Assange could face the same charge for publishing the material that Manning leaked:
A person familiar with the investigation has said that Justice Department lawyers are exploring whether Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks could be charged with inducing, or conspiring in, violations of the Espionage Act, a 1917 law that prohibits the unauthorized disclosure of national security information.
The Espionage Act was legislated as part of the Red Scare, a crackdown on dissent during World War 1 and the Russian Revolution. Its initial version included a Sedition Act that jailed citizens for any “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” toward the US government. The Sedition Act was repealed in 1920, but the Espionage Act continues to punish leakers with extreme penalties and without any defence for leaking in the public interest. During 1920-2010 the US prosecuted only four whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, but Manning was the first of at least nine prosecuted since 2010. Before being found guilty, Manning was held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, stripped naked at night, and checked every five minutes to supposedly prevent self-harm – conditions which the UN described as torture.
Ever since then, American government officials have continually hinted that they are pursuing legal action against Assange and Wikileaks. By the end of 2010, the Daily Beast reported that the US government had set up a “war room” at the Defense Intelligence Agency, working “24 hours a day, seven days a week — on the frontlines of the government’s secret war against WikiLeaks”. A number of people associated with Wikileaks were stopped and questioned by the FBI when they entered the US. A long list of senior figures in America’s political parties and media were calling for Assange’s assassination, as well as labelling him a “terrorist” and “enemy combatant”.
That they had initiated a secret Grand Jury was officially denied as a “conspiracy theory”, but was an open secret that leaked out in some media reports, for example here and here. The Grand Jury’s existence was also revealed by the fact that it was subpoenaing people and taking testimony from Chelsea Manning. These subpoenas were filed under conspiracy to commit espionage, and Dianne Feinstein of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said Assange “should be vigorously prosecuted for espionage.” The repeated mentions of “espionage” back in 2010 are notable compared to the current pretense of a much lesser charge.
However, in 2013 Obama administration officials told the Washington Post they had run into what they called the “New York Times problem”: If they prosecuted Assange, then logically they would also have to prosecute mainstream media organizations for publishing leaks, including many of the same documents as Wikileaks. Many commentators assume this means the investigation into Wikileaks was shut down by Obama and rebooted by Trump, but it is unclear whether Obama ever really shut it down. It seems more plausible that the Grand Jury just quietly continued preparing its case behind the scenes, knowing they might not get their hands on Assange until after Obama left office.
In any case, the Obama administration still did its best to censor the material published by Wikileaks. The Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Pentagon all block Wikileaks. The censorship even extends to academia, with the International Studies Association forbidding foreign policy journals from citing Wikileaks, and university students warned that citing Wikileaks would make them ineligible for government jobs.
Clearly it was taking a while for the US government to figure out a legal workaround to attack Assange without being seen to undermine the First Amendment. In the interim as it prepared its case, it was going to need some legal excuses to demonize Assange and detain him for a while.
In Part 3 I will examine the Swedish sexual assault case against Assange.