First They Came for Assange…

first-they-came-for-assange…

“WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks.”


~
Tweety McTreason, October 10 2016, Wilkes-Barre, PA

“This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove.”


~ Tweety McTreason, October 31, 2016 in 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 UK 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 US 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 eleventh-hour
communtation
(but, notably, not a full pardon) from President 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 US court.
He could serve 75 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 US 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 ten 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 US 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.

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 US authorities, told the court that: “The US 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 US 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 US 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 US war crimes and concomitant coverups. All information, mind you,
that We the People had a right to know.

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 US 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 US 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 WikiLeaks or 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:

First they came
for
(that’s right) Antiwar.com
WikiLeaks. Then WikiLeaks. Then Max Blumenthal’s
The
Grayzone
…then, well, you know how this ends…

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.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen

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