Julian Assange was running WikiLeaks in 2010 when it released a vast hoard of US government documents revealing details of American political, military and diplomatic operations. With extracts published by the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El País, the archive provided deeper insight into the international workings of the US state than anything seen since Daniel Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to the media in 1971. But today Ellsberg is celebrated as the patron saint of whistleblowers while Assange is locked in a cell in London’s Belmarsh maximum security prison for 23 and a half hours a day. In this latest phase of the American authorities’ ten-year pursuit of Assange, he is fighting extradition to the US. Court hearings to determine whether the extradition request will be granted have been delayed until September by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the US he faces one charge of computer hacking and 17 counts under the Espionage Act of 1917. If he is convicted, the result could be a prison sentence of 175 years.
I was in Kabul when I first heard about the WikiLeaks revelations, which confirmed much of what I and other reporters suspected, or knew but could not prove, about US activities in Afghanistan and Iraq. The trove was immense: some 251,287 diplomatic cables, more than 400,000 classified army reports from the Iraq War and 90,000 from the war in Afghanistan. Rereading these documents now I’m struck again by the constipated military-bureaucratic prose, with its sinister, dehumanising acronyms. Killing people is referred to as an EOF (‘Escalation of Force’), something that happened frequently at US military checkpoints when nervous US soldiers directed Iraqi drivers to stop or go with complex hand signals that nobody understood. What this could mean for Iraqis is illustrated by brief military reports such as the one headed ‘Escalation of Force by 3/8 NE Fallujah: I CIV KIA, 4 CIV WIA’. Decoded, it describes the moment when a woman in a car was killed and her husband and three daughters wounded at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Fallujah, forty miles west of Baghdad. The US marine on duty opened fire because he was ‘unable to determine the occupants of the vehicle due to the reflection of the sun coming off the windshield’. Another report marks the moment when US soldiers shot dead a man who was ‘creeping up behind their sniper position’, only to learn later that he was their own unit’s interpreter.
These reports are the small change of war. But collectively they convey its reality far better than even the most well-informed journalistic accounts. Those two shootings were a thousand times repeated, though the reports were rare in admitting that the victims were civilians. More usually, the dead were automatically identified as ‘terrorists’ caught in the act, regardless of evidence to the contrary. The most famous of the WikiLeaks discoveries concerned an event in Baghdad on 12 July 2007 during which the US military claimed to have killed a dozen terrorists. But the incident had been filmed by the gun camera of the US Apache helicopter that had carried out the shootings, and the people it targeted were all civilians. Much was known about the killings because among the dead were two local journalists working for Reuters. It was known, too, that such a video existed, but the Pentagon refused to release it despite a Freedom of Information Act request. Appalled by what the video revealed about the way the US was conducting its war on terror, and appalled by the contents of the thousands of reports and cables it was stored alongside, a junior US intelligence analyst called Bradley Manning, who later changed her legal gender and became Chelsea Manning, released the entire archive to WikiLeaks.
The video still has the power to shock. The two helicopter pilots exchange banter about the slaughter in the street below: ‘Ha, ha, I hit them,’ one says. ‘Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards,’ the other says. They have mistaken the camera held by one of the journalists for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, unlikely though it was that armed insurgents would stand in the open in Baghdad with a US helicopter hovering overhead. They shoot again at the wounded as one of them, probably the Reuters assistant Saeed Chmagh, crawls towards a van that has stopped to rescue them. When the pilots are told over the radio that they have killed a number of Iraqi civilians and wounded two children, one of them says: ‘Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into the battle.’
The WikiLeaks documents exposed the way the US, as the world’s sole superpower, really conducted its wars – something that the military and political establishments saw as a blow to their credibility and legitimacy. There were some devastating revelations, the helicopter video among them, but many of the secrets uncovered weren’t particularly significant or indeed very secret. In themselves they don’t explain the degree of rage WikiLeaks provoked in the US government and its allies. This was a response to Assange’s assault on their monopoly control of sensitive state information, which they saw as an essential prop to their authority. Making such information public, as Assange and WikiLeaks had done, weaponised freedom of expression: if disclosures of this kind went unpunished and became the norm, it would radically shift the balance of power between government and society – and especially the media – in favour of the latter. It is the US government’s determination to defend its ongoing monopoly, rather than the supposed damage done by the release of the secrets themselves, that has motivated it to pursue Assange and to seek to discredit both him and WikiLeaks.
This campaign has been unrelenting and has had a fair measure of success, despite the fact that most of the charges made against Assange are demonstrably untrue. Regarding the release of documents, there were two lines of attack. First, Assange and WikiLeaks were accused of revealing information that endangered or led to the deaths of Americans or their allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, they were accused of having injured the US state in general through activities amounting to espionage, which should be punished as such. Much more damaging to Assange, however, and to the whole WikiLeaks project, were the allegations of rape made against him in Sweden, also in 2010. This led to a prosecutorial investigation lasting nearly ten years, which was dropped three times and three times restarted before finally being abandoned last November as the statute of limitations approached, beyond which no charges could be brought.
The result is that Assange has become a pariah. Lost is the fact that he and WikiLeaks did what all journalists should do, which is to make important information available to the public, enabling people to make evidence-based judgments about the world around them and, in particular, about the actions of their governments. Given the constant drum beat of attacks on Assange from so many directions it can be hard to remember that in 2010 WikiLeaks won a great victory for freedom of expression and against state secrecy, and that the US government and its allies have made every effort to reverse it.
The early attempts to discredit Assange focused on trying to prove that the WikiLeaks disclosures had led directly to the deaths of US agents and informants. The Pentagon put a great deal of effort into substantiating this allegation: it set up an Information Review Task Force headed by a senior counterintelligence officer, Brigadier General Robert Carr, which studied the impact of the revelations and sought to produce a list of people who might have been killed because of the information the cables contained. Carr later described the extent of his task force’s failure, in testimony given at Manning’s sentencing hearing in July 2013. After long research, his team of 120 counterintelligence officers hadn’t been able to find a single person, among the thousands of American agents and secret sources in Afghanistan and Iraq, who could be shown to have died because of the disclosures. Carr told the court that at one point his task force seemed to be getting somewhere: the Taliban claimed to have killed a US informant identified in the WikiLeaks cables. It was a sign of desperation on the part of the counterintelligence officers that in seeking evidence against WikiLeaks they were reduced to citing the Taliban as a source. And, as Carr admitted during the defence cross-examination, the Taliban turned out to be lying: ‘The name of the individual killed was not in the [WikiLeaks] disclosures.’ Despite all this, the lawyer representing the US government at Assange’s extradition hearings in London earlier this year still argued that Assange had put the lives of US sources in Iraq and Afghanistan at risk.
In Kabul in 2010, just after my first look at the diplomatic cables WikiLeaks had released, I happened to be meeting an American official for an off the record talk about the situation in Afghanistan. I asked him for his thoughts on the cables; he replied by asking what classification code appeared at the top of the pages I’d seen. When I told him, he was dismissive about the degree to which the documents really contained deeply held secrets, classified though they may be. He explained that the US government wasn’t so naive as to believe that information stored on a database to which as many as half a million people had access – one of whom turned out to be Private Manning – was likely to stay confidential for very long. Known as Siprnet (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network), the database had originally been the sole property of the Pentagon but was used more widely in the aftermath of 9/11, when it became clear that parts of the US bureaucracy had valuable information that other parts didn’t know about. Siprnet was the answer to the problem of insufficient sharing: an electronic archive that many people in various branches of government could access, from diplomats in US embassies around the world to lowly military personnel like Manning. In theory, at least three million people had security clearance to use Siprnet: all that was needed was a password. Security measures were limited and could be easily penetrated. For the transmission of really secret data, such as communication between US military attachés, at least four other more sophisticated systems were available. The fact that General Carr’s task force, which was able to call on the full resources of the Pentagon, had been unable to find, in all the oceans of facts released by WikiLeaks, the name of a single individual who had actually been killed as a consequence by the Taliban, al-Qaida or some other enemy of the US, shows that the exclusion of detailed information from Siprnet had been effective.
The charges that Assange will face in the US if he is extradited are all to do with putting the US and its informants in danger. But public perceptions of him are largely shaped, in one way or another, by his status as a rape suspect. Some dismiss the accusations, which they believe concocted or unjust. Others believe he should have been tried for sexual assault and that an exception cannot be made merely because Assange is an avatar of press freedom. Among those who have supported him are Katrin Axelsson and Lisa Longstaff, two spokespeople for Women against Rape, who in 2012 published an article opposing his extradition to Sweden on the grounds that the judicial process had been ‘corrupted’ and justice ‘denied both to accusers and accused’: the women involved had been ‘trashed’ on the internet because Swedish prosecutors failed to protect their anonymity; Assange was being ‘dealt with by much of the media as if he were guilty, though he has not even been charged’.
On 12 September last year, Nils Melzer, the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, sent a 19-page letter to the Swedish government. Having undertaken a detailed review of the judicial proceedings against Assange, he concluded that ‘since 2010, the Swedish prosecution appears to [have done] everything to maintain the unqualified “rape suspect” narrative’ without progress being made or any charges issued: this was ‘procedural procrastination’. Assange refused to travel to Sweden for questioning – he argued through his lawyers that if he left the protection of the Ecuadorian embassy he would inevitably be extradited to the US – but the prosecutors, in turn, spent six years refusing to travel to London to interview him or to conduct questioning by video link. The letter also reveals email exchanges between Swedish prosecutors and the British Crown Prosecution Service, which seemed determined that the Swedish proceedings should continue. On 31 August 2012, for instance, following reports in the media that Sweden was considering abandoning the investigation for the second time, the CPS wrote to Sweden’s chief prosecutor: ‘Don’t you dare get cold feet!!’
Melzer describes an investigation that was politicised from the moment on 20 August 2010 that two women, then known only as AA and SW, went to a police station in Stockholm ‘to inquire whether Mr Assange could be compelled to take an HIV test’. Within hours, ‘the Swedish prosecution ordered the arrest of Mr Assange and informed the tabloid newspaper Expressen that he was suspected of having raped two women.’ Over the next nine years, as the investigation was repeatedly closed by one prosecutor only to be reopened by another, Sweden regularly indicated that it wanted to question Assange, but in practice showed little desire to do so or to bring the investigation to a conclusion. The main effect of the stop-go judicial proceedings was to keep the controversy over what Assange did in Stockholm in 2010 on the boil. The Swedish government finally replied to Melzer’s letter in November only to say that it had ‘no further observation to make’; the following day the investigation was formally closed.
None of this is likely to change the way Assange is seen. In keeping with past experience, almost no mainstream news outlet paid any attention to Melzer’s questions about the conduct of the case. The world’s biggest newspapers, which had published the WikiLeaks disclosures on their front pages in 2010, distanced themselves from Assange very shortly afterwards, often declaring that he was a difficult person to deal with or was slapdash in his handling of the US government cables and reports. He was accused of being a ‘narcissist’, as if that were something more than a character flaw, or as if his character flaws – whatever they were – had any bearing on the information that had been revealed.
Given the gravity of the issues at stake, the silence of journalists about Assange’s detention in Belmarsh following Ecuador’s revoking of his asylum status is striking. Here was evidence of a radical shift in US security policy, towards the position taken by countries like Turkey and Egypt, which have sought to criminalise criticism of the state and to conflate the publication of news it doesn’t want the public to hear with terrorism or espionage. The creeping suppression of press freedom in Hungary and India is frequently criticised by the Western commentariat. But, as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out in the Intercept, Western media have ‘largely ignored what is, by far, the single greatest attack on press freedoms by the US government in the last decade at least: the prosecution and attempted extradition of Julian Assange for alleged crimes arising out of WikiLeaks’s … publication – in conjunction with the world’s largest newspapers – of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and US diplomatic cables’. They couldn’t jail the editor of the New York Times so they pursued Assange instead.
Assange and WikiLeaks have more than fulfilled the prime purpose of newsgathering. ‘The first duty of the press,’ Robert Lowe wrote in the Times in 1852, ‘is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation. The statesman collects his information secretly and by secret means; he keeps back even the current intelligence of the day with ludicrous precautions.’ The press, by contrast, ‘lives by disclosures’. Assange’s disclosures in 2010 followed this prescription exactly, which is why he is in danger of spending the rest of his life in prison.