Assange and Wikileaks challenge government and corporate secrecy

On November 2, Julian Assange, the director of Wikileaks, lost his appeal in the British courts to avoid extradition to Sweden where prosecutors want him for questioning about his alleged sexual assault of two Swedish women. He has not yet been charged with a crime. According to reports, both women, who were around aged 30 at the time, hosted a party in support of Assange and Wikileaks. The women, then, each initiated sexual encounters with him, and afterwards, tweeted to each other boasting of their conquest. They gave conflicting stories about their relationship to Assange to a reporter who was there at the time. Later, they went to prosecutors with allegations of sexual assault. At least one of the women has been linked to CIA operations in Cuba. According to Alexander Cockburn writing at CounterPunch:

This prime accuser, Anna Ardin has, according to Israel Shamir, writing on this CounterPunch site, “ties to the US-financed anti-Castro and anti-communist groups. She published her anti-Castro diatribes in the Swedish-language publication Revista de Asignaturas Cubanas put out by Misceláneas de Cuba . . . Note that Ardin was deported from Cuba for subversive activities.”
It’s certainly not conspiracism to suspect that the CIA has been at work in fomenting these Swedish accusations. As Shamir reports, “The moment Julian sought the protection of Swedish media law, the CIA immediately threatened to discontinue intelligence sharing with SEPO, the Swedish Secret Service.”

The Obama administration is keenly interested in prosecuting Assange under U.S. espionage laws for making classified information available to the press through Wikileaks. A grand jury has convened in Alexandria, Virginia to decide whether Assange will be indicted in the U.S. but it has yet to make public any charges against him. If they do, it will most likely be under the same Espionage Act once used to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon Papers. Attorney General Eric Holder has indicated he will seek to expand the espionage laws to make it easier to prosecute Assange.

From the beginning, Wikileaks was a David taking on Goliath, taking on massive concentrations of power and money, and its chances for survival were not good. Also, it had a number of vulnerabilities, not the least of which that it was identified with a single, eccentric, high-profile individual. Some key members of Wikileaks had personal and policy differences with Assange and left the organization. Then, in late 2010, Senator Joe Lieberman called on American companies to withdraw their support for WikiLeaks. Corporations that managed online payments, including PayPal, MasterCard, Visa, Western Union and Bank of America, declined to process donations, and cut off Wikileaks from 95% of its funding. Also, Amazon terminated its relationship with Wikileaks, which had been using its Amazon Web Services.

In October, 2011, Assange announced that the organization would cease making documents available and devote itself entirely to raising money, while simultaneously challenging the corporations in court who are refusing to process donations. But, with Assange’s extradition to Sweden, and possible prosecution in the United States, the financially strapped Wikileaks may not survive.

Although WikiLeaks tried to provide anonymity for whistleblowers seeking to leak secret documents from corporations or governments, it was not completely successful in doing so. For example, military prosecutors were able to name Pfc. Bradley E. Manning as a suspect through its investigation. Although, the fact that Manning was caught may have been his fault rather than a failure on Wikileaks part. Private Manning, who is accused of leaking many of the more damming WikiLeaks documents, is being held in prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and is accused of “aiding the enemy.” The government will try to prosecute Assange by showing that Manning and Assange conspired to release the classified information on Iraq, which Assange insists they did not.

Despite campaign promises about openness and transparency in government, the Obama administration has taken a very hard-line when it comes to leaking classified information, one that has continued the Bush administration’s policy, but gone much further. For example, President Obama, by seventeen months into his presidency, had already prosecuted more alleged leakers than any of his predecessors.

Unfortunately, prosecuting leakers is not rally about upholding the law or maintaining national security. It is about making sure  the government or corporations can continue to hide information they do not want citizens to know, such as the video of the horrific gunning down of Baghdad civilians by U.S. forces in Iraq that Private Bradley Manning exposed. In this example, this secret brings the lie to the official story of the so called humanitarian mission in Iraq. Exposing military wrongdoing undermines the power of the government and the corporations it supports who make their fortunes off war.

Prosecuting Assange to the fullest extent, which could mean prison or even execution for espionage, is not about bringing a criminal to “justice,” or protecting the citizens of the United States. It is about instilling fear and intimidation in any one else (including mainstream journalists) who might want to expose information about government or corporate malfeasance. The purpose of Assange’s prosecution is to send a strong message that whistle blowing will not be tolerated.

But, on the other hand, when it comes to your private information, the U.S. government fully supports corporations collecting as much of it as they can and selling it for a profit. Also, according to Assange, social media is being used by U.S. intelligence agencies for spying on citizens here and abroad.

“Facebook in particular is the most appalling spying machine that has ever been invented. Here we have the world’s most comprehensive database about people—their relationships, their names, their addresses, their locations, their communications with each other, their relatives—all sitting within the United States, all accessible to U.S. intelligence,” Assange said.

If nothing else, Wikileaks has demonstrated that our government has secrets that we need to know about—secrets that we may find appalling, and that undermine our personal wellbeing and the wellbeing of our democracy. In an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, Glenn Greenwald had this to say about Assange and Wikileaks:

What it means is that the government, the United States government, and all of its permanent national security state institutions reflexively do virtually everything behind a shield of secrecy. Essentially, the presumption is that whatever the government does in our name is secret, when the presumption is supposed to be the opposite. And you see that as clearly as you possibly can in these leaks, how much innocuous information is simply marked and stamped “secret.”

And the reason that there’s not many safeguards placed on it is because what WikiLeaks is releasing—and I think this is so important—is that, you know, despite how much corruption and wrongdoing and impropriety and criminality it has revealed, this is really the lowest level of secrecy that the United States government has. The truly awful things exist on a far higher level of secrecy, at the top-secret level or even above. And it is true that if the United States government’s claim is correct, that what WikiLeaks has done has jeopardized so much that’s good and important in the world, a lot of the blame lies with the United States and the government and the military for not having safeguarded it more securely.

And the first question that you asked is, I think, critical, too, which is, we can debate WikiLeaks all we want, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter, because the technology that exists is inevitably going to subvert these institutions’ secrecy regimes. It’s too easy to take massive amounts of secret and dump it on the Internet. You know longer need the New York Times or the network news to agree. And I think that what we’re talking about is inevitable, whether people like Steven Aftergood or Joe Lieberman or others like it or not.

Whistle blowing is healthy. Transparency is healthy. Without real transparency and accountability, in both the government and corporate world, we end up with the unhealthy concentrations of power and money we are experiencing today. We have no way of knowing what our government or corporations are doing. If transparency cannot be found within our institutions, if whistle blowers are consistently muzzled, or prosecuted, or worse, even executed, then our democracy is in jeopardy. And if Wikileaks disappears, and it probably will, another organization like it will take its place. And that’s a good thing.