Image for Assange: what it means to be a suspect

If you google ‘rape’ with ‘Assange,’ you get several million hits, which suggests the Wikileaks founder has reason to complain that the criminal charges have damaged his reputation. But there is no evidence to support his further claim that the US, angryat the disclosures, has pressured Swedish authorities to revive a case they had earlier dismissed. Whatever the facts, many people will be concerned lest this drama distract attention from the ongoing revelations, including recent claims that India has tortured thousands of Kashmiri detainees.

Speculation has increased since the disclosure of the nature of the charges, the identity of the two complainants, and the factual allegations on which the rape and assault charges were based. The first summary, reportedly leaked from Swedish prosecution files, appeared in The Times of India over three weeks ago. This was followed by a Reuters summary publicized by MSNBC, which was in turn followed by the recent and highly detailed disclosures by the UK Guardian and the New York Times.

Aware that many readers might feel this information was gratuitous, and likely to prejudice the defence case, the Guardian published an editorial to justify its decision. It did not convince Assange’s lawyers, who were understandably upset at the publicity given to sordid details of allegations they must now respond to, from persons whose testimony they have had no chance to cross-examine.

While the internet will continue to rake over these matters, there is no evidence to support the claims of a conspiracy theory involving US secret agents, despite the US having both the means and motive. The known facts suggest that these are mature and intelligent women, generally supportive of the Wikileaks project, but deeply offended by Assange’s behaviour. What he did and whether it was a criminal offence under the law of Sweden are, of course, the issues to be resolved.

There is, however, an imbalance in the media treatment which is not altogether the fault of journalists. No one can deny that, in the eyes of the law, Assange is a ‘rape suspect’; but it is also true that, in the media vernacular and since 9:11, this description has a more sinister connotation. For in recent years the analogous phrase ‘terrorist suspect’ has come to describe a person who is almost certainly a terrorist, waiting only to be legally processed in order to receive his just desserts.

This is, at least, the case where charges are made by senior public officials and repeated without question and endlessly by the press. How else to explain a widespread media acquiescence over the treatment of Guantanamo detainees, described as ‘the worst of the worst’ by the head of the US Chiefs of Staff, the most authoritative spokesman for the Pentagon, and regularly paraded in a way meant to reinforce this claim, with blacked out goggles, gloves and earmuffs to cut off all sensory experience, and wheeled about strapped to a mediaeval trundle, like Hannibal Lecter.

We now know (mainly from the remarkable Seton Hall studies by law professor Mark Denbeaux, based entirely on US Government sources, most secured under FOI legislation)that almost all were Afghan and Pakistani peasants, many of them Taliban conscripts, and that only 5% were captured on the battlefield by US forces.

The rest were sold for rewards of between one and five thousand dollars by Northern Alliance warlords and their Pakistani allies. Given the then recent and savage civil war between warlords and the Taliban, this process was always suspect and it is not surprising that of the original 770 detainees, most held and interrogated for years, only two have been convicted of an offence and one (Hicks) confessed.

An example of this disinformation program is the fate of the Uighurs, twenty-two Turkic-speaking Muslims from Xianjiang in the arid regions of Western China. Refugees from a repressive Chinese policy to stamp out ethnic political aspirations, they were also taken prisoner in Afghanistan.

Although their only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time the Bush Administration, with the help of the media, has so far poisoned public opinion that it is now politically impossible to resettle them in America, forcing the Obama Administration to plead with various nations to afford them asylum. It took the Pentagon seven years to admit they were never ‘enemy combatants’ or terrorists.

The implications of being an official suspect are profound when foreign policy is used to justify the use of lethal force, and perhaps the best known example is the use of the phrase ‘suspected militant’ to justify the deaths of increasing numbers of civilians in aerial drone attacks in North West Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan (before President Obama instructed General McChrystal to tighten the rules of engagement, the kill ratio was as high as 1:10).

The media, especially the ‘embedded’ media, does not question the decision to bomb, not just because it lacks any military qualification to judge the risk, but because it does not know what the rules of engagement permit. This is apart from the problem of access to interviews and information from those responsible for drafting and applying these rules. In practice this allows the attribution of suspected militant status to justify ongoing collateral damage in the killing and maiming of women, children and old men in increasingly desperate efforts to target more local Taliban leaders.

This has led to a familiar scenario in which official claims of success are regularly met by cries of outrage, not just from the surviving villagers and relatives, but from President Karzai himself. The Pentagon then announces an official investigation, likely to take months. The protracted nature of this process, the fact that it is conducted by the Pentagon, and the 24:7 news cycle ensure that the final report, if and when it emerges, will have no impact on the conduct of the war.

The fact that some victims are official suspects, because it blurs the issue of innocence, blurs the justification of collateral damage. It lulls the media into accepting without question the secret status of operational ‘rules of engagement‘, and explains why no one asks if these rules might be different had the innocent victims been allied troops, aid workers or American contractors. This is an acid test of the morality of ‘collateral damage’ because it forces us to confront, among other things, racial and ethnic prejudice in deciding whose lives we will sacrifice to pursue political goals.

None of this has any bearing on the merits of the charge against Julian Assange. It does, however, have everything to do with the need for care to keep this allegation of sexual abuse separate from the credibility and importance of Wikileaks’ revelations of the abuse of rights, as well as its reports of corruption and deception of the public in the area of foreign policy. Whatever the fate of Assange, it highlights the need for an internet-based organization to provide anonymity for whistleblowers, and to help counter the ability of government to shape public opinion to its own ends.

It is easy to forget how vulnerable the corporate media may be to this pressure. In 2009 David Barstow won the Pulitzer Prize for an article in The New York Times which reported that the Defence Department had recruited over 75 retired military officers, some with secret ties to major defense contractors, to appear on major news outlets as military analysts to comment on the Iraq war and to press the case in its favour.

In Barstow’s words the Bush administration had used its control over access and information “to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse - an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside major TV and radio networks.” After initially denying it had done anything unethical the Pentagon later conceded the program had been a mistake.

The somewhat Orwellian nature of this symbiosis between government and corporate media is highlighted by the failure of the networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN and Fox) to either mention Barstow’s name in their news reports, or talk about his investigation. Despite this, Barstow himself came to believe that the revelations had led to improvements in the networks’ practices.

This concern is critical now that US Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell claims Assange is a ‘high-tech terrorist’, prominent Republican leader Newt Gingrich thinks he should be treated ‘as an enemy combatant’ - presumably to be locked up indefinitely - and Sarah Palin brands him ‘an anti-American operative with blood on his hands.’ Assange now has the double soubriquet of suspect rapist and suspect terrorist; when one recalls that the US President is not prepared to outlaw the CIA practice of ‘rendition’, it is not hard to understand a certain degree of paranoia on his part.

Although public opinion forced Prime Minister Gillard to modify her initial, irresponsible, claim that Assange had acted illegally, her approach is governed by the same foreign policy considerations the Howard Government relied on when dealing with David Hicks, another citizen whose personal fate had to take second place to the national interest imperatives of the ‘US alliance’.

For readers interested in Julian Assange’s vision of and justification for the Wikileaks enterprise, it is hard to go past his Lateline interview with Tony Jones of 29 July (vodcast from ABC Lateline Archives; Transcript, link below)) The questions are thoughtful and probing, forcing Assange to answer his most severe critics. Of particular interest is his response to US claims that the leaks put allied lives at risk.

‘Negligence on a massive scale’: Assange

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Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Broadcast: 29/07/2010

Reporter: Tony Jones

Australian-born WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange talks about the material they released, and what they held back.
Transcript

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: And now to tonight’s guest, Julian Assange, the founder of the Wikileaks website that this week released to the world more than 90,000 secret US military intelligence documents on the Afghanistan war.

We caught up with him earlier this evening in London.

Julian Assange, thanks for joing us.

JULIAN ASSANGE, WIKILEAKS FOUNDER: You’re welcome Tony.

TONY JONES: Having immersed yourself in the detail of these documents, what is the key significance of them? What do you believe will be the major impact of releasing them?

JULIAN ASSANGE: I think it will be the vast scale of activities and abuses that are represented here. We’re talking about 92,000 reports occurring over a six year period from the regular US army comprising of nearly every death that has occurred in Afghanistan as a result of US activity or to US forces.

So what I see is, it’s not the big headline things like another Kunduz or Gurrani with a big bombing, well those are represented, but rather it is where the most kills are.

It’s the small events, taking off a child here or a deaf man there or running away or a family or a village that has been shelled in revenge or by accident. That’s my big take away from this that it’s, if you like, not just the bus accidents of war, but all the car accidents, all the pedestrian accidents that actually make up the big kill figures in the end.

We’re talking about 20,000 people, stories behind 20,000 kills represented in this material.

TONY JONES: You’ve actually made comparisons between the release of these documents and the opening up of the East German Stasi archives. Of course the Stasi files revealed repression and criminal activity on a massive scale, you’re not alleging anything like that are you?

JULIAN ASSANGE: There’s negligence that’s on a massive scale, I wouldn’t say there’s criminal activity or deliberate targeting of civilians by US forces on a massive scale, maybe just a few individual events. But we do see the sort of squalor of war coming out on a massive scale and the destruction of Afghan society.

Also we can see the increase in the war tempo in a number of kill events occurring over time. It’s getting worse over at least the last three years and now the general public and academics and journalists have the raw ingredients that the Pentagon was using to monitor and assess the war and come up with its own aggregate figures as to the number of civilian casualties and how the war is heading, and people can see, in some cases, that the raw ingredients are a bit faulty.

So there’s some misreporting by ground units, but it also permits people to sort of come up with a different conclusion about how the war is going and how it should go.

TONY JONES: You said in your press conference that you and the conventional journalists you’d worked with had only managed to read between one and 2,000 of the reports properly. Is that correct?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Yeah, that is true. To read and to read them in detail and that, there is just so much material we maybe had 20 people across the four organisations working on this full time and only for about a month for the other organisations and about six weeks for us.

TONY JONES: So, how many of the reports that you put on Wikileaks went onto the site without you actually knowing the detail of what was in them?

JULIAN ASSANGE: It’s fair to say that only two per cent have been read in precise detail and the rest have been hived off using these classification systems.

Now, I presume what your question is getting to is what, how did we split off the 15,000 that we have not yet released because we think they need further review to understand whether there might be innocent informers’ names in there.

So after reviewing several different types of material we saw that it was really these threat reports and then some other classifications that contained information about informers, so those were all hived off.

TONY JONES: Well, not according to the Pentagon. They’re accusing you of revealing the identities of Afghan informants and putting their lives at risk. Afghan’s president, Karzai, agrees with that he says ‘the breach is extremely irresponsible and shocking.’ Your response to those comments.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Well we have yet to see clear evidence of that. I mean the London Times is also making this allegation today and in a quite disingenuous way, for example they mention some informers’ names they say they had found and with a headline Afghan informer already dead, but when you actually read the story what you see is in fact that individual that they’re mentioning died two years ago.

So there’s a little bit of media manipulation occurring here. In terms of the Afghan government, it’s in their interests to sort of play up the irresponsible, irresponsibility of the United States that they say has been involved in sort of collecting and permitting this data to release, be released.

Now we contacted the White House as a group before we released this material and asked them to help assist in going through it to make sure that no innocent names came out, and the White House did not accept that request.

TONY JONES: So you’re saying that you offered the White House a chance to go through the documents, or officials from the White House a chance to go through the documents and single out names of people at risk. Is that correct?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Yeah that’s right. Not, of course we did not offer them a chance to veto any material, but rather we told them that we were going through a harm minimisation process and offered them the chance to point out names of informers or other innocents who might be harmed and they did not respond to that request which was mediated through the New York Times who was our, acting as the contact for the four media groups involved in this.

TONY JONES: Now I imagine as an Australian you’ve paid special attention to material that’s related to Australian troops, we’ve seen relatively few so far and relatively insignificant reference, but are there more documents that you know of in the files that have direct implications for Australia’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan?

JULIAN ASSANGE: We haven’t spent special attention yet on Australia. But, you will find that as you go through this material there’s some ways to pick it up, so the Australian troops are located in a particular region in Afghanistan, that is one way of looking for incidences, there’s other abbreviations such as Aus and obviously key words such as Australia.

It’s worth remembering that these are reports by US forces. Now they do sometimes overlap with the activities of Australian forces because there can be combined operations or transports, but purely Australian operations will not be included in this material.

One of the interesting things that I did see included was a report to the US Embassy in Kabul speaking about the change of Australian-Afghan policy under John Howard, I think it was in 2006, and the embassy in Kabul was made aware of this and what it would be and the upcoming details some weeks before the Australian public was made aware.

TONY JONES: I heard your general statement earlier, but is there specific evidence in the documents that you’ve seen, or know the contents of, showing that NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) have covered up civilian deaths or suppressed information about the numbers of civilian deaths.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Yes, there’s a number of incidences related, including the deaths of children. We’ve seen, these are a different type so there’s events that have not been reported before, there’s also events in here that have been reported before and scrutinized and we can go back and look what was the original filing, how does that line up with what we’ve come to know about these events, such as the Kunduz or Gurrani, these big bombing events.

And there’s also cases where it has been reported before, although maybe not in the western press, and prosecuted. So an example of that is there’s a Polish Milli in this material, so Polish troops were hit by an IED and the next day they come to a village that they’ve somehow blamed the whole village for this event and shelled the village in a revenge attack.

Now to their credit the Poles did see this themselves, investigated it, and are in the course of a prosecution in Australia, sorry in Poland.

For the other sorts of events we can look at something like Taskforce 373, which is a US secretive, special forces, assassination squad, is working its way down a hit list called the ‘kill or capture list’ the priority effects list is the acronym used by the US military and there’s an example in there of it attacking a house, killing seven children, seven others and taking some captives, not achieving their objective, which was going after Al Qaeda or Taliban commander and then covering it up.

So we can see, in that report, a special classification called ‘no forn’ which is ‘no foreign’ which means don’t even release this report to Australian allied forces, to British allied forces.

TONY JONES: So, I imagine from that, that you would argue, well particularly in the Polish case, althought that wasn’t covered up, that there is evidence of actual war crimes, or what you would describe as war crimes, or potential war crimes?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Well potential war crimes is the safest description, I mean in the end it’s up for a court to decide if these are in the end crimes, but there’s a lot that on the face of it are deeply troubling. There’s cases of a man riding along on a bike, two men riding along on a bike and being shot by a sniper, and then the justification is, well, he had a bike pump on his back.

There’s quite a lot of cases of reports about civilians being shot at with warning fire and then being killed with ricochet, the unusual number of ricochets for, are represented in this material. There are over 22 hundred escalation of force events, labelled as such by the US military.

There’s a report where 181 people are killed in the course of a single action, zero are detained, and one wounded. Those reports need to be looked at in detail to understand, you know, is there some sort of excuse for this behaviour? But they are deeply suspicious on the surface.

TONY JONES: It’s interesting that some conventional journalists, like for example the editor of the New York Times, have been prepared to work with you on these leaked documents, but they still want to distance themselves from you and from Wikileaks and from your methods. What do you think is going on there?

JULIAN ASSANGE: That’s quite interesting the well the Spiegel and the Guardian were not really like that. They really did come properly to the table, but you know, the sort of the environment in the United States, the publishing environment I presume is just a really quite difficult when saying anything strongly against the war.

In previous cases, what we’ve seen is you can actually get important stories into the New York Times and into other mainstream press outlets like CNN. We did that with the collateral murder tape which exposed the murders of two Reuters’ journalists in Baghdad and the slaying of 16 to 24 other people.

But then what happens is editorial space is opened up for apologists who simply have opinion. So to get story in about the war, it has to be hard fact, and you have to have the hard facts, but to get a pro war story in all you need is opinion, and I think that really represents just a sheer scope of the war industry in the United States.

TONY JONES: Even some other online journalists appear to be dubious of some of your methods. Slate magazine says the profound difference between how WikiLeaks uses anonymous sources and how the rest of the media uses them is that the reporters who get leaked documents in conventional media actually know the identity of their sources and they can judge their veracity, but you can’t do that. What do you say to that criticism?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, this is just a nonsense. I mean we have the best record in the industry. We have never released a mis-described document in our four year publishing history and we have also published more classified documents than the rest of the world press combined. So combine those two and you see that there’s, you know, nonsense sprouted by organisations who are… I suppose they feel jealous, or they just don’t understand the issue.

It’s quite important that we do not verify sources, we verify documents and as a result we’re not fooled by sources. In the case of say Judith Miller from the New York Times who was given documents by a source that she trusted but the documents themselves were fabricated and that is one of the things that led up to the political climate that supported the invasion of Iraq.

So, and because we have taken that methodology, we’re in a position where we don’t have to keep the identities of sources. In fact, we never even collect the identities of a source at any stage.

It is very hard when operating under scrutiny by international intelligence organisations to keep secrets. We don’t specialise in keeping secrets, but we specialise in never keeping a secret in the first place, and that’s a lot easier task.

TONY JONES: Julian you’ve trod on so many toes and rattled so many cages, how do you think this is going to end for you? Bear in mind here that the head of the Australian Defence Association is actually accusing you of treachery at the moment and saying that you may well have broken some criminal laws.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, the head of the Defence Association, this is just some association of, I don’t know, retired soldiers or something, so this is not really that consequential. But have we broken some laws?

Well certainly not in the United States we haven’t broken laws. In Australia, well this is really quite hard to see. We’re talking about material from the United States. But in the end, you know, this organisation has had over 100 legal attacks and we have defeated every single one of them.

TONY JONES: Just a quick follow up, because I was asking you how you thought it would end up for you and bear in mind that there are reports now, you’ve quoted them yourself, suggesting that the Australian Government was approached to surveil you and possibly even detain you?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Those reports also say that the Australian Government understood that politically that was not something that would be acceptable to the Australian public and we have a lot of support from the Australian public and Australian press.

So I think they will have to think very carefully before going down that sort of line just to sort of fulfil a favour by the Australian Government. But, you know, nonetheless, if the Australian Government is not supportive of this organisation, there are plenty of other countries that are, and it would be, you know, a real slight on the Australian Government if it was perceived that they did not support their own.

TONY JONES: Julian Assange, we know you’re running out of time, we’ll have to leave you there. We thank you very much for taking a little time to talk to us on Lateline tonight.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Thanks, Tony.

From Lateline, HERE