Assange and the National Security State: Criminalising investigative journalism

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(Meme via @PuckArks)

The representatives of the "National Security State" (NSS), as Gore Vidal termed it, are gleeful and chortling at the seizure of Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy. 

They have little time for such niceties as journalism that doesn’t merely speak truth to power but mocks it. Ridicule and embarrassment are intolerable for national security obsessives. For them, security is an all-consuming Moloch that needs constant pacification.  

The first blast of satisfaction for the NSS came with the ill-chosen words of Judge Mark Snow, presiding over Assange’s charge of skipping bail in the Westminster Magistrates Court. It did not take long for him to pronounce judgment, but rather than sticking to formulas, the judge was moral, vehement and dismissive. He had initially opened with a remark of frustration, waiting for Assange’s legal outfit to arrive. “This hiatus is,” he observed impatiently, “because we are waiting for your legal team.” While waiting, Assange could be seen thumbing through his copy of Gore Vidal’s History of the National Security State.

This was monstrously apt.

“Your honour,” came the opening words of the legal side representing the case against Assange, “I represent the United States Government”. The matter of jumping bail in 2012 seemed to vanish into a footnote of historical murmurings. Left on the summit was the U.S. extradition request filed under a single charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. 

To the issue of bail, Assange’s legal team insisted that he “had a reasonable fear from remand he would be extradited to the U.S.”  But the red haze came down on the judge at the suggestion that the previous presiding judge, Lady Arbuthnot, “did not recuse herself”. Why not raise the issue before, went Snow? Now, he stated severely, “you are traducing the reputation of a fine judge”. 

Judge Snow evidently thought it irrelevant that a judge’s dismissal of Assange’s argument against the outstanding UK arrest warrant might have been affected by being the wife of Tory Peer Lord James Arbuthnot, former junior Defence Minister. 

Instead, Snow felt it important to make a personal observation about Assange’s character: 

“Your situation is a product of your narcissism.” 

The national security state works in humourless and not so mysterious ways.

Across the pond at a New York speaking event, one of the NSS’s key proponents, self-styled comedian and failed presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, was having a fit of schadenfreude:

“I do think it it’s a little ironic that he may be the only foreigner that this [Trump] Administration would welcome to the United States.” 

While loathing the Trump Administration and the man she asserts received all too much help from WikiLeaks, Clinton was on the drumbeat of denying any journalistic credibility to Assange:

“It is clear from the indictment that came out that it’s not about punishing journalism, it’s about assisting the hacking of the military computer to steal information from the U.S. Government.” 

When the National Security State is threatened, it suddenly demands justice for its own misdeeds:

“The bottom line is that he has to answer for what he has done, at least as it’s been charged.”

The NSS pretends to be cunning. Language is carefully selected. The charge against Assange is specifically designed to duck under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution while keeping secrecy inviolable. To wade into that jungle – Assange the journalist, the publisher, the promoter of ideas and discussion against the illegalities of the state – would imperil a prosecution case. Journalists, at least in some good measure, have been able to shelter behind the free speech provision. Important, then, to designate WikiLeaks and Assange’s behaviour as something else. Whistleblowers and investigative journalism, both nourished by circumstances often deemed illegal by the NSS, are the objects of this entire affair.

Important in this naming exercise is the focus on hacking rather than the fruits of it. What is exposed is irrelevant to the means of obtaining it. The indictment against Assange was also spear-tipped with that nasty confection of Anglo-American law: conspiracy. As the good editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica observe,

'Conspiracy is perhaps the most amorphous area in Anglo-American criminal law. Its terms are vaguer and more elastic than any conception of conspiracy to be found in the continental European codes or their imitators.'

Precisely. To that end, this elastic and amorphous term was alleged to be relevant to an illicit and illegal pact with Chelsea Manning, who accessed four databases 'from departments and agencies of the United States'. Ostensibly, this agreement involved Assange pressing for information, to be secured via 'a password stored on United States Department of Defense computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network'. Manning thereby gathered the 'classified information related to the national defence of the United States' and relayed it to WikiLeaks to 'publicly disseminate the information on its website'.

The validation of the NSS case against Assange has always had the insidious support of media outlets and hacks who preferred to see the WikiLeaks publisher as clownish, vain and paranoid. Assange’s treatment of his pet cat was far more interesting than any activity that exposed an atrocity or removed the mask of state hypocrisy. Nor did they care that their entire craft might be coming in for a drubbing — they, after all, were hardly going to threaten the status quo of power and could be duly accommodated. 

As Guy Rundle noted with biting accuracy, the joking outside the court about Assange by gathered journalists

'... essentially validated every critique of mainstream media that WikiLeaks has ever made: that the profession is full of natural psychopaths, who spruik cynicism and call it even-handedness, who speak power to truth, who wilfully mistake the adrenaline rush of the micro-scoop and the petty scandal for genuine contestation.'

What is clear as polished crystal is that the NSS in its various manifestations has dedicated millions to the task of apprehending Assange but always claimed it was a grand act of exaggeration. It has done so, undercover — a fog that was meant to be, on some level, measured. But the national security state revealed its cards that day determined men went into the compound and removed, by force, an ill and desperate man holding a book with immense difficulty. This, no doubt will be dismissed as a stage prop for posterity; in reality, it is a cry from an abyss that promises to be all-consuming. In Rundle’s words, 'The Assange case is the criminalisation of investigative journalism'.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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