Does Julian Assange deserve better from the Australian Government? Does he have an ace up his sleeve? David Donovan takes a wide look at 'Cablegate'.
JULIAN ASSANGE is an Australian who is in the business of publishing leaked documents given to him by whistle-blowers. He has been doing this through Wikileaks – seemingly quite legally, but to the consternation of authorities – at least since 2006 when the website was founded. He doesn’t focus on any particular nation and, for example, has published stories about extrajudicial killings in Kenya, toxic waste dumping in Africa, Scientology manuals and Swiss banks. But now, after starting to publish US diplomatic cables on November 28, he has instantly become American public enemy number 1.
It is difficult to comprehend why at first. He is doing just what he has been doing for some time – publishing information given to him, seemingly unsolicited, that the public would appear to have a right to know. He has broken no existing laws, at least not by the leaking of these cables, which seem to be mostly in the realms of gossip and character assessment as opposed to containing any useful military intelligence. Now, conveniently for the US, sex charges have been laid against him in Sweden and he is fighting extradition out of the UK. If ever there was a David and Goliath battle then it is this and the slingshot enraging the giant is a computer terminal.
Assange has stung the giant before, such as with Wikileaks’ publication of disturbing video pictures earlier this year of US soldiers seemingly indiscriminately killing Iraqi civilians, including a camera crew, in a Baghdad marketplace. Yet there were no calls then for him to be classified as an enemy combatant, or a terrorist, or for him to be assassinated. There is now.
What is different today, it seems, is that the other, older, revelations by Assange have generally only incriminated or implicated the powerless. If the leadership has been associated it has only been by extension and so they have escaped any loss of reputation. It seems that Assange’s unforgivable crime in the eyes of the US establishment is that this time he is embarrassing them. So far, Wikileaks have only released a meagre few hundred documents out of the staggering more than 251,000 they have in stock. Even bearing in mind that most of those still unreleased cables will probably be trivial or mundane, there are certainly likely to be many embarrassing, or even damaging, revelations still to surface.
Assange has annoyed the world's rulers, so what are they doing to remedy the situation?
Well, of course, the State Department are going around assuaging hurt feelings – like Kevin Rudd’s and Sivio Berlusconi’s, who both received unflattering character assessments from US diplomats – all around the world. This seems to be working out fine, largely because no Western leader can really afford not to accept an apology from the sole remaining superpower. What is the alternative?
Of course, this is merely an annoying side issue.
What the US really wants to do is stop the steady drip, drip, drip of tantalising revelations. So, how are they doing this?
Well, firstly they are trying to dry up Wikileaks’ source of funding. The US State Department has leant on Paypal, Mastercard, Visa and others to stop the flow of donations to Wikileaks, its only source of funding. This isn’t working because all Wikileaks really needs to keep publishing this material is one person with a computer and internet access—it is a low overhead operation. Furthermore, Wikileaks’ Icelandic bank account has never stopped accepting donations directly into their account.
The US have tried to get Wikileaks off the internet by influencing Amazon, who hosted much of their server space, as well Wikileaks’ original domain name holder, EveryDNS, to remove Wikileaks material. This hasn’t worked either, because as soon as Wikileaks went down, up sprang hundreds of mirror sites in various parts of the world—at last count 1,034 of them.
Understandably, this heavy-handed tactic by the US – much like the ill-considered invasion of Iraq – has provoked a storm of resentment and retaliation throughout the world. It is fair to say that the IT world resents this attack on freedom of speech, and more importantly, freedom of the internet. So far, through denial of service attacks, hackers have brought down Mastercard, Paypal, Visa, Amazon, Every DNS and even a Swiss bank that froze Wikipedia’s account, apparently for an unrelated reason. It is becoming questionable whether, in a battle to the death on the internet, the US could possibly defeat its foes. Certainly they have had no success in limiting Wikileaks in this way so far.
But, of course, their main strategy is to cut off the head of the beast so that the rest might die. The US no doubt will have been interested in Assange since he published the first embarrassing document about them a few years back. They would have had him in their sights ever since. Therefore, the CIA – and possibly other agencies and other powers – will surely have had strategies worked out to bring him unstuck in some manner. One way to do this would be to put him out of business altogether, perhaps in gaol. Since he isn’t openly breaking any laws, other crimes would need to be found, or created. First, they would have done an exhaustive check through his background and personal and business history. When that must have revealed nothing, the next obvious step is the infamous ‘honey-trap’. This is the old trick in which agents put in place an attractive woman, or man, to seduce a target and thereby get them to reveal confidential information, or provide ammunition for embarrassment, blackmail or incrimination.
Therefore, it is unsurprising that Assange is now in British custody challenging extradition to Sweden on sex crimes against not one but two Swedish women within 2 days. It is possible that Assange is a sexual predator, and if this is the case he deserves to go to gaol. Nevertheless, on the face of it, the charges seem weak even under Sweden's extremely strict rape laws. In Sweden, a person can be charged even after consexual sex if a condom breaks during the act, which it seems is what one of the women have alleged. The other has accused Assange of taking liberties with her while she was asleep, it seems. One of them had even boasted about the encounter on Twitter the next day. When they came forward with the allegations a few days later, after somehow making contact with each other, the Chief Prosecutor quickly revoked the warrant saying "I don't think there is reason to suspect that he has committed rape". This state of affairs changed suspiciously soon after Wikileaks started releasing the US cables and charges were brought. And one thing we know from the cables released so far is that the US has no qualms about pressuring foreign powers to prosecute persons on their behalf.
Disturbingly for Australians, this sort of pressure has seen the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Attorney General, Robert McClelland, abandoning any presumption of innocence for an Australian citizen in dire straits overseas simply to show solidarity with the US. It clearly reminds us of the shoddy treatment meted out to David Hicks by the Australian Government under John Howard whilst Hicks was enduring prosecution in Guantanamo on nebulous charges of terrorism that could not have been brought under Australian law.
Slightly ameliorating this was Kevin Rudd who, despite being a victim of the cables himself, made the obvious and correct statement this week that the release of the US cables was not Julian Assange’s fault – he simply published them – but rather it was caused by the unimaginably lax security from the US Government. Security, or absence thereof, that allowed a lowly Private in the military to somehow copy over 250,000 cables and then get them out of a supposedly secure area. Rather than prosecuting Assange, it should be the personnel in charge of the confidentiality of these materials that face the stiffest prosecution, and it should be the US Government that Julia Gillard and Robert McClelland reserve for their greatest criticism. But somehow, apart from the Private, the US leadership has again escaped any culpability, even in the press. One hopes that the statement by Rudd indicates that the Australian Government will, unlike with Hicks, place higher weight on providing consular support for one of its citizens who is the direst need of assistance, than on a perceived requirement to obsequiously submit to the commands of a powerful friend. Unfortunately, based on Australia’s past record, I fear we will find ourselves sorely disappointed on that score.
As for what will happen next, given the weakness of the charges, it seems likely that the independence of the British judiciary and the strength of Assange’s support should ensure that he can successfully fight the extradition proceedings to Sweden and soon go free. If he is extradited to Sweden, I would suggest that the charges will stay in place just long enough for the US to create a retrospective, possibly military, law with which to charge Assange and issue an extradition order to the Swedish authorities. Then, the Swedish charges will more than likely be dropped and the US will, after another legal battle, take him into their clutches and deposit him in Guantanamo, or somewhere equally unpleasant.
There is one wild card, however. I suspect Assange is too smart to not have a contingency plan, as he is sure to have expected something like this to happen all along. Does Assange have a trump hidden up his sleeve? Has he reserved the biggest and most incriminating revelations as a bargaining chip? If he has – and I’m sure he must have – then he might find a way to keep himself out of a US prison yet. And if he does go to Guantanamo, get ready for the revelations to suddenly get a whole lot worse.