The Meaning of Assange’s Persecution

Exclusive: The long legal ordeal of Julian Assange – and the continuing threats against the WikiLeaks founder – make a mockery of the West’s supposed commitment to press freedom and the public’s right to know, as Marjorie Cohn explains.

By Marjorie Cohn

Nearly five years ago, Ecuador granted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange political asylum at its London embassy. The original purpose of the asylum was to avoid extradition to the United States. Two years earlier, Swedish authorities had launched an investigation of Assange for sexual assault. Sweden has now dropped that investigation.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. (Photo credit: Espen Moe)

Assange called the Swedish decision to end the investigation an “important victory for me and for the U.N. human rights system.” But, he said, the “proper war was just commencing,” because the London Metropolitan Police warned if Assange leaves the Ecuadorian Embassy, they would arrest him on a 2012 warrant issued after he failed to appear at a magistrate’s court following his entry into the embassy.

The original reason for granting asylum to Assange remains intact. The U.S. government has been gunning for Assange since 2010, when WikiLeaks published documents leaked by whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Those documents, which included the Afghan and Iraq war logs and U.S. State Department cables, were ultimately published in the New York Times, the U.K. Guardian, and the German magazine Der Spiegel.

The leaked reports exposed 20,000 deaths, including thousands of children, according to Assange. Many of them contain evidence of war crimes. [Among the leaked material was the “Collateral Murder” video, a gruesome view from the gun-barrel of a U.S. helicopter gunship as it mowed down a group of Iraqi men, including two Reuters journalists, as they walked on a Baghdad street – and then killing a man who stopped to help the wounded and also wounding two children in his van.]

It was never clear what role Sweden played in the Assange saga. Criminal charges were never filed there and Swedish authorities never took Assange up on his offer to make himself available for interviews with Swedish authorities in London. The Swedish prosecutor insisted that he travel to Sweden to be interviewed. Assange declined, fearing that if he went to Sweden, that country would extradite him to the United States.

The Swedish investigation of Assange may have been instigated at the behest of the United States. Journalist John Pilger documentedpolitical pressure by the U.S. government on Swedish authorities: “Both the Swedish prime minister and foreign minister attacked Assange, who had been charged with no crime. Assange was warned that the Swedish intelligence service, SAPO, had been told by its U.S. counterparts that U.S.-Sweden intelligence-sharing arrangements would be ‘cut off’ if Sweden sheltered him.”

Although the Swedish investigation has now been dropped, the threat of arrest persists. The London police have indicated they will arrest Assange for failure to appear in a London Magistrates Court if he leaves the embassy. Britain would then likely extradite Assange to the United States for possible prosecution.

Arresting Assange a U.S. ‘Priority’

Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared in April that arresting Assange is a “priority” for the Department of Justice, even though the New York Times indicated that federal prosecutors are “skeptical that they could pursue the most serious charges, of espionage.” The Justice Department is reportedly considering charging Assange with theft of government documents.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (Flickr U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

A decision to prosecute Assange would mark a 180-degree change of direction for President Trump. During the 2016 presidential campaign Trump declared, “I love WikiLeaks” after it published confidential emails from the Democratic National Committee that some U.S. intelligence agencies claim were obtained by Russian hackers (although Assange denies getting the material from Russia).

In March, WikiLeaks published CIA documents containing software and methods to hack into electronics. This was the beginning of WikiLeaks’ “Vault 7” series, which, Assange wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post, contained “evidence of remarkable CIA incompetence and other shortcomings.”

The publication included “the agency’s creation, at a cost of billions of taxpayer dollars, of an entire arsenal of cyber viruses and hacking programs – over which it promptly lost control and then tried to cover up the loss,” Assange added. “These publications also revealed the CIA’s efforts to infect the public’s ubiquitous consumer products and automobiles with computer viruses.”

CIA Director Michael Pompeo called WikiLeaks “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.”

Pompeo said, “We have to recognize that we can no longer allow Assange and his colleagues the latitude to use free speech values against us.” Pompeo declared, “Julian Assange has no First Amendment privileges. He is not a U.S. citizen.”

But, the Supreme Court has long held that the Constitution applies to non-Americans, not just U.S. citizens. And, when the Obama Justice Department considered prosecuting WikiLeaks, U.S. officials were unable to distinguish what Wikileaks did from what the Times and Guardian did since they also published documents that Manning leaked. WikiLeaks is not suspected of hacking or stealing them.

A week before Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, Comey told the House Intelligence Committee, “WikiLeaks is an important focus of our attention.” He said the Justice Department’s position “has been [that] newsgathering and legitimate news reporting is not covered, is not going to be investigated or prosecuted as a criminal act,” adding, “Our focus is and should be on the leakers, not those [who] are obtaining it as part of legitimate newsgathering.”

But Comey said, “a huge portion of WikiLeaks’ activities has nothing to do with legitimate newsgathering, informing the public, commenting on important controversies, but is simply about releasing classified information to damage the United States of America.”

As Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, wrote at Just Security, Comey was drawing the line “not between leaking classified information and publishing it, but between publishing it for ‘good’ reasons and publishing it for ‘bad’ ones.”

And, “[a]llowing the FBI to determine who is allowed to publish leaked information based on the bureau’s assessment of their patriotism would cross a constitutional Rubicon,” Goitein wrote.

Other advocates for civil liberties also defended WikiLeaks as a news organization protected by the First Amendment. “The U.S. government has never shown that Assange did anything but publish leaked information,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told the Times.

Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, stated in an interview with the Times, “Never in the history of this country has a publisher been prosecuted for presenting truthful information to the public.”

Assange’s Detention Called Unlawful

In 2016, following a 16-month investigation, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Assange’s detention by Britain and Sweden was unlawful. It stated, “[A] deprivation of liberty exists where someone is forced to choose between either confinement, or forfeiting a fundamental right – such as asylum – and thereby facing a well-founded risk of persecution.”

A scene from the “Collateral Murder” video in which an Iraqi man stops his van to aid those wounded in a lethal U.S. helicopter attack in Baghdad on July 12, 2007, only to be gunned down by the American gunners.

The U.N. group found, “Mr. Assange’s exit from the Ecuadorian Embassy would require him to renounce his right to asylum and expose himself to the very persecution and risk of physical and mental mistreatment that his grant of asylum was intended to address. His continued presence in the Embassy cannot, therefore, be characterized as ‘volitional’.”

Thus, the U.N. group concluded that Assange’s continued stay in the embassy “has become a state of an arbitrary deprivation of liberty,” in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Alfred de Zayas, U.N. Independent Expert on the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order, told Consortiumnews, “What is at stake here is freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.” He cited Article 19 of the ICCPR, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression.

“Whistleblowers are key human rights defenders in the Twenty-first Century, in which a culture of secrecy, behind-closed-door deals, disinformation, lack of access to information, 1984-like surveillance of individuals, intimidation and self-censorship lead to gross violations of human rights,” said de Zayas, who is also a retired senior lawyer with the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Secretary for the UN Human Rights Committee.

Moreover, the Johannesburg Principles of National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, issued in 1996, provide, “No person may be punished on national security grounds for disclosure of information if the public interest in knowing the information outweighs the harm from the disclosure.”

Even some mainstream news organizations that have been critical of WikiLeaks for releasing classified U.S. information have objected to the idea of criminal prosecution. A Washington Post editorial in 2010 entitled “Don’t Charge Wikileaks” said: “Such prosecutions are a bad idea. The government has no business indicting someone who is not a spy and who is not legally bound to keep its secrets. Doing so would criminalize the exchange of information and put at risk responsible media organizations that vet and verify material and take seriously the protection of sources and methods when lives or national security are endangered.”

In the U.S. government’s continued legal pursuit of WikiLeaks, there is much more at stake than what happens to Julian Assange. There are principles of press freedoms and the public’s right to know. By publishing documents revealing evidence of U.S. war crimes, emails relevant to the U.S. presidential election and proof of CIA malfeasance, Assange did what journalists are supposed to do – inform the people about newsworthy topics and reveal abuses that powerful forces want concealed.

Assange also has the right to freedom of expression under both U.S. and international law, which would further argue for Great Britain dropping the failure-to-appear warrant and allowing Assange to freely leave the embassy and to finally resume his life.

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. Visit her website at http://marjoriecohn.com/ and follow her on Twitter https://twitter.com/marjoriecohn.

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Europe May Finally Rethink NATO Costs

Exclusive: By dunning NATO nations to chip more money into the military alliance, President Trump may inadvertently cause some Europeans to rethink the over-the-top anti-Russian propaganda, says ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

President Donald Trump’s politically incorrect behavior at the gathering of NATO leaders in Brussels on Thursday could, in its own circuitous way, spotlight an existential threat to the alliance. Yes, that threat is Russia, but not in the customary sense in which Westerners have been taught to fear the Russian bear. It is a Russia too clever to rise to the bait – a Russia patient enough to wait for the Brussels bureaucrats and generals to fall of their own weight, pushed by financial exigencies in many NATO countries.

President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump traveled to Brussels, Belgium on Wednesday evening for their fourth stop on their trip abroad. President Trump met with leaders from around the world before the NATO Summit in Brussels. (White House photo)

At that point it will become possible to see through the West’s alarmist propaganda. It will also become more difficult to stoke artificial fears that Russia, for reasons known only to NATO war planners and neoconservative pundits, will attack NATO. As long as Russian hardliners do not push President Vladimir Putin aside, Moscow will continue to reject its assigned role as bête noire.

First a request: Let me ask those of you who believe Russia is planning to invade Europe to put down the New York Times for a minute or two. Take a deep cleansing breath, and try to be open to the possibility that heightened tensions in Europe are, rather, largely a result of the ineluctable expansion of NATO eastward over the quarter-century since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Actually, NATO has doubled in size, despite a U.S. quid-pro-quo promise in early 1990 to Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev in early 1990 not to expand NATO “one inch” to the east of Germany. The quid required of Russia was acquiescence to a reunited Germany within NATO and withdrawal of the 300,000-plus Russian troops stationed in East Germany.

The U.S. reneged on its quo side of the bargain as the NATO alliance added country after country east of Germany with eyes on even more – while Russia was not strong enough to stop NATO expansion until February 2014 when, as it turned out, NATO’s eyes finally proved too big for its stomach. A U.S.-led coup d’etat overthrew elected President Viktor Yanukovych and installed new, handpicked leaders in Kiev who favored NATO membership. That crossed Russia’s red line; it was determined – and at that point able – to react strongly, and it did.

These are the flat-facts, contrasting with the mainstream U.S. media’s propaganda about “Russian aggression.” Sadly, readers of the New York Times know little to nothing of this recent history.

Today’s Russian Challenge

The existential threat to NATO comprises a different kind of Russian “threat,” which owes much to the adroitness and sang froid of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who flat-out refuses to play his assigned role of a proper enemy – despite the Western media campaign to paint him the devil incarnate.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, following his address to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 28, 2015. (UN Photo)

Over time, even the most sophisticated propaganda wears thin, and more and more Europeans will realize that NATO, in its present form, is an unnecessary, vestigial organ already a quarter-century beyond its expiration date – and that it can flare up painfully, like a diseased appendix. At a time when citizens of many NATO countries are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet, they will be reluctant to sink still more money into rehab for a vestigial organ.

That there are better uses for the money is already clear, and President Trump’s badgering of NATO countries to contribute ever more for defense may well backfire. Some are already asking, “Defense against what?” Under the painful austerity that has been squeezing the Continent since the Wall Street crash nearly a decade ago, a critical mass of European citizens is likely to be able to distinguish reality from propaganda – and perhaps much sooner than anyone anticipates. This might eventually empower the 99 percent, who don’t stand to benefit from increased military spending to fight a phantom threat, to insist that NATO leaders stop funding a Cold War bureaucracy that has long since outlived its usefulness.

A military alliance normally dissolves when its raison d’etre – the military threat it was created to confront – dissolves. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 – more than a quarter century ago – and with it the Warsaw Pact that was established as the military counter to NATO.

Helpful History

NATO’s first Secretary General, Lord Ismay, who had been Winston Churchill’s chief military assistant during World War II, stated that NATO’s purpose was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” But a lot can change over the course of almost seven decades.

The NATO flag is raised during the opening ceremony for Exercise Steadfast Jazz in Poland, Nov. 3, 2013. (NATO photo by British army Sgt. Ian Houlding)

The Russians relinquished their East European empire after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and withdrew their armed forces. There no longer needed to be a concerted priority effort to “keep the Russians out,” preoccupied as they were with fixing the economic and social mess they inherited when the USSR fell.

As for “keeping the Germans down,” it is not difficult to understand why the Russians, having lost 25 to 27 million in WWII, were a bit chary at the prospect of a reunited Germany. Moscow’s concern was allayed somewhat by putting this new Germany under NATO command, since this sharply lessened the chance the Germans would try to acquire nuclear weapons of their own.

But NATO became the “defensive” blob that kept growing and growing, partly because that is what bureaucracies do (unless prevented) and partly because it became a way for U.S. presidents to show their “toughness.” By early 2008, NATO had already added ten new members – all of them many “inches” to the east of Germany: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

There were rumors that Ukraine and Georgia were in queue for NATO membership, and Russian complaints were becoming louder and louder. NATO relations with Russia were going to hell in a hand basket and there was no sign the Washington policymakers gave a hoot.

A leading advocate from the Russo-phobic crowd was the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had been President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser and remained in the forefront of those pressing for NATO expansion – to include Ukraine. In 1998, he wrote, “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.”

The relentless expansion of NATO greatly bothered former Sen. Bill Bradley, a longtime expert on Russia and a sober-minded policy analyst. On Jan. 23, 2008, in a talk before the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, he sounded an almost disconsolate note, describing NATO expansion a “terribly sad thing” … a “blunder of monumental proportions. …

“We had won the Cold War … and we kicked them [the Russians] when they were down; we expanded NATO. In the best of circumstances it was bureaucratic inertia in NATO – people had to have a job. In the worst of circumstances it was certain … irredentist East European types, who believe Russia will forever be the enemy and therefore we have to protect against the time when they might once again be aggressive, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophesy.”

As tensions with Russia heightened late last decade, Sen. Bradley added, “Right now we are confronted with something that could have easily been avoided.”

Finally Saying Nyet

A week after Bradley’s lament, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called in U.S. Ambassador William Burns to read him the riot act. The subject line of Burns’s CONFIDENTIAL cable #182 of Feb. 1, 2008, in which he reported Lavrov’s remarks to Washington shows that Burns played it straight, choosing not to mince his own or Lavrov’s words: “Nyet means nyet: Russia’s NATO enlargement redlines.”

NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

Here what Ambassador Burns wrote in his summary, which the public knows because the cable was among the thousands leaked to WikiLeaks by Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, for which she was imprisoned for seven years and only recently released (yet the cable has been essentially ignored by the corporate U.S. news media):

“Following a muted first reaction to Ukraine’s intent to seek a NATO Membership Action Plan at the Bucharest summit, Foreign Minister Lavrov and other senior officials have reiterated strong opposition, stressing that Russia would view further eastward expansion as a potential military threat. NATO enlargement, particularly to Ukraine, remains an emotional and neuralgic issue for Russia, but strategic policy considerations also underlie strong opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.

“In Ukraine, these include fears that the issue could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene. Additionally, the government of Russia and experts continue to claim that Ukrainian NATO membership would have a major impact on Russia’s defense industry, Russian-Ukrainian family connections, and bilateral relations generally.”

So, it is not as though then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. policymakers were not warned, in very specific terms, of Russia’s redline on Ukrainian membership in NATO. Nevertheless, on April 3, 2008, the final declaration from at a NATO summit in Bucharest asserted: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.”

The Ukraine Coup

Six years later, on Feb. 22, 2014, the U.S.-pushed putsch in Ukraine, which George Friedman, then President of the think-tank STRATFOR, labeled “the most blatant coup in history,” put in power a fiercely anti-Russian regime eager to join the Western alliance.

President Barack Obama talks with President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker following a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, Sept. 18, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Russia’s reaction was predictable – actually, pretty much predicted by the Russians themselves. But for Western media and “statesmen,” the Ukrainian story begins on Feb. 23, 2014, when Putin and his advisers decided to move quickly to thwart NATO’s designs on Ukraine and take back Crimea where Russia’s only warm-water naval base has been located since the days of Catherine the Great.

U.S. officials (and The New York Times) have made it a practice to white-out the coup d’etat in Kiev and to begin recent European history with Russia’s immediate reaction, thus the relentless presentation of these events as simply “Russian aggression,” as if Russia instigated the crisis, not the U.S.

A particularly blatant example of this came on June 30, 2016, when then U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute spoke at a press briefing before the NATO summit in Warsaw:

“Beginning in 2014 … we’re moving into a new period in NATO’s long history. … So the first thing that happened in 2014 that marks this change is a newly aggressive, newly assertive Russia under Vladimir Putin. So in late February, early March of 2014, the seizing, the occupying of Crimea followed quickly by the illegal political annexation of Crimea. … Well, any notion of strategic partnership came to an abrupt halt in the first months of 2014.”

And so, for the nonce, Western propaganda captured the narrative. How long this distortion of history will continue is the question. The evolution of Europe as a whole (including Russia) over the past half-century, together with the profound changes that this evolution has brought, suggest that those of the European Establishment eager to inject life into the vestigial organ called NATO – whether for lucrative profits from arms sales or cushy spots in NATO’s far-flung bureaucracy – are living on borrowed time.

President Trump can keep them off balance by creating uncertainty with respect to how Washington regards its nominal NATO obligation to risk war with Russia should some loose cannon in, say, Estonia, start a shooting match with the Russians. On balance, the uncertainty that Trump has injected may be a good thing. Similarly, to the degree that his pressure for increased defense spending belatedly leads to an objective estimate of the “threat” from Russia, that may be a good thing too.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.  A CIA analyst for 27 years, he specialized in Russian foreign policy.  He led the CIA’s Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and briefed the President’s Daily Brief one-on-one during President Ronald Reagan’s first term.

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