Few people in the past year have sparked debate in the manner that Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, has. His organization has become well-known for publishing material that is leaked by anonymous whistleblowers that often show wrongdoing on the parts of governments and corporations around the world, though a good deal of its notoriety stems from the publication of the Iraq War Logs and its bringing to light actual U.S. military footage of a helicopter crew shooting reporters and civilians in Baghdad, a video that the group entitled “Collateral Murder”.
The release of documents pertaining to the U.S. military and the U.S. Department of State resulted in an outcry by conservatives across the country who claimed that Assange had hurt the national security of the United States and that he had exposed a number of U.S. military informants in Afghanistan, claims that Assange strongly denies. Fox News Correspondents and familiar Republican faces such as Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin called Julian Assange a traitor, though he is actually Australian and therefore can not commit treason against the U.S., and they even went so far as to call for his assassination within days of the shooting of Gabriel Giffords in Arizona.
While calls for assassination rang out at Fox News, the rest of the American media played up the angle that WikiLeaks had damaged American national interests because it had published diplomatic cables that contained confidential and embarrassing information about foreign dignitaries and diplomats. The cables did certainly create a good deal of awkwardness at the State Department, but rather than focus on any specifics, the general treatment among the major networks was downright tabloid. For example, in this piece, ABC News focused on non-substantive comments in the cables that essentially resort to the level of name calling. And far from being hard hitting, ABC did not make a terribly strong case. From the piece, we find out that Libya’s Ghadafi is considered “wierd”. This could hardly be of any surprise, but we learn nothing of the real nuggets of information found in the documents from the ABC piece – a trend that you will see is quite prominent in American media.
The Administration’s Response – and from Corporate America
The reaction from the Obama Administration was rather strong. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the release of the diplomatic cables. Their release certainly made her job difficult. But did the release of the cables truly affect the relations between the U.S. and other countries to the degree that she has claimed? For her part, Julian Assange did suggest that Secretarty Clinton should resign, “if it can be shown that she was responsible ordering U.S. diplomatic figures to engage in espionage in the United Nations.” (Go to 2:20 in the video for the quote.) Unfortunately, most of the American press reported that with the headline to the effect: Assange: Clinton Should Resign, ignoring a rather important subjunctive clause, but also skillfully avoiding the reasoning behind Assange’s statement. Mr. Assange made that statement with the revelation from his group that the U.S. State Department had begun a program to try to gain information about foreign dignitaries by the use of biometrics and espionage. If the State Department is trying to spy on other leaders, suddenly the peaceful and “candid discussions” that Secretary Clinton mentioned in the ABC News video would certainly take a very different tone, but once again, there is no information in the ABC report about these potentially unethical clandestine actions by the State Department.
President Obama campaigned in part on the notion of openness in the Federal Government. Obama had also signed whistleblower protections early during his presidency. One bill strengthened whistleblower protections for the employees of companies contracting with the Federal Government and he strengthened whistleblower rights in the recently-passed Food Safety Act. Yet, despite this early support for openness in government, President Obama was now in the rather uncomfortable position that he was in charge of the organization losing leaked information.
Despite the discomfort, the White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, challenged Fox News by saying that the White House is not afraid of one guy with a laptop. He also went on to say that those who leaked information are subject to a Department of Justice criminal investigation as well. But while president Obama claimed to be in support of an open, censorship-free internet after the Diplomatic Cables release, it was quite clear that his Justice Department was in fact strongly pursuing an investigation into the the potential for ties between Julian Assange and the alleged leaker, Private Bradley Manning.
It was around that time in early December, 2010, that Swedish allegations of “sex by surprise”, not rape as reported by the American media, forced Assange to remain in place in Britain, even serving some time in solitary confinement until his bond was secured. He remains without charge from Sweden, though he has been fighting his extradition to Sweden out of concern that he would be extradited again to the United States. It was also made public that one of the women who had accused Assange of rape was actually tied to the CIA. WikiLeaks also found it difficult to receive donations because companies like PayPal, Visa and Mastercard cut off services to WikiLeaks, though the latter two do allow donations to the KKK! It is strongly suspected that the Obama Administration was partially responsible for convincing those companies to cut their financial ties to WikiLeaks.
One company, VISA, did hire a firm to investigate WikiLeaks to determine whether it could find any wrongdoing by the group and found none. VISA has yet to allow donations to flow back to WikiLeaks, despite the findings having come out roughly three months ago.
Assange in his own words
So who is this Julian Assange? Is he the terrorist described by Fox News? The guy who is hurting American national security like the U.S. mainstream press argues? Is he a supporter of free speech and open government?
To this point we have heard from virtually everyone but Julian Assange himself. But to fully understand his comments, we can not confine ourselves to the American mass media. First, let us take a look at a speech that he gave to the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2010.
In that speech, Assange describes how his organization tries not to know the names of the whistleblowers in order to protect itself as well as the whistleblowers. WikiLeaks tries to protect whistleblowers as much as possible, while using freedom of speech laws around the world to their maximum extent to ensure that the leaked information remains public and protected from attempts to shut websites down.
The stakes are quite high. After minute 5:15 in the Oslo Speech, Assange mentions the salient point that with today’s electronic media, the information repositories of the West are becoming concentrated in fewer hands. While it was once true that people could see missing pages in book in Soviet Libraries, it is now possible to remove websites without a trace. This is a very well-thought out position on transparency of information in the electronic era. There have already been examples, as Assange continues, in which stories of scandals have slipped into the Orwellian “memory hole”. The protection of information against consolidated control is to make it public and to ensure that thousands of copies of that information can be found across the internet. By making information public, WikiLeaks says that it provides the tools that the public needs in order to hold its leaders accountable for their actions.
In another speech at TED, Assange discusses some of the types of documents that WikiLeaks has released to the public, including the release of Collateral Murder (around 5:30). At one point, Assange makes a very intriguing statement, “Capable and generous men do not create victims, they nurture people.” This is hardly a statement by the vindictive radical of Fox News’ imaginings.
Listen to Assange discuss his own reaction to the video in the following video from an interview conducted by Al Jazeera. At not point does Assange attempt to hyperbolize what can be seen on the video screen.
The Al Jazeera interview also includes commentary by Ivan Eland, a national security analyst from the Cato Institute (hardly an anti-military institution). Eland describes the actions from the lens of the military while Assange describes the situation from the perspective of the victims. Al Jazeera does a great job of showing similarities and dissonances between the two perspectives to give the viewer a rather impressive perspective of the incident in which American helicopter pilots gunned down a number of innocent bystanders. This is not the type of portrayal of the U.S. military that one sees in the United States. Rather, a better example of American portayal can be seen here:
CNN did not show the entire video. They did not mention that the “weapons” described by the helicopter pilots were actually cameras, but they did stop just before the helicopter opened fire and just after the letters “RPG” appear on the screen. The net effect of this editing is to give the viewer the impression that the helicopter pilots were in the right by defending themselves against a potential rocket propelled grenade attack. Wolf then cuts to Barbara Starr, CNN’s Pentagon correspondent, who touts the Pentagon’s line without question: That the people had been investigated and that no fault was found. Yet Starr never describes the extent of the investigation, nor does she comment on the rest of the video. She also propagates the lie that other troops were attacked nearby that day. Finally, the journalist Starr rather callously mentions that the deaths of these journalists can simply be added to the death toll of 129 to that point in the Iraq War.
So CNN all but asks the viewer not to worry, nothing to see here people… just journalists dying despite the fact that journalists are given legal protections even in war zones – protections that are never mentioned despite the large number of deaths of journalists by the U.S. military. That is the American mainstream media in a nutshell. When the need for information and transparency is palpable, CNN obscured the facts in order to provide the Pentagon a blanket of plausible deniability. Later, CNN posted an article online entitled “Secretive website WikiLeaks may be posting more U.S. military video”, a clear effort to discredit WikiLeaks without bringing any new information to the fore.
This is not to say that high-ranking officials should necessarily be charged with corruption because of the actions of much lower-ranking pilots. Nor does Assange make that case. However, the incident may certainly warrant a review of the specific ways in which loose rules of engagement may have resulted in the deaths of a number of innocent people that way. Perhaps there is a way to address civilian deaths that will heighten the safety for troops and civilians alike – neither we nor the Pentagon will know unless the matter is investigated and that will not happen unless there is public pressure to do so.
The added benefit for political leaders may be that after having encountered a number of incidents in which mistakes were made, the public may develop a more nuanced view regarding the myriad ways in which such unfortunate instances could happen. That may mean that the public could better differentiate between instances in which an undesirable outcome resulted from good-faith efforts, versus cases of corruption. The public would likely be more forgiving in the former cases, which could give politicians more latitude in their efforts to improve conditions at home as well. That is why there is a need to bring details about events like these to light.
More on the media perception of Assange
After the release of Collateral Murder and the release of Iraq and Afghanistan War documents, the line in the media became the accusation that Julian Assange and WIkiLeaks were attempting to attack U.S. national security. That is a charge that Julian Assange deftly handles here in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
After the release of the American diplomatic cables, Julian Assange was of course charged with sex crimes in Sweden and the timing is clearly suspicious. The American press wasted no time in ensuring that future interviews with Assange were about him rather than the information that he was attempting to present.
Increasingly, the theme in American media was about Julian Assange himself. For example, an October, 2010 interview with CNN avoided the contents of WikiLeaks releases, but rather focussed on Julian Assange’s personality and the early reports of allegations of rape. This led to Assange walking out of the interview while he was attempting to steer the interview back toward the contents of WikiLeaks’ latest document release.
A short time later, Assange related to Larry King why he had walked out of the interview, namely to ensure that media attention remains on the deaths of innocent victims during a time of war. When Daniel Ellsberg (the leaker of the Pentagon Papers) calls for an investigation over the matters that WikiLeaks released, Larry King called an end to the segment:
In January, CBS’ 60 Minutes did an interview with Assange in Britain at the location of his house arrest. You will find the entire interview is chock full of references to the “mysterious” “strange” or “enigmatic” Assange – but you will hear very few details regarding the actual contents of WikiLeaks releases. Interviewer Steve Kroft asks questions that essentially carry water for the Pentagon throughout the interview. Assange actually instructs Kroft on a number of points regarding the practice of journalism in Part I, as well as reminding Kroft of the importance of America’s First Amendment in his own work. Part II of the interview covers Assange’s past, with descriptions of his “frequently uprooted” childhood and his hacking activities. There are a number of great exchanges where Assange is able to directly respond to Pentagon and State Department accusations and he does it quite well.
Unfortunately, 60 Minutes played the “enigmatic” angle heavily during its normal showtime, but Steve Kroft and the production staff do discuss (in rather surprising contrast) how they perceived Assange to be rather genuine in his beliefs and actions during their own reflections on 60 Minutes Overtime. And the disappointing dearth of information regarding WikiLeaks’ revelations is described in detail in an article by David Swanson.
How stark is the American media portrayal of Julian Assange? Thanks to the wonderful world of the internet, it is possible to directly compare American interviews such as those by CBS and CNN with interviews by reporters from the Netherlands and Australia. Viewing the last two sample videos and the Al Jazeera interview earlier shows American just what they have been missing: A press that seeks to inform the public rather than to cover up excesses by the U.S. Government.
Without such transparency as that displayed by international news sources, it is unlikely that citizens of the United states will be able to ensure the safety of their own family members who are sent into harm’s way from the excesses of a national security state that creates an environment in which otherwise well-intentioned soldiers can become excited for the next kill. How much less violence might there have been in Iraq and how many fewer people – Iraqis and Americans alike – if the people in Iraq were not subject to such unfair rules of operation that ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ should be the rule of the day? That is, after all, what WikiLeaks claims to do: To provide the transparency required for citizens to make informed decisions on their own.
Now that you have finally seen the major players give their cases in their own words, you can finally decide for yourself: Is Julian Assange truly an ideological terrorist acting to destroy the United States, or is he facing attacks by the same people who profit from unceasing wars whose current estates are now jeopardized by WikiLeaks, or is there some other combination of factors taking place? How would one even be able to consider all of the possibilities, given American mainstream reporting alone? Now that you have seen actual details and reporting, you have the ability to decide for yourself.