Harassment of WikiLeaks reflects mounting assault on civil liberties

by Jeff Mackler

The WikiLeaks release of a quarter-million secret U.S. diplomatic cables in early December, as well as the earlier WikiLeaks revelations on U.S. mass murder of civilians and other heinous policies in Afghanistan and Iraq, confirm the fact that technological progress in the field of communications dramatically reduces the gap between the commission and cover-up of the crimes of the ruling imperial powers and their exposure to the world’s people.

As sensational as WikiLeaks’ revelations are, the great bulk of U.S. imperialism’s policies remain hidden from public view. The CIA’s announced budget for 2010 of some $80 billion, for example, does not include the expenditures for this agency’s clandestine operations—that is, it’s Black Budget total of $1.1 trillion. The latter covers secret funds for “special operations.” These include assassinations, orchestrated coups to replace unfriendly governments, and similar dirty deeds that are known only to the select few.

Nevertheless, WikiLeaks’ 37-year-old founder, Julian Assange, and his full-time staff of five associates and 800 volunteers, did have a secret weapon that forced his unsuspecting partners in the print media (Le Monde in France, El Pais in Spain, the German Der Spiegel, The Guardian in England, and The New York Times) to refrain from their usual cover-ups. The authenticity of WikiLeaks’ revelations could not be denied. The hundreds of thousands of documents all had the official imprimatur of the U.S. government and its various agencies, staff, and soldiers on the front line.

It was as if WikiLeaks had the official keys to the vaults containing the recorded history of significant portions of U.S. imperialism’s horrors for the past 10 years. And indeed it had! Many of the “classified” embassy revelations came directly from the government’s computers, access to which is apparently available to thousands of people with the proper password and related codes. It appears that some 900,000 Americans are today classified with some level of government “security clearance.”

Even a small percentage of these, the disgruntled few, so to speak, would be sufficient to punch a gaping hole in almost any security system. Daniel Ellsberg’s 1971 release to The New York Times of the Pentagon Papers, exposing U.S. war crimes during the Vietnam War, is a case in point.

Bradley Manning, a 23-year-old military intelligence analyst, imprisoned for the past six months—currently at the U.S. Marine Base in Quantico, Va.—is another. Manning denies the charges against him that he released classified videos depicting U.S. helicopters near Baghdad blatantly firing on and murdering some dozen civilians, including two Reuters reporters.

The videos evidence a cold-blooded, coordinated mass murder, replete with military personnel reveling in their success as they mechanically go through the motions of mis-identifying photographic equipment as automatic rifles and innocent rescue efforts by nearby civilians as terrorist associated.

Assange went to great lengths to praise Bradley Manning without confirming that Manning was the source of the video leaks. Said Assange, “If indeed it is the case, as alleged by the Pentagon, that the young soldier—Bradley Manning—is behind some of our recent disclosures, then he is without doubt an unparalleled hero.”

Manning’s conditions of imprisonment have been described by his attorney, David Coombs, as akin to torture aimed at extracting a “confession” that involves implicating Assange and WikiLeaks as co-conspirators to commit espionage. Under U.S. law, charges involving so-called conspiracy allow for obtaining easy convictions of people that have no association with any crime. Attorney Lynne Stewart’s issuance of a press release on behalf of her 1995 client, the “blind Sheik” Omar Abdel Rachman, was deemed as a “conspiracy to aid and abet terrorism.” Stewart is currently imprisoned for 10 years. In the same vein, a series of Supreme Court decisions and related legislation have today defined the term “material aid to terrorism” so broadly as to include virtually anyone.

U.S. war data uncovered

President Obama himself, with regard to the 90,000 WikiLeaks documents on the Afghan War released last July, sought to dismiss or undermine the revelations with the claim that they were old hat and that with his appointment of Gen. Stanley McChrystal—subsequently fired for other reasons—to head U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, his administration had changed U.S. policy and was now taking greater care to minimize the massive U.S. “collateral” murders of innocent civilians.

Assange quickly dismissed Obama’s statement with a mass of U.S. new official military data indicating that the Afghan civilian kill rate had not diminished. He told Amy Goodman of the “Democracy Now!” news program that in addition to the facts on record that refute Obama’s statements, there is a huge gap between the “words” contained in announced government policy and the facts documented on the ground. The latter demonstrated the U.S. slaughter of some 20,000 Afghan civilians from 2002 to 2010.

WikiLeaks staffers took great care to compare the “kill” figures reported directly by soldiers on the ground with the final “edited” figures later released by the Pentagon, noting in all cases that the latter had been sanitized—that is, reduced—for public consumption. Further, the WikiLeaks figures, according to Assange, represent only a small portion of civilian casualties, the vast number still remaining unreported or unaccounted for. The norm, said Assange, is that only the “big” kills are reported.

Similarly, WikiLeaks’ 390,000 classified documents on the Iraq War total the number of civilians killed at 285,000. This figure, and all of the above, were meticulously tabulated from official U.S. reports written by individual soldiers in the field, various intelligence agencies, and Pentagon officials. They exclude, of course, the unreported “casualties” as well as the death-squad murders committed by various “private” war contractors. But even here WikiLeaks tallies do include data on the wholesale killings committed by U.S. Task Force 373, a secret American assassination team taking its orders from various Afghan government and U.S. officials.

In short, WikiLeaks does not presume to present totals of all those killed by U.S. forces during the 10-year Afghan War or the eight-year Iraq War. Other institutions have provided such data. In Iraq, for example, since the 1991 Desert Storm, U.S. saturation bombing, and mass murder there, figures close to 1.5 million dead have been reported by respected international agencies. These include civilian deaths directly attributed to the decade-long U.S. sanctions against Iraq following Desert Storm.

The actual content of the WikiLeaks embassy cables released to date is in the main far from sensational. Rather, it evidences the imperial and crude arrogance of U.S. officials around the world, who treat their peers in other countries with contempt and distain and who roar at any evidence of independence from what is assumed to be their imperial masters. As has been known for decades, for example, U.S. allies in the Arab monarch states are revealed in the cables to be vehement in urging the U.S. to attack Iran while their public position is to express solidarity with their Iranian “neighbors.”

Many of the revelations are more an embarrassment, as with angry judgments regarding the character of Gordon Brown, Britain’s former Prime Minister, who the United States suggests, should be replaced—as he was in the next election.

A more serious but still not unexpected WikiLeaks revelation has former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a confidential April 25, 2008, memo to the U.S. State Department confirming that Israel, in a clandestine attack, destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor. The document confirmed that Israel and the United States collaborated on intelligence for the mission. Rice stated, “The U.S. intelligence community conducted an intensive, months-long effort to confirm and corroborate the information Israel provided us on the reactor and to gather more details from our own sources and methods.” The WikiLeaks-provided cable was the first official confirmation of U.S. involvement.

Similarly, it was revealed that the U.S. employed economic pressure against a reluctant Irish government to guarantee continued use of Ireland’s Shannon Airport to transport military materials to Israel that had been exhausted after its attack on Lebanon. Another cable revealed that the U.S. has pressured the Ethiopian Army to send some 50,00 troops to invade Somalia.

Gov’t, media, corporations panic

The corporate media in “democratic” nations, where free speech is accorded at least lip service, had a simple choice with regard to the WikiLeaks material—report the truth or risk the accusation and associated embarrassment that the media was little more than a semi-official instrument of the state power.

The historic Jeffersonian notion that the central aim of a free press is to expose government wrongdoing has been all but transmuted into its opposite. In the name of protecting the “national security” interests of the government, the so-called free press today serves as the instrument of the government to mis-inform the people. With regard to WikiLeaks The New York Times gave the government some 24 hours to prepare its response before reporting the WikiLeaks revelations.

Most of the corporate media, especially in the U.S., chose this middle course; they first handed over all the material they received from WikiLeaks to the White House media staff for vetting and then published key portions of the texts—all the while literally refusing to click on to the WikiLeaks website. The U.S. media’s strange behavior in this respect was no accident. The government itself has issued orders to each and every government employee to not use either government or home or any other computers to view the revelations.

Apparently, The New York Times’s instinct was to consider itself in this “government employee” category. The absurdity of this decision was not lost on Assange himself, who noted with a smile that the The Times used the material he had sent them but declined to check the WikiLeaks site itself.

Some stunned officials took the government’s warning more than seriously. The president of the private Columbia University in New York City sent out a notice to all students that a possible career in public service could be jeopardized if they clicked onto the WikiLeaks website! The government’s ban on clicking sent a shiver across the country, since such a warning contains within it the implication that any and all clicks on any website are recorded somewhere in cyberspace and eventually end up in a government file.

Panic was undoubtedly in the air as a virtual army of U.S. embassy and consular officials raced to contact offended government officials around the world to assure them that the undeniable denunciations and harsh judgments penned by them and now presented to the world were really just errors of judgment. The “national security” furor was not lost on international corporations that acceded to government pressure to minimize WikiLeaks’ effectiveness. Amazon Web Services and Apple Inc booted out WikiLeaks, as did the Bank of America, American Express, Visa, PayPal and MasterCard.

Anticipating retaliation, including the closing down of his website, Assange took the precaution of sending encrypted copies of the over 250,000 damning embassy cables, mostly focused on the past three years, to some 100,000 locations. “If something happens to us,” he stated, “the key parts will be released automatically” via the marvel of computer technology. To date only some 220 cables have been released.

Assange told the London-based Daily Mail that there had been death threats against him and his WikiLeaks associates. “The threats against our lives are a matter of public record. However, we are taking the appropriate precautions to the degree that we are able when dealing with a superpower.” Several commentators on FOX-TV’s “news” programs urged assassination for Assange. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and WikiLeaks supporter Seymour Hersh, citing concern for his personal safety, warned Assange against any visits to the United States.

Congress looks to Espionage Act

Vice President Joseph Biden, in a mid-December “Meet the Press” interview, called Assange a “high-tech terrorist” and announced that the U.S. government was looking into ways to prosecute him.

The Obama administration’s attempt to build a criminal case against Wiki-Leaks took a major step on Dec. 14, when the U.S. District Court in Eastern Virginia ordered Twitter (and reportedly, Facebook, Google, and other web organizations) to turn over account information, phone numbers, and private messages from Assange, Manning, and three other people who have worked with WikiLeaks.

The House of Representatives sponsored a hearing on whether the Espionage Act of 1917 might be an appropriate tool against WikiLeaks. A conviction under this law carries the death sentence, although European law prohibits extradition when the death penalty is in play. Nevertheless, a conviction would mean a long prison sentence.

Congress also debated the constitutionality of freedom of speech itself, when it is deemed by the government to endanger its “national security interests.” This was a reference to the McCarthy-era witch-hunt period, in which the U.S. Supreme Court, under the leadership of Chief Justice Felix Frankfurter, consistently “balanced” First Amendment rights against the “need to combat” the “communist menace” — yesterday’s despicable version of today’s “war on terror.”

An important commentary on the Espionage Act and in defense of Assange was written by Robbie Meeropol on the website of the Rosenberg Fund for Children: “I view the Espionage Act of 1917 as a lifelong nemesis. My parents [Julius and Ethel Rosenberg] were charged, tried and ultimately executed after being indicted for Conspiracy to Commit Espionage under that act.

“The 1917 Act has a notorious history. It originally served to squelch opposition to World War I. It criminalized criticism of the war effort, and sent hundreds of dissenters to jail just for voicing their opinions. It transformed dissent into treason.

“Many who attacked the law noted that the framers of the Constitution had specifically limited what constituted treason by writing it into the Constitution: ‘Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort’ (Article III, section 3). The framers felt this narrow definition was necessary to prevent treason from becoming what some called ‘the weapon of a political faction.’ Furthermore, in their discussions at the Constitutional Convention they agreed that spoken opposition was protected by the First Amendment and could never be considered treason.”

Meeropol explained how in times of political stress, capitalist courts tend to subordinate constitutional rights to the interests of the ruling power.

Meanwhile, the Swedish government stepped into the fray with a request that the British government extradite Assange, an Australian citizen, to Sweden to face charges of sexual abuse and rape. After a series of hearings on the matter, Assange was released on $379,000 bail provided by a number of internationally prominent intellectuals and artists, including filmmakers Ken Loach and Michael Moore.

Assange, compelled to wear an electronic monitoring device, is awaiting a decision of the British courts on the extradition request. Should he eventually be convicted in Sweden, he could face up to two years in prison.

His attorney, Mark Stephens, said that the leaked material from Sweden neglected to include important exculpatory evidence—that is, evidence proving Assange’s innocence. Many figures prominent in public life see the hand of U.S. intelligence agencies in this matter and have expressed doubts about the sex charges against Assange and about the veracity of his accusers.

The effort to repress the WikiLeaks revelations has its parallels in mounting attacks on civil liberties more generally. Republican Congressman Peter King, who is set to assume the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, has stated that he intends to launch an investigation on “radicalization” among American Muslims, a community already beset with massive FBI raids on Muslim mosques and the victim of hundreds of arrests based on charges that the government refuses to reveal—citing “national security” concerns.

Similarly, Palestinian communities are subjected to horrendous persecution on trumped-up charges and accusations of conspiracy to aid and abet terrorism. The infamous Holy Land Five Case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2010 defined “material aid to terrorism” as including the charitable contributions of the Holy Land Foundation to beleaguered Palestinian and other oppressed communities around the world, served notice that the parameters of government persecution were virtually unlimited. In the Holy Land Five case the court allowed the introduction of secret evidence against this charitable organization, evidence that was deemed irrefutable.

And in one of the most egregious attempts by the U.S. government to flaunt civil liberties, 23 antiwar and social justice activists, some associated with the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, have been subpoenaed by grand juries on charges of “possible” involvement in conspiracies to aid and abet terrorism.

The fight for fundamental civil liberties and democracy looms high on the agenda of all social justice movements. This fight is inseparable from the fight against all U.S. wars and threats of wars—from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan and the Middle East in general, to Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. All are aimed at advancing the interests of the U.S. ruling-class elite at the expense of working people everywhere.

The mobilization to build mass antiwar and social justice protests in New York and San Francisco on April 9 aims to unite all the victims of U.S. imperial policy. Solidarity with WikiLeaks and the victims of government repression at home and abroad is a prerequisite toward the construction of a massive movement to reverse the present tide of war and plunder and secure civil liberties for all.

> This article was originally published in the January 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.