Saturday, 15 January 2011

When The Levee Breaks

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act”
George Orwell



Late last year, Julian Assange, Internet activist and editor-in-chief of online whistle-blowing site Wikileaks, was released on bail from the Royal Courts of Justice, albeit two days later than planned and with a number of restrictions which include "wearing an electronic tag, reporting to police every day, observing a curfew and residing at Mr [Vaughn] Smith's home." Assange has been effectively placed under house arrest at the home of Frontline Club founder Vaughn Smith in East Anglia under the conditions of his bail, which relate to his fight against extradition to Sweden where he faces sexual assault charges. The plot thickens and the overriding smell of mackerel rises as you take into consideration that in late August the arrest warrant served to Assange had been withdrawn and a statement from the Swedish Prosecutor's office saying that "It's not a serious enough crime" and the country's chief prosecutor Eva Finne stating "I don't think there is reason to suspect that he has committed rape." Of the two separate accusations against Assange, the rape case had been dropped but Swedish authorities would continue to investigate accusations of Molestation, which is not a sex crime but apparently relates to Assange's reluctance to wear a condom during sex.

In September however, another Swedish prosecutor reopened the rape investigation and decided that the molestation charge "should be reclassified and investigated as a case of sexual coercion and sexual molestation." A wanted notice was served by Interpol, a warrant reached the UK by early December and Assange handed himself over to the police. To date he has been in courts in London three times since the warrant arrived on our shores, the first hearing saw him refused bail "because of the risk of the 39-year-old fleeing" and detained in solitary confinement in Wandsworth Prison, in the second bail was granted however it was reported that Assange will "will remain in prison pending an appeal against the bail decision lodged by Swedish prosecutors", the third hearing - held yesterday - Assange was released and granted bail pending a hearing in the new year with Judge Mr Justice Ousely stating that "The history of the way it [the case] has been dealt with by the Swedish prosecutors would give Mr Assange some basis that he might be acquitted following a trial." Following Assange's release the Guardian published the full allegations for which he was facing extradition.

The timing and confused handling of the accusations against Assange have raised numerous questions about their legitimacy. In July this year, a month before the sexual misconduct accusations, Wikileaks, released 92, 000 US logs from the War in Afghanistan, much to the chagrin of the American authorities with the White House quick to condemn the leak as they "could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security" and the Pentagon demanding "to have a conversation about how to get these perilous documents off the website as soon as possible, return them to their rightful owners and expunge them from their records." The current court proceedings and extradition attempts come contemporously with a new leak, that of over a quarter of a million classfied US diplomatic cables. Wikileaks, in alignment with newspapers including The Guardian, La Monde and The New York Times has begun publishing the documents which reveal sensitive and embarrassing insights into US foreign policy.

As with the Afghan releases, US government was quick to "condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorised disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information", however this time condemnation was brought down with added zeal. Congressman Peter King had asked "if the group could be classed as a terrorist organisation", Tom Flanegan, former advisor to the Canadian Prime Minister suggested that Barack Obama “put out a contract and maybe use a drone or something” on Assange, with Jeffrey Kuhner echoing this sentiment in a Washington Times Editorial, Mitch McConnel, Minority Leader in the Senate describing him as "a high-tech terrorist. He has done enormous damage to our country" being backed up by comments from Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich claiming "he should be treated as an enemy combatant." There have also been calls for the death penalty to be brought on Bradley Manning, the US Intelligence Analyst suspected of leaking the documents who is being held without charge in solitary confinement with reports of his mental and physical health declining in the process.

As Wikileaks continued to publish the cables, discontent continued to grow and attacks on the organisation also rose. Wikileaks domain name server at EveryDNS cancelled it's account, Amazon stopped hosting the wikileaks site on it's servers, Mastercard and Visa and Paypal cancelled transactions of funds donated to the organisation, with PayPal admitting that "On November 27th, the state department, the US government basically, wrote a letter saying that the WikiLeaks' activities were deemed illegal in the United States and as a result our policy group had to make the decision of suspending the account," and Swiss bank PostFinance "shut the accounts of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange."

A significant portion of the online community, represented by internet activists Anonymous, began fighting back launching DDOS (Distributed denial of service attacks) towards those inhibiting Wikileaks work, even going so far as to bring down the Mastercard Website as part of what they describe as Operation Payback. Outwith the digital realm the Icelandic Parliament have reacted to the actions of Visa and Mastercard and "have raised the possibility of taking away their operating licences", Moscow's Kremlin have suggested "nominating Assange as a Nobel Prize laureate" while Austrialia's Prime Minister, Julia Gillard's leadership of her Labour Party was threatened by her comments regarding Assange.

In January this year, Hillary Clinton wrote in The Guardian "defending online freedoms." In her article she discussed the apparent merits in the free and instant access to information that the internet provided, even describing how "During his visit to China in November, President Obama defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable" going further to warn of the dangers of stifling that information, saying "technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights."
"As in the dictatorships of the past, governments are targeting independent thinkers who use these tools. We've seen reports that when Iranians living overseas posted online criticism of their nation's leaders, their family members in Iran were singled out for retribution. And despite an intense campaign of government intimidation, brave citizen journalists in Iran continue using technology to show the world and their fellow citizens what is happening inside their country."
When it emerged however that brave citizen journalists had used technology to show the world and their fellow citizens what was happening inside her country, Mrs Clinton was quick to join in the US' intense campaign of government intimidation. The Secretary of State described the disclosures as "not just an attack on America's foreign policy interests, it is an attack on the international community: the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity" and described how the American Government is "taking aggressive steps to hold responsible those who stole this information."

In the digital age, information is the most powerful weapon anyone can wield. Rather than the Christian adage of ignorance being bliss, knowledge is power, and the pen is mightier than the sword - or rather the keyboard is mightier than the A-Bomb. Information is the weapon with the power to destroy entire governments but leave people and buildings intact.

Not that the notion of the power of information is anything new, the disclosures and investigation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for The Washington Post into the Watergate Scandal was instrumental in bringing down the Nixon administration. The main difference is the ease and methods of dissemination of that information. Now you don't need to pass bulky documents around, photocopying or transcribing the contents, information can be passed from one person to hundreds of recipients at the click of a mouse, it can be posted as a status on Facebook or Twitter and be all the way around the world and back in an instant.


The above video was released by Wikileaks under the title "Collateral Murder" in April 2010. The video, leaked from within the US Military, allegedly from Bradley Manning, and shows footage from a US Apache helicopter engaging alleged 'insurgents' in a Baghdad street on 12th July 2007. The engagement left twelve people, including two Reuter's journalists, dead. The official line from the US Military described how "American troops were conducting a raid when they were hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The American troops called in reinforcements and attack helicopters. In the ensuing fight, the statement said, the two Reuters employees and nine insurgents were killed." While Reuters requested more detailed information on the attack, and requested access to the in-flight video through the Freedom of Information Act, the requests were blocked by the Pentagon and it looked as though, as The Washington Post reported, it would remain "unclear whether the journalists had been killed by U.S. fire or by shooting from the Iraqis targeted by the Apache."

With the release of the leaked video, so too came the clarity. The journalists were not killed by Iraqi insurgents, in fact the video clearly shows that there was no fire in the area they were in, there was no small arms fire and although some of those gathered in the area were armed "the permission to engage was given before the word RPG was ever used," and not content with opening fire on the suspected insurgents, the helicopter returns to the scene and re-engages a wounded, unarmed journalist and the occupants of a van trying to help him.

As well as highlighting the true trigger-happy nature of US combat in Iraq, displaying the disturbing reality of warfare and the dangers for Journalists trying to report on the conflict, it also reveals that those perpetrating the crimes are well aware of what it is they are doing and do not want the general public to know. As Winston Churchill pointed out, "History is written by the victors," had the video not been leaked then the 'victors' of this particular skirmish would have been content to leave it "unclear whether the journalists had been killed by U.S. fire or by shooting from the Iraqis targeted by the Apache" and eventually the whole event would have been forgotten and the people killed simply added to the tally of Iraqi's killed during the conflict and the actions of the helicopter crew, clearly working against their own rules of engagement, would never be known.

The value of organisations like Wikileaks, investigative journalism in general, and the basic democratic right to freedom of speech are what keeps the world open, exposes those truths and information which governments do not trust their citizens with. The act of covering up war crimes, and writing and re-writing history pushes the 'civilised' nations of the West further into Orwellian dystopia. Wikileak's publishing of the Iraq and Afghan War Logs turned the spotlight on the two current perpetual wars, and the diplomatic cables that followed highlight a "sense of futility" regarding the Afghan war and the apparent ineffectiveness of the British military efforts. The US Defence Department responded to the leak of the logs with the claim that the release "could very well get our troops and those they are fighting with killed” however (in the video below), Republican Senator, Ron Paul asks the reasoned, legitimate question: "Which has resulted in the greatest number of deaths: lying us into war or Wikileaks revelations."
Despite this, the US powers that be, such as Attorney General Eric Holder, rather than making a dignified apology and reassessing their foreign policy in the wake of the leaks, have stated that "We have a very serious, active, ongoing investigation that is criminal in nature. I authorized just last week a number of things to be done so that we can hopefully get to the bottom of this and hold people accountable, as they -- as they should be." Further to this as the Republicans gain control of the House of Representatives following the recent Mid Term elections, they reveal that they have "included WikiLeaks in a list of priorities for investigation."

Indeed the first move of this investigation was revealed when Twitter, having managed to overturn a gag order notified several users of the microblogging site, including Manning, Assange, US programmer Jacob Appelbaum, Dutch Hacker Rop Gonggrijp and Icelandic MP Brigitta Jonsdottir, that "the US government has subpoenaed the social networking site Twitter for personal details of people connected to Wikileaks," and "The US District Court in Virginia said it wanted information including user names, addresses, connection records, telephone numbers and payment details." While twitter was able to challenge the gag order placed on the legal action, it has been suggested that Google and Facebook may have been issued similar subpoenas but not challenged the gag order. Wikileaks lawyer, Mark Stephens has claimed that the court order not only covers the five specific accounts but also "600,000 odd followers that Wikileaks has on Twitter". Should this claim be true, and if Facebook is indeed facing a similar subpoena then one could assume that the court order extends to those accounts who have "liked" Wikileaks. At time of writing, Wikileaks has 1, 529, 442 fans on their Facebook page which could mean that the court order will obtain the usernames, passwords, IP Addresses, postal addresses telephone numbers and credit card details of around two million people.

America loves a witchhunt, be it looking for actual "witches", "communists", "terrorists", Taliban, Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, Fidel Castro - now they have Julian Assange. In their haste to pin a conspiracy charge stick in order to prosecute him under the 1917 Espionage Act, US Senators, pundits, judges and lawyers are already running rough-shod over the supposedly sacred First Amendment and international human rights and privacy laws. The reality of the situation is that the curtain has already been pulled back, the truth is out in the open and no amount of denial is going to change that. Rather than chasing and punishing anyone related to the leak, threatening the future job prospects of University students, or forcing companies to strangle organisations dedicated to revealing war crimes or injustice perhaps it is time to look into the core values of democracy: transparency and openness. It is time to investigate what has gone so horribly wrong and the damage that this culture of secrecy and lies has done and will continue to do if left unchecked.

Should accountability and punishment lie with Wikileaks, Julian Assange, News Organisations or internet activists for making this information public, and not the system which has allowed thousands of civilian deaths to be covered up, forged war under false pretence and systematically mislead and lied to the people of the world then we will be heading down a very dark and precarious path.

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