July 07, 2024

The Importance of Being Julian Assange

Bappa Sinha

ON June 25th, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange walked out of Belmarsh high-security prison in London, where he had spent the last five years fighting extradition to the US on charges under the Espionage Act which if convicted could have sent him to prison for more than 170 years. Before that, he was confined to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012 where he had taken asylum.

The hounding of Assange had started even before that. He was first arrested in London in 2010 based on an arrest warrant issued by Swedish police for rape allegations by two women. He was released on bail and has always maintained that these were “without basis”. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, after going through the evidence in the case, concluded, “Assange had been systematically slandered to divert attention from the crimes he exposed. Once he had been dehumanised through isolation, ridicule and shame, just like the witches we used to burn at the stake, it was easy to deprive him of his most fundamental rights without provoking public outrage worldwide.”

So, what had Assange and his organisation, WikiLeaks, done to incur the wrath of the mighty US empire and its stooges? WikiLeaks had set up a system using which WikiLeaks and its sources could share information without their privacy being compromised. The sources could even choose to remain anonymous, and the information obtained by WikiLeaks could be safely preserved despite the most advanced and heavy-handed efforts to hack into or block WikiLeaks servers by US Intelligence and its allies. WikiLeaks used cryptographic tools to turn the tables on the empire and used that to expose horrific war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the US and its allies worldwide. As renowned journalist John Pilger would write “WikiLeaks, of which Assange is founder and publisher, exposed the secrets and lies that led to the invasion of Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the murderous role of the Pentagon in dozens of countries, the blueprint for the 20-year catastrophe in Afghanistan, the attempts by Washington to overthrow elected governments, such as Venezuela’s, the collusion between nominal political opponents (Bush and Obama) to stifle a torture investigation and the CIA’s Vault 7 campaign that turned your mobile phone, even your TV set, into a spy in your midst.”

Founded in 2006, WikiLeaks broke into the limelight in 2010 when it published the Iraq and Afghan war logs, which contained more than half a million files documenting atrocities and war crimes committed by the US and its allies on innocent civilians. Among these files was the classified “Collateral Murder” video, which went on to become the most well-known of this drop. The video showed US forces firing indiscriminately at civilians from a helicopter in Baghdad, killing two Reuters journalists along with several innocent civilians and then celebrating the murders. These logs thoroughly exposed the brutality of the US occupation in these countries, as well as the rampant corruption resulting in windfall gains for the US military industrial complex.

Next came the exposure of the US diplomatic cables, known as Cablegate, in late 2010. These leaks showed the worldwide subversion of foreign governments using bribery, blackmail and threats of violence by the US, thoroughly embarrassing the US and its puppets in many foreign countries.

WikiLeaks exposed the systematic human rights violations and torture conducted by the US in the so-called “black sites” in various parts of the world and the detention centre in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Wikileaks revealed that US authorities deliberately kept nearly 150 men in prison for years despite knowing that they were innocent. People were kept under inhuman conditions in the name of fighting terrorism. The leaks exposed the so-called "Enhanced interrogation techniques", which included horrific torture techniques including beating, binding in contorted stress positions, hooding, waterboarding, walling, sexual humiliation, rape, subjection to extreme heat or extreme cold, and confinement in small coffin-like boxes. Revelations published by WikiLeaks helped the legal cases of a number of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, leading to their release and to the eventual closure of the facility.

In the case of Chagos Island, better known to the world as Diego Garcia, diplomatic cables exposed how the UK and US conspired to declare the islands a “Marine Reserve” to prevent the islanders from reclaiming their lands lost due to a US military base in 1966. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) found the UK guilty based on WikiLeaks exposures.

In 2015, WikiLeaks published revelations that the US National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, her closest advisers and her predecessor for years. The Snowden revelations had already exposed the widespread mass surveillance programme run by the NSA and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance globally. However, the fact that they were spying on even their closest European allies came as a major embarrassment to the US.

In 2016, WikiLeaks published Hillary Clinton’s emails obtained from her campaign chair’s account, which was hacked. The leaked emails established the disingenuous and cynical nature of her presidential campaign, hurting her presidential campaign and leading to charges of Russian interference from her and the democrats. But more crucially, the emails also showed the brutality of the US invasion of Iraq and motives behind the US involvement in Libya and the shared consensus within both the Republican and Democratic parties behind such actions. These emails included ex-Ambassador Joe Wilson’s letter to Hillary saying, “My trip to Baghdad (September 6-11) has left me slack jawed. I have struggled to find the correct historical analogy to describe a vibrant, historically important Middle Eastern city being slowly bled to death. Berlin and Dresden in World War II were devastated but they and their populations were not subjected to seven years of occupation that included ethnic cleansing, segregation of people by religious identity, and untold violence perpetrated upon them by both military and private security services. I have not been to Gaza but suspect that the dehumanizing effects are somewhat similar. …The occupation and especially the walling off of neighborhoods have destroyed the very fabric of the urban society.”

Hillary’s close advisor Sidney Blumenthal’s email identified French President Nicholas Sarkozy as leading the attack on Libya with five specific purposes in mind: to obtain Libyan oil, ensure French influence in the region, increase Sarkozy’s reputation domestically, assert French military power, and to prevent Gaddafi’s influence in what is considered “Francophone Africa.” Blumenthal further expounds on the mechanism of western involvement. He wrote that “an extremely sensitive source” confirmed that British, French, and Egyptian special operations units were training Libyan militants along the Egyptian-Libyan border, as well as in Benghazi suburbs. Blumenthal further voiced concern about the very militias these western special forces were training because of “radical/terrorist groups such as the Libyan Fighting Groups and Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are infiltrating the NLC and its military command.”

Wikileaks released a whole tranche of documents codenamed “Vault 7” in 2017, which exposed the CIA’s covert global hacking programme. These documents revealed that CIA had built a programme parallel to the NSA whose scope matched, if not exceeded, the NSA programme. This programme “had over 5000 registered users and had produced more than a thousand hacking systems, trojans, viruses, and other “weaponised” malware.” These tools can target smartphones such as iPhones and Android phones, iPads and smartTVs to effectively convert them into listening devices. Vehicle control systems in modern cars and trucks could also be hacked. The CIA had developed techniques to “bypass the encryption of WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Wiebo, Confide and Cloackman by hacking the smartphones that they run on and collecting audio and message traffic before encryption is applied.” The programme developed tools to attack operating systems such as Windows and Linux, as well as Internet routers.

It was for these systematic exposures of US war crimes, torture, support for terrorism and surveillance that Julian Assange was hounded, imprisoned and slandered. The high priests of journalism today opine in publications like the Guardian, New York Times and Washington Post that Assange was not a good enough journalist. But they conveniently forget that these publications refused to publish when Chelsea Manning first went to them with the Iraq war logs before she contacted WikiLeaks. These publications wouldn't publish a single article without the approval of the US State Department. For them, Assange's biggest crime was that he broke their conspiracy of silence and exposed the true nature of the US empire and for that he was made to pay.es...