Jullian Assange is back in the news. And unlike the last time I covered his plight back in early 2019, I actually have some sympathy for the man. For it is through him that we now get to see how dark things really got at the upper levels of the Trump administration.
While I fully expect there to be many more frightening revelations in the coming months and years relating to the Trump Administration, this one was certainly a doozy.
Three years ago, on 2 October 2018, a team of Saudi officials murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The purpose of the killing was to silence Khashoggi and to frighten critics of the Saudi regime by showing that it would pursue and punish them as though they were agents of a foreign power.
It was revealed this week that a year before the Khashoggi killing in 2017, the CIA had plotted to kidnap or assassinate Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who had taken refuge five years earlier in the Ecuador embassy in London. A senior US counter-intelligence official said that plans for the forcible rendition of Assange to the US were discussed “at the highest levels” of the Trump administration. The informant was one of more than 30 US officials – eight of whom confirmed details of the abduction proposal – quoted in a 7,500-word investigation by Yahoo News into the CIA campaign against Assange.
As much as this doesn’t really surprise me (given the many times that the US has resorted to underhanded tactics in order to forward its own national and/or corporate interests), it still has quite the punch when viewed from the perspective that is not even a decade ago.
The plan was to “break into the embassy, drag [Assange] out and bring him to where we want”, recalled a former intelligence official. Another informant said that he was briefed about a meeting in the spring of 2017 at which President Trump had asked if the CIA could assassinate Assange and provide “options” about how this could be done. Trump has denied that he did so.
The Trump-appointed head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, said publicly that he would target Assange and WikiLeaks as the equivalent of “a hostile intelligence service”. Apologists for the CIA say that freedom of the press was not under threat because Assange and the WikiLeaks activists were not real journalists. Top intelligence officials intended to decide themselves who is and who is not a journalist, and lobbied the White House to redefine other high-profile journalists as “information brokers”, who were to be targeted as if they were agents of a foreign power.
Among those against whom the CIA reportedly wanted to take action were Glenn Greenwald, a founder of the Intercept magazine and a former Guardian columnist, and Laura Poitras, a documentary film-maker. The arguments for doing so were similar to those employed by the Chinese government for suppressing dissent in Hong Kong, which has been much criticised in the West. Imprisoning journalists as spies has always been the norm in authoritarian countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, while denouncing the free press as unpatriotic is a more recent hallmark of nationalist populist governments that have taken power all over the world.
Given the things Donald has said in full view of the public, I have no doubt that he inquired about this course of action. In a way, none of this is really news. Everyone already knew that Trump loved the ways of the authoritarian. Shocking as this instance is, it’s just more of the same.
As for Glenn Greenwald, this certainly brings an interesting twist to his new stances. While the money of a grift is certainly good, avoiding being in the bad graces of potential future authoritarian tyrants is certainly also a good incentive. Though still a futile one, since I have no doubt that they will still find a way to make him an enemy.
Wow. This just got a whole lot bleaker.
It is possible to give only a brief precis of the extraordinary story exposed by Yahoo News, but the journalists who wrote it – Zach Dorfman, Sean D Naylor and Michael Isikoff – ought to scoop every journalistic prize. Their disclosures should be of particular interest in Britain because it was in the streets of central London that the CIA was planning an extra-judicial assault on an embassy, the abduction of a foreign national, and his secret rendition to the US, with the alternative option of killing him. These were not the crackpot ideas of low-level intelligence officials, but were reportedly operations that Pompeo and the agency fully intended to carry out.
This riveting and important story based on multiple sources might be expected to attract extensive coverage and widespread editorial comment in the British media, not to mention in parliament. Many newspapers have dutifully carried summaries of the investigation, but there has been no furor. Striking gaps in the coverage include the BBC, which only reported it, so far as I can see, as part of its Somali service. Channel 4, normally so swift to defend freedom of expression, apparently did not mention the story at all.
In the event, the embassy attack never took place, despite the advanced planning. “There was a discussion with the Brits about turning the other cheek or looking the other way when a team of guys went inside and did a rendition,” said a former senior US counter-intelligence official, who added that the British had refused to allow the operation to take place.
I can’t imagine WHY the Brits would refuse to have an operation like that go down right in the heart of Britain’s largest city. I mean, talk about bad optics when that hit the press.
Imagine how many tourists would go to Turkey if it was revealed that they sanctioned the whole Kashoggi thing . . .
But the British government did carry out its own less melodramatic, but more effective measure against Assange, removing him from the embassy on 11 April 2019 after a new Ecuador government had revoked his asylum. He remains in Belmarsh top security prison two-and-a-half years later while the US appeals a judicial decision not to extradite him to the US on the grounds that he would be a suicide risk.
If he were to be extradited, he would face 175 years in prison. It is important, however, to understand, that only five of these would be under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, while the other 170 potential years are under the Espionage Act of 1917, passed during the height of the patriotic war fever as the US entered the First World War.
Only a single minor charge against Assange relates to the WikiLeaks disclosure in 2010 of a trove of US diplomatic cables and army reports relating to the Iraq and Afghan wars. The other 17 charges are to do with labeling normal journalistic investigation as the equivalent of spying.
As much loathing as I have for the man for evading justice for his alleged sexual assault in Sweeden by simply going into hiding in essentially plain sight, even I agree that 170 years (life in prison, really!) is too much.
First off, this seems like a good argument for selectively delaying the statute of limitations of sexual assault cases under some circumstances. In this case, though everyone knew where the man could be found, he was unavailable for prosecution for reasons uncontrollable by either the victims or the authorities trying the case. As such, I don’t think it unreasonable to have a clause in law wherein the statute of limitations for the crime should be put on hold until such a day that it is at least feasible to try the case. Though the Assange situation is a one-off, consider cases where a person flees town (or even the country) in order to avoid prosecution. Given that a person can hop on a plane and be in a nation without an extradition treaty in under 24 hours, the laws of nations really should really take this into consideration when limitation timeframes are determined.
As for the Assange charges themselves, no, he should not be in prison for 170 years for espionage.
This is a hard thing to consider knowing that the data dumps did in fact put some lives in danger. However, unless there are details that we are not privy to, this does not sound like espionage. Though I touched on an instance of Assange seemingly trying to open up a backchannel with Sean Hannity in order to undermine the Democratic Party, political favouritism is hardly espionage. Treating it as such will only set a dangerous precedent for the future.
Imagine a 2ed Trump presidency (or worse!) with this precedent woven into the fabric of American law.
Pompeo’s determination to conflate journalistic inquiry with espionage has particular relevance in Britain, because the home secretary, Priti Patel, wants to do much the same thing. She proposes updating the Official Secrets Act so that journalists, whistle-blowers and leakers could face sentences of up to 14 years in prison. A consultative paper issued in May titled Legislation to Counter State Threats (Hostile State Activity) redefines espionage as “the covert process of obtaining sensitive confidential information that is not normally publicly available”.
The true reason the scoop about the CIA’s plot to kidnap or kill Assange has been largely ignored or downplayed is rather that he is unfairly shunned as a pariah by all political persuasions: left, right and centre.
Yeah . . . don’t do that Britan. You can do much worse than Brexit and Boris Johnson. If you thought Tony Blair was bad . . .
To give but two examples, the US government has gone on claiming that the disclosures by WikiLeaks in 2010 put the lives of US agents in danger. Yet the US Army admitted in a court hearing in 2013 that a team of 120 counter-intelligence officers had failed to find a single person in Iraq and Afghanistan who had died because of the disclosures by WikiLeaks. As regards the rape allegations in Sweden, many feel that these alone should deny Assange any claim to be a martyr in the cause of press freedom. Yet the Swedish prosecutor only carried out a “preliminary investigation” and no charges were brought.
Assange is a classic victim of “cancel culture”, so demonised that he can no longer get a hearing, even when a government plots to kidnap or murder him.
I was going to ignore the mild Assange pandering in the previous paragraph, as it was mild in comparison to other instances (not to mention that the overarching topic at hand is much more pertinent).
I was going to ignore it. But then the author turned into a rape apologist.
There was only a preliminary investigation and no charges were brought . . . no fucking kidding. There were no charges because he was not even in Sweeden at the time! He left the country and evaded the charges so as not to also deal with being potentially extradited to the United States.
One can certainly point the finger of blame at the United States for causing the whole mess in the first place. And assuming that there are no details of which we are unaware, he should not have to face a lifetime in prison in the US (or elsewhere). However, he is not a victim of cancel culture. HIS VICTIMS are victims of cancel culture, you deluded moron!
Assange should not be a martyr, PERIOD. For the simple reason that in the eyes of the ideologically focused (or just the idiotic), a martyr can do no wrong. One step above the superstar status of people like Elon Musk, the martyr has the benefit of having even more wiggle room when it comes to curating their own public persona. Though the masses often stop associating human traits (both positive and negative) to both superstars and martyrs, martyrs often are assumed as altruistic strictly on account of the principles n which they stand for.
I get it. There was a time back in 2016 wherein I just assumed that Jullian Assange would do what was best for the American democratic process. After all, the WikiLeaks stuff was certainly (for the most part, anyway) beneficial to the public good. However, like the human that he is, he soon proved that he did have a favourite pick to win. And also like the human that he is, he used his unique position in order to help boost his chosen political affiliation. And judging by the Hannity revelation of 2018, this behaviour is less an outlier than it is the norm.
Few flawed humans have the self-control to properly bear the title of martyr. Suffice to say, Jullian Assange is NOT one of them.
In reality, Khashoggi and Assange were pursued relentlessly by the state because they fulfilled the primary duty of journalists: finding out important information that the government would like to keep secret and disclosing it to the public.
As scathing as the last paragraph was, I can’t help but agree with this sentiment.
Allowing governing officials to dictate who and what entities are considered to be journalists is dangerous, but particularly so in the face of an ever-evolving media landscape. With many forms of what can be labelled as traditional journalism either stagnant or slowly dying due to changing media consumption habits, it’s risky to assign too much rigidity to the term.
First off, because fledgling traditional journalistic entities are going to be more vulnerable to burying inconvenient stories if pressured to do so. But also because the face of journalism is changing. Information sources (and platforms) are gradually fragmenting. Though the big powerhouses of cable and print news media still dominate the scene today, I suspect that these days are numbered. There is still much to sort out, but I’m almost certain that the media landscape will be very different some 20 or 30 years from now.
Journalism isn’t (or at least, shouldn’t) be about your employer or your job title. It should be about the information that you bring to the table. Be it in front of a TV studio broadcasting to millions, or sitting behind a laptop with a current readership in the tens, journalism comes in many forms.
Fuck Jullian Assange. Long live journalism.