WikiLeaks: Why You Should Worry

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

I’ve spent the better part of this week researching the WikiLeaks affair, particularly as it relates to the publication of messages that put the State Department in an embarrassing light.

My instinct told me this is important to the future of our country – more important than any of the issues currently pending in Congress. But before writing about it, I needed facts to back up my words. A responsible investigative reporter looks for more than one source for every assertion in an article. I have what I need now. I’ll link to only one source for each statement, but if you want to challenge me to produce more, just get in touch.[**]. You know what to do to make that address work, I’m sure.

You should worry about the WikiLeaks affair because

  • Without a public outcry, the US Administration will let nothing stop if from getting its hands on Julian Assange, the public face of WikiLeaks. It has already engaged in intimidation of major US corporations and foreign nations as part of its effort. It is implicated in charges against Assange totally unrelated to the leaks, but more likely to attract the attention of a scandal-loving public, and set up a smokescreen behind which the government can do as it pleases.
  • The Department of Justice is desperate to find a law under which to prosecute Assange. The Espionage Act of 1917 seems an unlikely vehicle, so Justice (do you see the quotation marks around that word?) has turned to conspiracy as the crime under which to launch its prosecution. At this point, though, there is no evidence of conspiracy.
  • To make up for that deficiency, the government has the alleged leaker of the State Department cables that have so enraged officials drugged and in solitary confinement – a recognized form of torture – hoping he will break down and implicate Assange.
  • If the US succeeds in imprisoning Assange and shutting down Wikileaks, that will be the end of independent investigative journalism. Since there is virtually no mass media investigative journalism anymore, that will mean that you and I and the rest of the country will have no idea what the government is really up to. And that will be the end of what’s left of our democracy. Even a democratic republic depends on an informed populace.

What evidence do I have to back up these assertions? Here I will give you the facts, with plenty of links you can follow to decide their validity for yourself.

Attempted intimidation: MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal would never have violated contracts with their customers without outside pressure. Osama Bedier, a PayPal vice president, answered a reporter’s question about why the company blocked payments to WikiLeaks and froze its account with this:

We have an acceptable use policy and their job is make sure that our customers are protected, making sure that we comply with regulations around the world and making sure that we protect our brand.”

He added that PayPal’s decision was influenced by the fact that the State Department deemed WikiLeaks illegal in a letter sent on November 27th. It would be reasonable to infer from this that State was telling companies to help shut down the Internet organization. That’s how “BBC World” reported it the next day. Soon Bedier said he was referring to a letter State sent to WikiLeaks. Video of Bedier’s initial statement and the full text of the State Department letter, which was released to the international press, are here.

The scandal/smokescreen: Not coincidentally, Assange has been charged in Sweden with impropriety in encounters with two women in August. Their names are a matter of public record, but if you want to know them, you’ll have to look here. I’m not going to muddy up the waters by naming two women who claim to have been mistreated by a man, no matter how thin the evidence is. The Public Prosecutor’s office leaked to the press in August that it was seeking to arrest Assange, then the same day announced it was dropping the charges for lack of evidence.

The women who complained knew each other. One was the organizer of a symposium to which Assange had been invited to speak. His theme, ironically, was the first victim of war is truth.” Although they had never met, through e-mail correspondence she offered him the use of her apartment, saying she’d be away until the day of the conference. Then she came home a day early. She is reported to have told police later that the two talked a bit and decided he could stay on. That night, the incident occurred.

The next night, the woman threw a party for Assange. A few hours later, she tweeted, ‘Sitting outside … nearly freezing, with the world’s coolest people. It’s pretty amazing!’ She has since deleted the tweet, but it’s here, on a cached page.

If you follow any of these links, you’ll get the whole story, including information about Assange’s encounter with the second woman. The only other things you need to know are that

  • she is an expert on sexual harassment and the male “master suppression techniques”; and

In November, around the time WikiLeaks announced it was going to post a quarter of a million State Department communications, dating back to 1966, a Swedish prosecutor – not the one who dropped the charges in August – announced that Assange was to be arrested on charges of sexual misconduct. Assange was now in England. On December 7, Assange turned himself in to British authorities and was held in a 19th century prison without bail. Sweden sought to extradite him so that he could be tried there. Assange, fearing (with good reason) that Sweden would turn him over to the US, is fighting extradition.

Most remarkably, Sweden had issued an Interpol red alert for Assange’s arrest, something they’ve done only one other time this year, in the case of a man wanted for multiple sexual assaults against children.

At present Assange is out on bail, a number of celebrities – the documentarian Michael Moore and the author Haneif Kursehi among them, having posted the equivalent of about $380,000 on his behalf. He’s under house arrest at the estate of the founder of the Journalists’ Club, with a curfew, orders to report to the police daily, and a tracking device he must wear. Actually, the court may have done Assange a favor, protecting him from kidnapping or worse on the streets of London.

The theat to investigative journalism: It’s no secret that the US wants to get its hands on Assange to deter others from issuing similar leaks. The US Constitution prevents the government from warning people in advance not to publish things it doesn’t want published. Nor can it punish a journalist or news organization for what it publishes, as long as they didn’t participate in the theft of the information

The government’s best hope for a successful prosecution will come if they can get to Bradley Manning, the 22-year-old private accused of downloading the documents and turning them over to Assange. Manning has been held in solitary confinement, first in Kuwait for two months and now in the Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia for five months. His confinement qualifies as torture in most of the civilized world: 23 hours daily in his cell, forbidden even to exercise except for the one hour a day he is taken out to a cage-like structure where he can breathe fresh air. He is denied sheets and pillows, although he has never been on suicide watch. Even when he’s out in the cage, he is not allowed any news from the outside world. Thus, he doesn’t know that there are people aware of his situation and concerned about his well being. He can’t know that Keith Olbermann described his plight on a recent MSNBC newscast, let alone that on that show a former FBI agent with more than 30 years’ experience said she has never heard of the military keeping someone in solitary who hadn’t been convicted of a crime.

Manning’s captors are giving him antidepressants to prevent psychological damage, but that’s not likely to be enough. In a March 2009 New Yorker article entitled “Is Long-Term Solitary Confinement Torture?,” the Boston surgeon and medical journalist Atul Gawande answered in the affirmative, writing, “All human beings experience isolation as torture.” Gawande tells of psychological and physical brain damage that can occur after as little as one week in solitary. One year later, an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law says that “solitary confinement is recognized as difficult to withstand; indeed, psychological stressors such as isolation can be as clinically distressing as physical torture.”

Why would the Administration allow this 22-year-old soldier to be tortured, if not to break him, if not to coerce him into saying, whatever the truth of the matter, that Assange encouraged and helped him, in order to get at the stolen documents and post them on WikiLeaks. The Supreme Court ruled, in the case of the Pentagon Papers, that the New York Times was blameless in publishing them because the paper simply received the documents from Daniel Ellsberg, who never denied having stolen them.

If Assange was tried and convicted of conspiracy in relation to the documents’ publication, that would criminalize every investigative journalistic activity, say 20 members of the Columbia University School of Journalism. Not all of the signers agree that Assange did a good thing in publishing the papers. But they all know this: It is an investigative journalist’s job to find out things the government doesn’t want the public to know. They do it by encouraging, even cajoling, people to tell them their secrets.

This is an excerpt from the Columbia letter:

Any prosecution of Wikileaks’ staff for receiving, possessing or publishing classified materials will set a dangerous precedent for reporters in any publication or medium, potentially chilling investigative journalism and other First Amendment-protected activity.

As a historical matter, government overreaction to publication of leaked material in the press has always been more damaging to American democracy than the leaks themselves.

The U.S. and the First Amendment continue to set a world standard for freedom of the press, encouraging journalists in many nations to take significant risks on behalf of transparency. Prosecution in the Wikileaks case would greatly damage American standing in free-press debates worldwide and would dishearten those journalists looking to this nation for inspiration.

Why you should worry: If government, any government, can operate in the dark, it will do things in its own interests, and not necessarily in the interests of the citizens it’s supposed to serve. That’s why.
More about WikiLeaks: A wiki is a website designed to be created and edited collaboratively. Most commonly, the underlying technology is known as wiki software, a wiki engine, or wiki application.

The WikiLeaks web site is based in Switzerland. There are, at present, more than 2,000 web sites mirror WikiLeaks – that is, they are identical to the main site. If WikiLeaks gets kicked off its Swiss host, as it was in America, 2,000 individuals stand ready to put it back online.

WikiLeaks is a model 21st century organization. It has no headquarters, no main office. Its workers are spread throughout the world. It is located nowhere, and everywhere.

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2 Responses to “WikiLeaks: Why You Should Worry”

  1. Dear Miryam,

    It seems like you are interested in finding out the “real truth” behind the Julian Assange’s sex accusations. In your article their are a number of factual errors and lots “of made up facts” about this story. I am not suggesting that you are making them up, you are just writing about them.

    I’ve been following the story since it broke. To me the story is easy to understand if you look at all available facts with an open mind before you try to answer the question about guilt or innocence. Most people that look into this story has a pre-conceived idea about what it is about that makes it difficult to understand the real story.

    I’ve seen the same thing one time earlier in my life. And it was when our prime minister Olof Palme was murdered.

    If you are interested I can supply you with the facts so you can make up your own mind.

    Just contact me and I will help you,

    Göran Rudling

  2. Dear Göran,
    While I believe that everyone accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty, and that that principle applies to people accused of sexual misconduct as well as other crimes, I’m interested in knowing what you want to tell me. Therefore, I’ve sent an email to the address you gave on your comment. If it works, you should hear from me soon. If not, you can write to me at TB40 at mwilliamson dot com. I’ll be glad to hear from you.

    I must say, though, that my main concern is what effect this event will have on press freedom in the U.S., where powerful forces are trying to silence anyone who presents the government in less than a favorable light.

    Here in the States, our democracy is in a very fragile state. If anything can save it, it will require openness and freedom to dissent. WikiLeaks is the embodiment of openness and dissent. No matter what Julian Assange did, WikiLeaks must not be destroyed.

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