No to extradition
Julian Assange’s arrest shows he is lined up for the same fate as Chelsea Manning, argues Paul Demarty
The arrest of Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange in London last week brings us, surely, into the next act of this long-running drama.
The genre, of course, is tragedy - the heroes of classical tragedy, whatever the forces arrayed against them, are undone necessarily by their own flaws, their indecision, hubris, moments of weakness. Assange seems an exemplary case - never more so than as he feebly resisted being dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy, bearded like an old testament prophet, with a selection of unsavoury fates awaiting him.
He faces, first of all, the firm hand of British ‘justice’, which looks dimly upon his decision to violate bail conditions seven years ago by seeking asylum in the embassy. There is also the small matter of the charges that resulted in those bail conditions - of rapes allegedly committed in Sweden. The Swedish prosecutors formally dropped the charges years ago, despairing of ever getting their hands on Assange, but may yet reopen the case.
More ominous for him is the obvious eagerness on the part of the American state core to gobble him up. There is enormous pressure on the UK government to extradite Assange to the US, where he is supposedly going to face charges of conspiring to hack sensitive data with Chelsea Manning, who suffered greatly for being Assange’s most spectacular source. She is now back in jail for contempt of court, having refused to testify before a grand jury - in secret - at the beginning of March.
The timing here seems a little too close for coincidence - a grand jury is opened up to rake over Wikileaks’ past activities in March; in April, Assange is turfed out of the Ecuadorian embassy. Ecuadorian president Lenin Moreno claims this is in response to Assange continuing to conduct his political activities, but, if that were so, then surely he would have been gone long ago. The man has found ways to keep busy, whether or not that includes compromising the embassy’s information security. It seems rather that Moreno has moved to break politically with his predecessor, Rafael Correa. The two were once politically close, and Moreno was Correa’s vice-president. Since succeeding to the top job, however, he has moved to the right, removing several pieces of social democratic legislation; doing this favour for the Americans looks very much part of the same picture. Correa is now an implacable foe.
Assange’s road to this predicament was a long one. His upbringing was peripatetic, and brought him ultimately into the burgeoning global subculture of hackers, where he was thoroughly inculturated into the libertarian suspicion of authority that more clearly characterises it than anything else. He might have merely become yet another greybeard working on cryptographic protocols, but for the fact that his interest in politics came to predominate. In 2006, he and others founded Wikileaks, which provided document dumps and other media that certain powerful sorts of people did not want made public.
Wikileaks was pretty low-profile for a while, until it began to receive materials from somebody with fairly impressive US military clearance. Its first major scoop was a gruesome video of a US army helicopter crew firing indiscriminately into a crowd of Iraqi civilians, in an incident that had been disgracefully hushed up by the Pentagon. There followed further revelations about the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and - finally - the mother lode. Hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables - communications between the state department and US embassies, which discussed in embarrassingly candid terms US policy in relation to host countries.
Assange recognised that this haul deserved better than merely being dumped out on an obscure website, and took the decision to cooperate with multiple mainstream news organisations, including The New York Times and The Guardian. Suddenly, this obscure, politically protean activist was an international celebrity. While he evaded the grip of his adversaries, however, his source - Manning - did not. A private first-class in the US Army, she was subjected to humiliating treatment and a show trial, and sent down for 35 years (commuted in effect to around seven, in one of Barack Obama’s last acts as president).
Meanwhile, Assange got caught in the Swedish rape allegations that led to his seeking asylum. His behaviour became more and more erratic. Just because you’re paranoid, the saying goes, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you; but it is just as true the other way round. His confinement for years in the embassy, utterly subject to the whims of diplomatic horse trading (and nobody must know better how precarious a position that is than the leaker of a huge stash of diplomatic cables) cannot have done much good to his state of mind either, particularly after Moreno succeeded Correa.
He seems to have taken Donald Trump’s isolationist posturing seriously enough to have acted as a friendly neutral towards his campaign in 2016, during which Wikileaks released the cache of internal emails of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) that exposed its corrupt bias towards the Clinton camp against the insurgent supporters of Bernie Sanders. Allegations of collusion with the Russian government swirl around Wikileaks, although the evidence is extremely thin.
In any case, he badly misjudged what Trump’s victory would mean for him. Trump was elected on the back of a wave of chauvinist agitation that in part fed on ‘traitor’ narratives. He immediately placed Mike Pompeo in charge of the CIA, who was already on record as demanding the execution of the later whistle-blower, Edward Snowden. Pompeo, of course, has since gone on to even bigger things at the state department.
Assange’s arrest, then, seems very much a matter of the Americans getting their act together finally. A couple of things lie behind this sudden urgency: the statute of limitations, as regards his collaboration with Manning, is about to run out, for a start. More seriously, there are the changes in government of the last few years. Though the Obama regime was notoriously ruthless in dealing with whistleblowers - Manning among them - his successor is openly vengeful, and surrounds himself with the sort of people who do not look kindly on civilian oversight, such as it is.
In Britain, the government keeps its cards close to its chest. More interesting are the divisions in the Labour Party over this question. For once, the leadership has taken a strong line. Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott have both demanded that the government rule out extradition to the United States on the basis of the transparently rigged revenge quest in train. Opposed to them are the likes of Stephen Kinnock and Stella Creasy, who demand that he be sent to Sweden to face charges. They face the rather embarrassing difficulty that there are not currently any charges outstanding against him, and demand that Swedish prosecutors file some. Won’t anyone rid me of this meddlesome hacker?
So far as Assange has a case to answer, of course, he should answer it - given that the Swedish government was already losing interest in him by 2013, it seems unlikely, but he may do. Yet he should not, as a result of being charged with - or even convicted of - rape, be subject to a serious risk of a manifestly unjust, deceitful and long-prepared police action on the part of the US state core; and we must insist to any naive followers of the Kinnockites that nothing else is currently on offer. Much is made of Moreno’s claim that Assange will not face the death penalty, as if that makes everything A-OK. The treatment of Manning ought to guide our assessment of Assange’s fate - except that, in this case, the president is likely to view him as a great opportunity to make even more of a Hottentot election out of 2020 than is already on the cards. No last-minute pardons or commutations are likely from Donald Trump.
Assange’s personal convictions are not particularly leftwing at all. He is part of the conspiratorial-libertarian milieu that lurches left and right with the seasons. Yet Wikileaks has been a real boon to anyone who cares about what US imperialism does to its luckless target populations, about how the great hive brain of the state department formulates its strategy, and about what the US really thinks about its allies - and, in the case of the DNC emails, how it conducts its internal affairs. The materials released continue to provide valuable context to any analysis of a fracturing world order. It is the principle that such things had better be transparent that is so offensive to the American state - and to creeps like Stephen Kinnock.