Victim of vengeful US mafia
Julian Assange has been patiently, unrelentingly pursued. Mike Macnair highlights the complicity of the UK state and courts and the failure of the left
On December 10 the divisional court of the queen’s bench division of the high court ruled that Julian Assange can, after all, be extradited. The judges reversed the decision made by district judge Vanessa Baraitser in the Westminster magistrates’ court on January 4 2021 that extradition was barred, because Assange’s “physical or mental condition … is such that it would be unjust or oppressive to extradite him”: in particular, having regard to conditions in the USA’s remand prisons, Assange was at risk of suicide. This was overruled on the ground that the USA had (after the hearing before the district judge) offered diplomatic assurances as to Assange’s treatment on remand.1
This is not quite the end of the story. An appeal to the UK supreme court is technically possible, though probably unlikely. In addition, representations are being made to Priti Patel that she should exercise her discretion as home secretary to refuse to extradite. Again, these are unlikely to work - though it may be significant that a public call for the Australian government to act comes from the country’s deputy prime minister, a Liberal (in English terms, Conservative) MP.2
Even if the saga is not quite over, it is worth briefly recapitulating what has happened, with a view to assessing its lessons for the left. And we have to begin with Wikileaks and what it has exposed: because this lies behind the USA’s patient, long-term, unrelenting pursuit of revenge on Julian Assange, the UK government’s and courts’ complicity in this pursuit, and the willingness of elements of the left to act as ‘useful idiots’ at a certain stage of the story.
Wikileaks was set up in 2006 to use the ‘Wiki’ multi-editor technology to publish leaks of government secrets of various sorts. What these leaks have produced is primarily information which shows that US federal agencies under the imperial presidency routinely use official secrecy as a cover for perfectly ordinary crimes (murder, burglary, perverting the course of justice and so on) under claimed statutory authority, which cannot be tested in court because of the clandestine nature of the operations; and that the US administrations routinely lie to supposed allies in diplomatic communications, and to the media in both on- and off-record briefings.
It is important to grasp that, in spite of interesting details, the basic point is not new: it goes back to the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and the (partially linked) Watergate scandal; and, indeed, to the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Indeed, CM Kornbluth’s 1953 novel, The Syndic, depicts the US government as a totalitarian terrorist group based in Iceland, which opposes the civilised rule of the ‘Syndic’ (the Mafia) in the eastern half of what was formerly the USA: the book thus provides a mere hint of contemporary perceptions of the nature of US government secret operations. Pushing further back, British government crimes under cover of secrecy, lies and news management through ‘reporters’ using ‘secret service’ money, go back at least to the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14).
Kornbluth’s intuition that the state was much the same thing as a protection racket, and not necessarily more benign than one, turns out to have real explanatory value. At least as far as the US is concerned, the mafia don’s need to take revenge on those who diss him, in order to retain ‘respect’, is very much present in policy-making and can override rational decision-making: the clearest case is the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The novelty of Wikileaks lay in a combination of a reality - that web publication allowed very rapid and widespread dissemination of information - and a claim which was quickly disproved - that states had no effective defence against web leaks. Assange’s politics are essentially market-libertarian,3 and Wikileaks as a project was a part of the grand delusion of the 1990s-2000s that the internet would directly enable overcoming the nation-state in favour of some sort of market-libertarian order. But it turns out that Wikileaks itself is equally vulnerable to allegations of ‘spin’; and that mainstream advertising-funded news media (controlled by capital, and in the UK by the state through the DSMA notice system4) still dominates the political agenda.
Moreover, web ‘anonymity’ is by no means the same thing as effective clandestinity: the web is a highly capitalised apparatus, controlled in the end by the US state.5 Web ‘anonymity’ is merely an appearance, which is protected by some interests of states and political parties (disinformation and trolling) and of business (secret financial transactions), but which is subordinate to fundamental state interests - as became clear in the cases of Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, as much as in the US state’s insistence on backdoors into encryption.6
In spite of the delusive quality of the politics of the Wikileaks project, the actual disclosures involve an interest which Marxists happen to share with libertarians. Regimes of official secrecy and lying make public information the private property of the individual state bureaucrats whose secrecy is protected.
The point is not merely that the regime of secrets and lies provides cover for very extensive criminal conduct of public officials, corruption and cronyism. It can be seen also in the economies of the former ‘socialist’ countries: the right of the bureaucracy to secrets and hence to lies produces pathetic decision-making. In turn this, and all the lies of ‘official optimism’, produce the result that the bureaucratic elite itself restored capitalism, and no-one was willing or able to defend the real limited gains of the working class.
So Marxists need to campaign against official secrecy - but, unlike libertarians, also against commercial secrecy and other forms of private property in information.
The revenge of the US Fed-Gov extortion gang on Julian Assange has been a long drawn out process. The US launched a criminal investigation into Wikileaks in 2010 and obtained from a grand jury a sealed indictment. Meanwhile, Assange was charged in Sweden with rape and sexual assault. Quite irrespective of the genuineness of the complaints, it is in the highest degree unlikely - given the general treatment of rape and sexual assault charges involving adult alleged victims at present - that Assange would have been charged without the ulterior motive of the US government’s campaign against Wikileaks. The point of the charges was to pin him down in a particular place - Sweden or the UK - until the USA was ready either to assassinate him, as some political actors have argued should be done,7 or to pursue extradition. Assange was able to delay the proceedings with appeals, and then for a period of time to take refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
The whole process has been characterised by the unwillingness of the English courts to consider at all seriously the possibility that the proceedings against Assange may have been brought by Sweden in US interests, and then by the US in bad faith for purposes of revenge for the embarrassment of the US government by the leaks. This in spite of really quite substantial circumstantial evidence in the form of published statements by US state actors in favour of such a view. At first instance, the presumption of ‘good faith’ of the European arrest warrant issued by the Swedish prosecutor, and of US extradition demand, is taken to cast a burden of proof on Assange, which he cannot discharge. In the appeal courts the issue is simply ruled out.
On the other side, there is quite significant judicial ‘leniency’ to the prosecutors. Lord Mance’s powerful dissent on the European arrest warrant issue in the supreme court in 2012 showed that the government was pressed in parliament on the precise issue of who could issue these warrants and represented to MPs that it was courts as such, while the court relied on points of law not fully argued in court.8 In the latest decision in the divisional court, the USA is allowed to succeed on the basis of fresh evidence, which the US could, with reasonable diligence, have had available at the first hearing.
What should we learn? The first and most fundamental point is that courts are not trustworthy to protect liberty or democracy, where state security interests are at stake. There are fundamental reasons why this should be the case. A court is different from a voluntary arbitration, solely in that the court has available to it the coercive power either of the ‘community’ (as in early medieval courts, whose decisions were enforced, if at all, by the collective action of the more important locals) or - in the Roman or Chinese empires, and in late medieval and modern societies - of the state. So it is a fundamental interest of courts as courts that the state should remain the dominant coercive power in society. Courts, therefore, cannot be expected to decide in favour of defendants where prosecutors argue that deciding in favour of the defendant will undermine state security (or where they are lobbied to the same effect behind closed doors).
The second point is that we should no longer think of the UK as a fully-independent sovereign state. It is a protectorate of the USA (as Libya showed, the UK can no longer actually carry on serious military operations without US military support) and, as such, the courts have to act not only in UK state interests, but also in US state interests: any threat to US state security is ipso facto a threat to UK state security. This dependence is exacerbated by Brexit (though not much, given the relative puniness of recent European military capabilities).
Thirdly, a significant part of the left allowed themselves to be drawn in 2010-12 into the role of ‘useful idiots’ for the US’s revenge project against Assange, who was urged, on feminist grounds, to give himself up and go to Sweden. Not surprising from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (better: Atlanticists for Workers’ Liberalism), who are consistent opponents of any opposition to US imperialism, but wider layers were moved by the ‘intersectional’ argument. It is now pretty clear that the rape allegations against Assange were dropped when they had served their purpose of effectively immobilising him in London. The ‘feminist’ claims had as much real value as the claims that the US war in Afghanistan was conducted for the benefit of Afghan women - who have been duly abandoned as soon as it no longer suited US interests.
Finally, and back to the beginning. The Wikileaks project has faded into the background, if episodically resurfacing. The defence of Julian Assange has been limited and primarily a matter of legal manoeuvres and celebrity support. What we have not got is anything like International Red Aid - a standing organisation for the defence of class-war prisoners. Hence, while the state is patient and persistent in pursuing its victims - in Assange’s case, now for more than 11 years - the left is incapable of the same degree of sustained defence work.9
Behind this failure is the choice of the left, since the 1960s, to replace ‘educate, agitate, organise’ with ‘agitate, agitate, agitate’: and, going along with that choice, the failure to build an actual anti-constitutional party organisation which could tie together the different threads of the movement, and combat both the state’s disinformation operations and its persistent malevolence.
 EWHC 3313 (Admin). There is more detail in the Westminster Magistrates’ Court decision at: www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/USA-v-Assange-judgment-040121.pdf.↩︎
‘Liberal MPs support calls for Australian government to seek Julian Assange’s return’ The Guardian December 14.↩︎
There is a useful discussion at: thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/11/08/julian-assange-cyber-libertarian-or-cyber-anarchist/ (2011).↩︎
Try going to: www.presstv.com/ and see what you get.↩︎
Encryption: see, for example: www.justice.gov/opa/pr/international-statement-end-end-encryption-and-public-safety (Oct 11 2020).↩︎
 UKSC 22, Lord Mance at paras -; on the second point, see the Note at the end of the decision rejecting Assange’s counsel’s objection to the majority’s reliance on state practice.↩︎
See, for example: johnriddell.com/2021/07/29/international-red-aid-1922-1937.↩︎