Grim fate awaits him
Julian Assange’s imminent extradition draws a line under the idea of the internet as an untameable new frontier, argues Paul Demarty
It seems that time is running out for Julian Assange.
His extradition was approved last year, and we suppose the formalities are being worked out as we speak. In the meantime, Assange is in solitary confinement in Belmarsh - a step down from his previous effective house arrest in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he was shielded by Pink Wave president Rafael Correa, but not by Correa’s successor, Lenin Moreno, who - despite his given name - represented the return of Ecuador to Washington-approved normalcy.
Assange is to be prosecuted under the US’s obscene Espionage Act. His crime: publishing secret materials embarrassing to the world hegemon. And embarrassing they were. Wikileaks, the organisation he set up, rocketed to fame by hosting the “collateral murder” tape - video footage of an American air crew deliberately massacring Baghdad civilians in 2007. Its biggest coup came a few years later, however, when it obtained a large tranche of American diplomatic cables, which shone a very useful light on the minutiae of US foreign policy, as it looked to its low-level agents in embassies around the world.
At that point, it should be said, Wikileaks came close to being a respected journalistic organisation. The cables were published in concert with major mainstream media organisations, including The Guardian and The New York Times. The cables (and the massacre footage) were leaked by Chelsea Manning, who spent years in jail for her troubles. It was clear that the mop-up operation would include Assange. The opportunity came when Assange was accused of rape by two Swedish women shortly after. Regardless of the strength of the allegations, it was immediately clear that they opened him up to further extradition to the US, and under those circumstances, he was granted asylum by Correa, but was unable in practice to leave London.
It seems we will never know if the Swedish charges amounted to anything; they have long been abandoned. But their nature served a useful purpose in any case: alienating those who might otherwise have defended him, particularly on the soft left. The Guardian and The New York Times turned on him, Later Wikileaks disclosures cemented liberal-left distaste for the man - particularly a set of leaks from the Democratic National Committee, which clearly confirmed the DNC’s bias towards Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primary cycle. Wikileaks thereby got sucked into increasingly absurd conspiracy-theorising about Russia’s interference in that election. It is necessary to state here that no proof has ever been provided to make this a more serious idea than the proposition that the September 11 attacks were staged by the US government to satisfy its alien overlords.
The allegations did a certain job, however, which was to ever further isolate Assange, who had, after all, masterminded some of the greatest journalistic achievements of this century. We recently lost a fine leftwing muckraker in Assange’s compatriot, John Pilger. Pilger, and others of his generation, at least had some access to the heights of the mainstream media. Slowly that access has died, as The Washington Post says, “in darkness”. It was left to oddballs like Assange - a techno-libertarian of the old school, and certainly a wilful eccentric - to try to do real journalism, and afflict the comfortable.
We use the words ‘real journalism’ advisedly, since in his long confinement it has become common for liberal ‘real journalists’ to deny the designation to him at all - he is just a spy, or a devious rightwing activist, or whatever. These ‘journalists’ seem entirely ignorant of the fact that one thing, and one thing only, is demanded of them: making known to broad masses things that would otherwise be obscure. Wikileaks has done nothing else - it has only done real journalism, and has not condescended to publish horoscopes, and film reviews, and overlong think-pieces about how listening to Taylor Swift for 18 hours straight is a radical act of self-care. Here they are, thousands of diplomatic cables, which have become indispensable material for writers of modern history. Right there in front of you, unexpurgated: the mechanics of how modern empire works. Assange had no duty, as a journalist, to be an Obama liberal; he had only the duty to thrust the truth rudely into a somnolent public square.
The fact that the assault on Assange and Wikileaks might in due course have chilling effects on the wider industry dawned slowly. But, in all fairness, it did, in the end. Mainstream journalists first of all reconciled themselves to Manning, knowing that they too depended on people having the gumption to alert the fourth estate, when they found themselves party to crimes. In due course, some even came to see that they too could find themselves being subjected to the Espionage Act, if the wrong sort of people were in charge - and for four years, from 2017 to 2021, very much the wrong sort of person was in charge (and may be again by this time next year). The push and pull has been remarkable; the victory of Trump, which was against the wishes of the American deep state, reconciled liberal journalists to ‘lawfare’ and retailing dubious stories sourced in the securocracy. Yet the very logic of the position that Trump heralded a slide into total democratic breakdown entailed that those agencies might soon be enemies again.
At this point, it looks like ‘too little, too late’. Before long, Assange will have his final date with British ‘justice’. The United States was initially denied the right to his extradition, with the judge citing Assange’s declining mental health and suicide risk. This was overturned on appeal. Assange then had his own appeal, which was, of course, rejected. The Australian government offered some very mild protests, which were angrily disputed by Anthony Blinken on the part of the US. By the middle of last year, the UK government had formally approved the extradition, and at this point it is presumably a matter of time.
He is still to face any charges in the States, where he is formally “innocent until proven guilty” - but let’s not kid ourselves. The American state is crazed for revenge. He has no greater expectation of a fair trial than Jamal Khashoggi would have if Mohammed bin Salman had opted to do things above board and snatch him home to Riyadh instead of having him chopped into dog-food in Istanbul. He may come to look back on his days in Belmarsh - banged up for 23 hours a day for years on end, while British judges worked up their cowardice - with nostalgia, given the sort of treatment he can expect at the hands of the Americans. Surely the only thing that can save him is the sort of solidarity movement that eventually saw the pardoning and release of Alfred Dreyfus in 1906 - that after a decade in prison hell.
What does this mean strategically for journalism in the west? Nothing new, of course: Assange had long been sold down the river by treasonous colleagues, many of whom are effectively intelligence agents anyway. Wikileaks stumbles on, but its moment is gone. We have, today, somewhat-Wikileaks-like organisations calling themselves ‘open source intelligence’ (or OSINT) outfits, most of which are low-effort state cut-outs. Wikileaks published damning evidence of US war crimes, and diplomatic skulduggery, among other things. The OSINT people rarely manage to do more than illustrate wild speculation with a couple of grainy satellite photos.
Assange considered himself a ‘cypherpunk’: a computer hacker who used his skills to disrupt the workings of the enemy - in his libertarian mind ‘big government’ and the biggest government of all, the US empire. He was a representative of a certain mindset that saw the internet as the ultimate solvent of state tyranny, exemplified by John Perry Barlow’s techno-utopian manifesto, ‘A declaration of the independence of cyberspace’, presenting the internet as a wholly untameable frontier. Assange, and people like him (something similar is true of the Bitcoin cult years later), believed that there were technical means to ensure this freedom: the decentralised architecture of the internet, for one; and intelligent use of strong encryption to boot.
Things were never as decentralised as they might have first appeared, however. As for the encryption, per a classic comic strip by Randall Munroe, the men in black do not need to decrypt your data. They just need to hit you with a wrench until you tell them your password.
The internet changed journalism all right. It destroyed the economic basis of legacy media, which had to regroup with a greater dependency on shallow opinion writing and cultural commentary, and a drastically reduced capacity for serious investigative work. What it did not do is liberate the public square from state interference.
The Wikileaks exposures achieved a great deal, greatly enriching the understanding of conscientious contemporary observers, and no doubt future historians, of some of the great events of its time. What it did not achieve was political transformation, and could never have done - at least, not without a viable political project that Assange, the libertarian pro-capitalist, would have hated.
The frontier is closed.