Julian Assange: fighter for freedom or high tech terrorist?

Politics at the club, Newcastle Panthers, 4 April 2012

Good evening Newcastle.

Firstly, I’d like to thank the organisers of this important event for their hard work and for the invitation to speak tonight. Secondly, I’d like to thank each of you for being concerned and for taking the time to hear more about the plight of Julian Assange. And thirdly, I would like to thank WikiLeaks, its courageous sources and Julian Assange for risking it all to publish information that is clearly in the public interest.

I hope Julian will soon return home to the loving arms of his staunchest and most fearless ally, his mother Christine. And may I say how honoured I am to be in the company of such a distinguished panel.

So much has been written and said about Julian, both good and bad, that I thought it would be better for me simply to focus on areas that I believe require particular emphasis.

Allow me to begin by saying that in order to enhance our understanding of the modus operandi of WikiLeaks and/or Julian, it seems to me to be necessary to look at the organisation’s main objective, the theoretical framework and the raw ingredients that underpin both his thinking and the organisation itself. And I should emphasise that this is my take on the organisation, not any officially endorsed view.

The objective is reform

It seems clear to me that the primary objective – the central motivation of Julian and WikiLeaks – is reform. Pushing towards the way things should be. For example, a politician should behave in a way that is consistent with public morality or the common thread of decent behaviour. Julian himself said in 2009 that WikiLeaks chooses to spend its limited resources on the cases that are most likely to achieve just reform. Provided information has been withheld from the public and is of diplomatic, ethical and historical significance, he says, they will release it. They might engage in some harm minimisation, but WikiLeaks promises its sources the maximum impact.

The theoretical framework

Identifying and pursuing the objective of reform requires a theoretical framework. You also need to look at the mechanics: how do you achieve it? Reform doesn’t just occur, there’s usually a catalyst. You need to look at the people or institutions involved; you need to analyse reactions and anticipate responses.

In 2006 Julian wrote ‘State and Terrorist Conspiracies’, which he said was a discussion paper of what would happen when WikiLeaks really went into action. To my mind it provides essential insight into Wikileaks’ intellectually impressive theoretical framework.

Julian explains:

“…..Would it be the case that powerful organisations that were exposed would simply take everything off paper? That we would just incentivise them to take everything off paper so that we might have a win for a little while, for justice, but then ultimately the system would restructure itself such that we would not be able to continue having successes with that sort of approach.

And what I found was that that was very unlikely and that large centralised institutions are that way because they have developed their internal system which is able to come to central policy decisions and spread it within the network or within the institution and then have it implemented and to do that properly there needs to be rapid and accurate internal communication and that means having things on paper or having things on email.

Otherwise there exists Chinese whispers within the institution and the institution itself falls apart, it’s not able to carry out its policies.

So you can have small oral conspiracies for things that are not put down on paper but because they’re small then sort of by definition the amount of injustice that they can inflict is relatively low.

For wide-scale injustice you need systemisation of unjust policies and to systemitise unjust policies you have to have a paper-trail for unjust conduct or to cover up conduct that they have been engaged in that has been unjust.

On the one hand they can take everything off paper, almost all things off paper or some things off paper or lock things down in expensive security protocols and safes and encrypted transmissions, and as a result be very inefficient and hence contract their power and reduce their competitiveness, both at a commercial level and at an intergovernmental level, or they can be more open and simply do things that are less embarrassing, do things that don’t outrage people when they are exposed.

It’s quite a good choice. Of course, we are still a long way from that being enforced mandatory choice for everyone. That’s the way we are trying to push things and we are succeeding….”

Raw materials

Once the theoretical framework was established, they had to look at the raw material that could feed their reform agenda. That raw material is information.

For their theory to work they need information from inside sources because when information comes from the inside there are no gaps; you can’t deny it, you have to deal with it. When information doesn’t come from the inside you rely on inference and supposition from the outside to fill in the gaps, and then it’s easy for the power holder to deny and to ridicule.

But when so much information comes from the inside it’s diagnostic of the fundamental tension between the way an anonymous inhumane organisation operates, on the one hand, and on the other the way the human actors who make up those organisations feel and believe, particularly when they know they’re part of something that is doing the wrong thing.

Now you can force reform from both the inside and the outside. To do it from the outside you need to make people see what’s really happening, and the way you do that is to publish information. Julian and WikiLeaks know that: they know they can rely on common humanity; they know people will be outraged when they see the injustice and inequity and the fundamental evil in what is being done in their name.

By publishing information that shows what’s really happening they expose the actions of people in power and the results of existing power structures to the scrutiny of public opinion.

Allow me to illustrate.

In the notorious chat logs between Bradley Manning, the alleged WikiLeaks source, and Adrian Lamo, a few things seem to have been missed in mainstream reporting. Here are some relevant passages:

hypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time… say, 8-9 months… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?… things that would have an impact on 6.7 billion people say…a database of half a million events during the iraq war….or 260,000 state department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world, explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective?….crazy, almost criminal political backdealings… the non-PR-versions of world events and crises… its important that it gets out… i feel, for some bizarre reason….it might actually change something….

……i think the thing that got me the most… that made me rethink the world more than anything was watching 15 detainees taken by the Iraqi Federal Police… for printing “anti-Iraqi literature….when i found out that it was a benign political critique titled “Where did the money go?” and following the corruption trail within the PM’s cabinet… i immediately took that information and *ran* to the officer to explain what was going on… he didn’t want to hear any of it… he told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the FPs in finding *MORE* detainees…everything started slipping after that… i saw things differently….i had always questioned how things worked, and investigated to find the truth… but that was a point where i was a *part* of something… i was actively involved in something that i was completely against…

Perhaps the most telling evidence of “common humanity” in the chat logs is Bradley Manning’s reference to the fact that:

….we’re human… and we’re killing ourselves… and no-one seems to see that… and it bothers me… apathy is far worse than the active participation Elie Wiesel summed it up pretty well for me… though his story is much much more important that mine… I prefer a painful truth over any blissful fantasy….

Manning provided a link to a short video of Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. Many of you may know that Wiesel was also a holocaust survivor.

Something must have struck a chord with Manning as he saw Wiesel interviewed about the perils of indifference, the importance of memory, and the power of empathy. As Wiesel says, you have to unmask evil and understand that “silence is a concept that can be used well in art but not in life.”

With that moral underpinning why should the United States feel so threatened? When you look at their history and philosophy it’s clear that neither Julian nor WikiLeaks is anti-US. It’s not USLeaks, it’s WikiLeaks. Their objective, their theoretical framework and the raw materials they use apply to all countries and to all organisations that operate in this way. They disseminate information without editing, spinning, skewing, tilting and perverting it. Wikileaks’ motto is “we open governments”, not “we destroy governments”.

And for those who have trouble accepting that WikiLeaks is a media organisation, consider the principles of journalism outlined several years ago by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism: to have its first obligation to the truth; its first loyalty to citizens; its essence is a discipline of verification; its practitioners must maintain independence from those they cover; it must serve as an independent monitor of power; it must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise; it must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant; it must keep the news comprehensive and proportional, and its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience. Wikileaks can tick every box.

In any case, has the theoretical basis of Wikileaks worked? Undoubtedly!

Already US experts are calling for the classification system to be reviewed, and it is prompting a rethink of what is communicated within the US government and how it is communicated. But the instinctive reactions are vindictiveness and deterrence: lashing out at Julian and WikiLeaks, tracking down and punishing whistleblowers, and deterring copycat organisations and discouraging would-be whistleblowers. It’s a show of force to repress the human dimension. But laws that facilitate or permit or even legitimise wrongdoing don’t hide obvious truths and don’t deter people from acting decently: they can’t remove from individual human actors that innate sense of right and wrong that is common humanity.

Accurate historical record

Another critical aspect of WikiLeaks is its agenda to maintain an accurate public record. Julian has also expressed concerns about the need to preserve an accurate historical record. Preserving an historical record is even more fundamental than reform because without a true history our entire meaning is amenable to a complete re-write.

To adopt an apposite analogy from Donella Meadows, “A drug in an athlete’s bloodstream is not different from a lie or distortion in a politician’s mouth. Both the drug and the lie deceive onlookers. They both falsify the record, and if they persist, they render records meaningless. They invite retaliation and drag the contest down to the lowest level. Political foul play, like athletic foul play, places short-term, venal, selfish purposes above what is long-term, communal, and immeasurably precious. In athletics the squareness of the game is undermined. In politics it’s the public trust and the fragile, wonderful idea called democracy.”

History grounds us in thousands of years of experience of the consequences of bad behaviour and human stupidity, and history truly recorded makes that available for all to see. The positive side of history, by the way, is individual people: they’re the shining stars in a cesspit of historical human failure.

What comes next ultimately is our choice

Those features of Wikileaks bring me to the question, “what comes next?” The honest answer is that I don’t know. But relying on little more than intuition, we can make some educated guesses.

As we’re now seeing, the relentless campaign against Julian and Wikileaks by media and government will continue. They’re laying the ground work to minimise public outrage, both here and abroad, when moves are made to extradite Julian to the United States.

In Australia it’s obvious that the Australian Government has no intention of intervening in Julian’s case, and certainly not in the absence of overwhelming public outrage. The Gillard Government is content to leave Julian being pulled towards the American gallows, just as the Howard Government was with David Hicks.

Only days ago we learnt that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has delayed, until at least late May, the release, under a freedom of information request, of more Washington embassy cables about WikiLeaks, written up to the end of 2011. What’s the Government’s explanation for that delay?

Back in the United States, some years ago a decision was handed down in a case of United States v Rosen, in the US District Court for the East District of Virginia. I understand that was the first case in which a court found that citizens other than government employees may face charges for receiving and verbally disclosing secret information in violation of the Espionage Act.

If a similar interpretation of the Espionage Act is applied to Julian and Wikileaks then for the United States Government to prove its case under section 793(e) of the Espionage Act it has to establish that Julian or WikiLeaks communicated information relating to the national defense that they “had reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.”

And it seems to be enough if the United States can show that those consequences of the disclosure were “recklessly disregarded” rather than specifically intended.

Now come back to Australia and note the very recent use of the words “reckless, irresponsible and potentially dangerous” in a description of WikiLeaks and Julian by a senior Australian Attorney-General’s Department executive, coincidentally responsible for international crime and extradition matters. The use of that specific language suggests that there have been high level discussions between our government and the United States government about a possible prosecution under that section of the Espionage Act.

It doesn’t matter to our government – to Julian’s government, as an Australian citizen – that, as attorney Abbe Lowell said in the 2010 hearing before the Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives about the Espionage Act and the legal and constitutional issues raised by WikiLeaks:

“if the Espionage Act were used to bring charges against WikiLeaks or its founder, Julian Assange, this too would be unprecedented because it would be applying to a non-government official, who had no confidentiality agreement, who did not steal the information, who did not sell or pay for the information involved, who was quite out front and not secretive about what he was doing, who gave the United States notice and asked if the government wanted to make redactions to protect any information, and in a context that can be argued to be newsgathering and dissemination protection by the First Amendment..”

And it doesn’t seem to matter to our government that no-one’s pointed to any actual harm caused by the Wikileaks disclosures, as distinct from mortifying embarrassment and disturbing political ‘inconvenience”, of which there was plenty. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is on the record as having said:

“Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think – I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. Many governments – some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation.

So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another.

Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.

Well what is our government doing now? Why is our government standing by, in sychophantic obedience to our ‘oldest friend and closest ally’, while one of its citizens is hauled around the world, target Virginia, to face – at best – 10 years in some American gaol for doing something disobedient but inconsequential to the US, but of profound benefit to people the world over?

What comes next is ultimately our choice, and that means your choice too. If information is the currency of democracy then Julian Assange and his small team have made a significant deposit into the accounts of all global citizens, each and every one of us. It’s a debt we must all repay, even though they aren’t asking us to account or claiming any interest. If you value whatever freedoms we have, if you seek to preserve this ‘fragile democracy’ we all claim to cherish, then you must stand up, you must speak out, you must show your indignation that people who have put so much on the line to protect those things, should be vilified first, and then forsaken, by the very people we have chosen to represent us. All Australians must stand up and be heard in support of Julian and Wikileaks and the values they stand for.

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