Public Forum at NSW Parliament House: Assange, WikiLeaks & the Law in a Post 9/11 World

I’d like to thank the NSW Greens for hosting this forum and may I say how honoured I am to be a part of such a distinguished panel.

The tragic events of September 11 created an atmosphere that our Government, and the United States Government it followed, could do no wrong in their response. One courageous voice of reason following September 11 came from Arundhati Roy. She immediately saw what was coming and wrote a lengthy article in September 2001, challenging the instinct for retribution.

But it was too late.

Vengeance and fear and self-interested opportunism spread like weaponised anthrax through the blood and organs of Western liberal democracies.  Now, more than a decade later, what remains of them is little more than a shell.

Too many of us had – and sadly, too many still have – blind faith that our political institutions would act in our best interests, so we were prepared to permit intrusions upon our civil liberties, justice and freedom of speech. We gullibly swallowed the lies and half-truths spouted by our politicians and officialdom which were reliably parroted in mainstream media.

On average a new anti-terror statute was passed every 6.7 weeks during the post 9/11 life of the Howard Government. Experts say that represents a higher level of legislative output than that of nations facing much greater threats from terrorism.

Our capitulation to fear, to the ‘be alert, but not alarmed’ phenomenon, provided a fertile field for our government to enhance and expand the use of state power.

All citizens became potential suspects and victims, with laws restricting freedom of speech through sedition offences; detention and questioning for up to a week by ASIO of citizens not suspected of any crime;  the banning of organisations by executive decision; control orders enabling house arrest for up to a year, detention without charge or trial for up to 14 days and warrantless searches of private property by police officers; warrants able to be issued against family members, journalists, children under 18 and innocent bystanders; and more recently powers to carry out surveillance offshore in relation to Australia’s economic interests, and to spy on people and organisations overseas, all with a thirst for data retention.

It’s no quantum leap to look towards the future and see how these instruments of control have the capacity to be misused and abused, particularly where Australia is the only democratic nation in the world without a national human rights law or bill of rights.

Governments and security apparatuses -perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not- shepherded a feeding frenzy of suspicion by individuals towards one another, towards minority groups, towards people of different ethnic backgrounds and religions in the name of national security.  While we were busy parting the curtains and holding a prying eye on our suspicious looking neighbour, some of the real criminals and perpetrators of violence were slipping out the back door, dressed in their business suits, ready to commit their own “officially sanctioned” crimes. It’s crimes of that sort which have been revealed by WikiLeaks, thanks to its sources.

For far too long, particularly now that we have the means of gathering and disseminating information almost immediately, there has been far too little awareness, discussion or accountability. And it was the focus on informing quickly rather than on informing well that prepared the ground for WikiLeaks.

A global political and economic landscape with the powerful and the strong seeking to eliminate government as a buffer between the powerful and the weak, and many governments like our own fawning to superpowers, was the perfect climate in which Julian Assange and WikiLeaks could flourish. The search for truth by people everywhere created their market. And learning the truth created the push for political reform for the oppressed, the deceived, the disenfranchised and the marginalised.

The late Donella Meadows, a famous systems theorist, captured the landscape this way:

…If you see behaviour that persists over time, there is likely a mechanism creating that consistent behaviour (ie feedback loop)…Using accumulated wealth, privilege, special access, or inside information to create more wealth, privilege, special access or inside information are examples of the archetype called “success to the successful”.  This system trap is found wherever the winners of a competition receive as part of the reward, the means to compete even more efficiently in the future (reinforcing feedback loop).  Everything the winner wins is extracted from the loser.

 Julian Assange made similar points at a conference in Malaysia in 2009.

Looking at just a few of the documents released by WikiLeaks shows “success to the successful” at play. There are documents that reveal threats to nations who oppose Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) crops, with military-style trade wars; the Ministry of Defence telling the US that the UK had ‘put measures in place’ to protect American interests during the Chilcot inquiry; troops being sent in to protect New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra’s lucrative United Nations contract to supply Iraq. And of course, there are the many documents revealing endemic corruption in Afghanistan, India, Croatia, Kenya, Morocco, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Uganda, Saudi Arabia and so on.

Other WikiLeaks documents include or address kill and capture lists; assassination squads; US soldiers handcuffing and executing children as young as five months of age, and ordering an air strike aimed at covering up their crime;  “hundreds” of former employees of Blackwater, barred from Iraq over a deadly 2007 shooting, later working with other firms guarding US diplomats there; and the Australian Government, to avoid a stoush with US and Singapore, secretly winding back a critical environmental protection for the Great Barrier Reef against shipping accidents.

Fortunately all systems, whether economic or political, contain within them balancing loops that ultimately constrain them. The work of WikiLeaks represents a critical balancing feedback loop because it gives the public high quality information on matters of public interest that has the capacity to generate political reform. That’s probably what most scares the successful; it certainly helps to explain the efforts to purge it from the system.

The purging process has been relentless.

For WikiLeaks the organisation: financial blockades by Paypal, Mastercard and Visa. Apple removing its application from its Apps store. Swiss bank freezing assets. Amazon severing its ties. From government, a 32 page Pentagon report outlining recommendations to damage or destroy WikiLeaks and deter others. From the private sector, Palantir Technologies suggesting discrediting WikiLeaks by spreading disinformation and developing a media campaign to push the radical and reckless nature of WikiLeaks activities.

For Assange the person: throw a Red Interpol notice on a person not charged with any crime in any country and combine it with a secret grand jury and an espionage investigation of “unprecedented scale and nature”; ensure that no government will provide an assurance against onward extradition to the United States; make sure no official categorises him as an online publisher and journalist; cajole his own country into sitting on its diplomatic hands; subject his alleged source to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment; intimidate lawyers and associates at airports and at home; introduce laws which attempt to cast a net over his operations, and even threaten to storm an embassy in flagrant disregard for the Vienna Convention. It’s easy to get a sense of the desired objectives and the reasons for the methods.

As some say, the elephant has taken a run up to squash an ant.

Still, Government representatives try earnestly to sound convincing when they tell us this case is not political.

Julian Assange, like Manning, deserves equal treatment before the law. The presumption of innocence has long been lost through incessant media commentary both here and abroad, and it doesn’t help when our Prime Minister peremptorily declares the actions of Julian Assange to be illegal or when the President of the United States declares that Bradley Manning had broken the law. You’ll still note that there’s no evidence linking the leaks to anyone’s death or harm, or of any specific charge against Assange.

US national security officials allege Bradley Manning aided Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leaking documents to WikiLeaks. Prosecutors allude to evidence including an AQAP magazine and a video featuring an English-language spokesman for the group. An issue of AQAP’s “Inspire” magazine published in late 2010 quoted Assange.

One can only assume that the video in which they refer is that titled “A Message to the Members of the Media” by the late US born Sheikh Anwar Al-Awlaki (killed by a US drone strike in Yemen along with his teenage son) which includes this passage in its narrative:

“…America struggles to block a website like WikiLeaks for merely quoting the truth about some events of the US war in Iraq and dialogues between American politicians and their lackeys around the world..And today, the owner of WikiLeaks has been accused of the same [immoral crimes], to distract and swerve him from his work of leaking the inner secrets of the rotten White House…”

Julian Assange was quoted in the “Inspire” magazine but so was Anti-War Campaigner Richard Boyd Barrett.  A later edition of “Inspire” included quotes from respected journalists Robert Fisk and Michael Hastings, from whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and from Joe Biden, Vice President of the United States.

Of course Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is active in Yemen.  You’ll recall that WikiLeaks released cables showing that the Yemeni government covered up US drone strikes against Al-Qaeda, claiming the bombs were its own. Only a week ago 13 civilians were killed by drone strikes in a country that has dire water shortages, an impending famine and is the poorest Arab nation in the world.

I’ve written elsewhere on the various indicators that Assange’s extradition to Sweden for questioning obviously is the first step in extraditing him to the United States. Everything points that way. But perhaps what’s most telling is that every country in the chain has refused to give a diplomatic assurance that Assange will not be extradited to the United States. They wouldn’t give that assurance to Assange and they wouldn’t give it to Ecuador. If there was no intention to extradite him to the United States why wouldn’t the assurances readily have been given.

What faces Assange if he is extradited to the United States is, at the very least, inhumane treatment of the kind presently being doled out to Bradley Manning. It’s abundantly clear that the purpose of incarcerating and mistreating these people is not just personal punishment but demonstration by example of what happens to any person who dares to cross the powers that be. In jurisprudential jargon, it’s the twin purposes of punishment and deterrence.

I’ve also voiced my criticism of the stance taken by the Australian Government since Assange surrendered himself in England. Not only has our government done nothing to protect him, it’s done nothing even to assist him. Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s assurances otherwise are contradicted by the assistance offered to the Australian lawyer recently imprisoned in Libya and more recently, to Austin Mackell an independent journalist detained in Egypt. Bob Carr’s assurances really become incredible when you look at the assistance offered to an Australian arms dealer in Iraq, Bradley John Thompson.

I haven’t spoken with or met Julian Assange but I certainly agree with AC Grayling that conformist societies that frown on individuality are not merely repressive and reactionary, but stagnant, and that we must all be hospitable to eccentricity, innovation, experimentation and the abandonment of traditions that have outlived their usefulness and become a barrier to progress.

Grayling’s also right to say: “Consider what is required for people to be able to claim other liberties, or defend them when they are attacked. Consider what is required for a democratic process, which demands the statement and testing of policy proposals and party platforms, and the questioning of governments.  Consider what is required for due process at law, in which people can defend themselves against accusation, accuse wrongdoers who have harmed them, collect and examine evidence, make a case or refute one.  Consider what is required for genuine education and research, enquiry, debate, exchange of information, challenges to falsehood, proposal and examination of opinion.  Consider what is required for a free press, which although it always abuses its freedoms in the hunt for profit, is necessary with all its warts as one of the two essential states of a free society (the other being the independent judiciary).”

WikiLeaks and Julian Assange came along at a time of crisis in truth in our political and economic systems. Or perhaps, more accurately, they came along when finally it became possible to expose the lack of truth in our political and economic systems.  WikiLeaks was there to receive that kind of information – information of critical importance to every citizen of the world – and it was prepared to assess, edit and publish that information to enable global citizens to assess the actions of corrupt governments and corporations. Often for the first time, the glaring light of truth burned on what was really happening in places near and far, on what people in a multitude of positions and circumstances were doing to others, and on political and financial arrangements involving corruption, duplicity and inhumanity. Corporate mainstream media organisations haven’t drilled down in these areas, and they won’t.  WikiLeaks will.  But if it is to be able to do so we have to do something now to protect this little green shoot of honesty from being trampled by the hobnailed boots of opportunism and expediency.  We have to stand up to protect WikiLeaks and to protect Julian Assange.

Thank you

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