What now for divisive Assange?
The 21st century media loves heroes and villains. Most of all, it loves those who bestride both categories. One man who qualifies as such is Julian Assange. The co-founder of WikiLeaks can be viewed as a champion of free speech, an exposer of state evils and misdeeds, or a narcissistic alleged rapist who has become a willing pawn of Russian intelligence. Partisans of either view rant against adherents of the other camp.
On Thursday, British police were invited into the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to arrest Assange, who had lived there having fled British justice in 2012 out of fear of being extradited to Sweden. Ecuador had lost patience with their guest. Opponents point out that Assange fled following a valid international arrest warrant instead of challenging it in the courts. Ardent supporters claim even the arrest last week was illegal. Among these was the celebrity actress Pamela Anderson, who moaned on Twitter: “How could you, Equador (sic)?” Assange has always courted celebrities, such as Anderson and Lady Gaga.
The next heated debate was over what should take priority. The US will be seeking extradition on the basis that Assange had assisted American whistleblower Chelsea Manning in her attempt to break a password to hack into Pentagon servers. The British authorities informed the US prior to the arrest but did not inform the Swedish authorities, who also have an interest. Many wondered why. The US will have to make the case for extradition. The Swedish authorities opened an investigation into Assange on various charges of rape and sexual assault, three out of four of which have expired due to the statute of limitations. The investigation was closed in 2017 but this could be reopened, as complainants have now requested.
What is more important, alleged rape or the charge of conspiring to hack into the Pentagon’s computers? Feminists rightly argue that, all too often, crimes against women come second to other considerations. From the outset, many Assange apologists, typically on the hard left, downplayed Assange’s alleged crime of rape. The former MP, George Galloway, claimed distastefully he was just guilty of “bad sexual etiquette.” Diane Abbott, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, found herself in a hailstorm of criticism after opposing extradition and not mentioning the rape charges: “We all know what this is about… about Wikileaks and all of that embarrassing information about the activities of the American military and security services.”
But this takes us to the heart of the wider issue. Is Assange a legitimate whistleblower working for a legitimate organization, WikiLeaks?
Assange claims to be a publisher and an advocate for the freedom of information. He has filled that role but, in more recent times, this claim has worn rather thin.
Whistleblowers have an extraordinary and crucial role in holding power — whether the state, military or business — to account. Frequently, states including the US have incentivized citizens to come forward to reveal abuses of power. As far back as 1777, the US Congress passed a law encouraging members of the military to report suspected cases of prisoner abuse.
Whistleblowing also has a historic tradition, with Benjamin Franklin among their ranks. Mark Felt exposed the huge corruption within the Nixon administration during the Watergate scandal. More recently, Edward Snowden revealed a massive illegal surveillance program and is still being sought by the US authorities.
But was it the public interest or a Russian interest that motivated Assange and WikiLeaks? Was there some point when Russia was able to exert influence or control over WikiLeaks? Did it morph into a willing agent of foreign interests?
The US intelligence agencies have agreed that Russia attempted to influence the outcome of the 2016 US elections. WikiLeaks published the emails of Hillary Clinton, which had been stolen from Democratic National Committee servers. What is not clear is how Assange received the emails, but interest surrounds the role of Guccifer 2.0, supposedly a Romanian hacker, who many believe was working for Russian intelligence. Yet, if handed a treasure trove of such email gold, which journalist or news outlet would not have published? Further investigation may be warranted, although the existing extradition request references only the attempted Pentagon hack.
Proponents point out WikiLeaks dumped huge databases of information. Extracted from this were many stories highlighting serious US abuses of power. Infamously, a video showed US helicopters bombing Iraqi civilians.
Assange claims to be a publisher and an advocate for the freedom of information. He has filled that role but, in more recent times, this claim has worn rather thin. The crimes of the Russian state against journalists did not seem to trouble him when he worked for the Kremlin’s propaganda channel Russia Today.
A lot of what was released was not clearly in the public interest. Did all the documents and cables pass a public benefit test? Many people’s lives were jeopardized by a failure to redact their identities responsibly. The Guardian newspaper and Assange parted ways because the Guardian (rightly) insisted on redacting the names of Afghans who informed on the Taliban.
The accusation of rape must be considered the most serious charge and given precedence. To think otherwise is to trivialize and gloss over an exceptionally serious crime. His role as a publisher of secret information has a more chequered record, much of it exposing wrongdoing. Punishing him for this could have massive repercussions for a free media, and empower those who see it as the enemy of the people.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech