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Fintan O’Toole: Assange persecution is to scare off more inquiries into US secrets

Charging journalists with spying is a favourite trick of authoritarian regimes

You don't have to like or admire Julian Assange to be shocked by last week's ruling by the high court in London that his extradition to the United States can go ahead.

This is, admittedly, just as well. Assange’s personal behaviour, especially towards women, is, to put it mildly, unappealing. And in recent years, he has allowed his WikiLeaks platform to service Vladimir Putin’s assaults on democracy.

The Mueller investigation in the US uncovered very extensive contacts between Assange and Donald Trump's self-declared master of dirty tricks, Roger Stone. Assange published the huge cache of emails stolen by Russian intelligence from the Democratic National Committee just hours after the emergence of the infamous tape in which Trump boasted about repeatedly sexually assaulting women – a dead cat manoeuvre if ever there was one.

You don’t have to endorse Hillary Clinton’s claim that WikiLeaks was “now practically a fully owned subsidiary of Russian intelligence” to be repelled. Assange’s later dealings with Nigel Farage and support for Marine Le Pen in France have placed him, through conviction, vanity or naivety, in very bad company.

One problem with all of this, though, is that it encourages a lot of decent, liberal-minded people to feel that what is happening in Assange’s case is not worth worrying about. It generates a noxious miasma that obscures the real issues in the extradition case.

The core of this story is the publication in 2010 of close to half a million internal US military documents relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those logs revealed terrible things done to real human beings.

Analysis done by the independent Iraq Body Count project found that the logs recorded 15,000 killings of innocent Iraqi civilians that had not been previously disclosed by the US authorities. They included hundreds of people killed simply for coming too close to military checkpoints, including pregnant women trying to get to hospital.

Ignored murders

The logs also showed that the US military, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, routinely ignored murders, rapes and torture by their local allies. They detailed the ways in which innocent victims (including journalists) were reclassified as enemy combatants after they had been killed, to cover up what was happening.

The point about this information is not that journalists had a right to publish it. It is that they had a duty to do so. Any editor in any open society who was offered this material and refused to place it in the public domain should have been fired.

I have conspired with people to obtain and publish secret information. News is what somebody in power would prefer to keep secret

This is one of the things that distinguishes a democracy from an autocracy: in the former, journalists publish information they know to be accurate if it clearly raises questions in the public interest.

This is also why three very distinguished newspapers, the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel, co-operated with WikiLeaks in publishing and analysing the documents. The Los Angeles Times encapsulated the underlying logic: “No democracy can or should fight a war without the consent of its people, and that consent is only meaningful if it is predicated on real information.”

Outrageous

One complicating factor in the US government’s pursuit of Assange has to be acknowledged. The indictment accuses him of publishing the unredacted names of local Afghani and Iraqi journalists, religious leaders, human rights advocates, and political dissidents who provided information to the Americans. If that were really the core of the attempt to extradite him, the case would be less outrageous.

But two even bigger things are at stake.

One is the assertion that the US can punish anyone, anywhere in the world who is involved in disclosing information it wants to keep secret. Assange is not American; he never signed up to any legal commitment to keep America’s secrets. If he can be extradited, why not the editors of the Guardian and Der Spiegel and their reporters who worked on the story?

The other is that Assange is not charged only with putting the lives of informants at risk by disclosing their names. He is charged with conspiring with Chelsea Manning to obtain classified information.

I have conspired with people to obtain and publish secret information. News is what somebody in power would prefer to keep secret. The rest is PR – and the worst kind is military PR.

Assange is also being charged, in effect, with espionage. The conflation of journalism with spying is a favourite trick of authoritarian regimes.

In March, the journalist Vladislav Yesypenko was charged with spying by the Russian authorities in Crimea. The US denounced this as “another attempt to repress those who speak the truth about Russia’s aggression in Ukraine”.

Making an example

So what is the point of persecuting Assange? All the relevant documents have been out there for over a decade. They are not going to be erased from history.

The only purpose is to make an example of Assange to scare off those who wish in the future to report on what is really happening in the US’s foreign wars. It is to criminalise the disclosure of cruel abuses of ordinary, defenceless people caught up in horrible conflicts.

Virtually no one who actually committed those abuses has been held responsible. The crime, it seems, is not to kill the innocent but to talk about it.