Between July and October 2010, WikiLeaks released a trove of classified documents detailing the atrocities of American imperialism and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Known as the “Afghan War Diary” and “Iraq War Logs,” they are the largest leaks in U.S. military history. They exposed the widespread brutality of imperialist occupation by the United States and its coalition partners, including the use of psychological warfare, rendition and torture, child prostitution, and massive civilian casualties and deaths through targeted killings and air strikes. In Afghanistan, when the imperialists could no longer conceal the murders, they simply paid off the families of the victims to keep quiet. In Iraq, the number of civilian deaths was estimated to have reached over 100,000, many of them simply unreported or reclassified as “enemy casualties” to conceal the scale of killing. The most notorious example of this is the video that came to be known as “Collateral Murder,” which showed U.S. soldiers gunning down innocent Iraqi civilians (including children and journalists) in Baghdad in July 2007. The victims of that particular atrocity were all listed as “enemies killed in action.”
The leak of these documents dealt a massive blow to the imperialists’ campaign of propaganda and packaging of the “war on terror.” The International Criminal Court (ICC) has recently ruled that it will pursue an investigation into the war crimes committed in Afghanistan by the United States, the first time the ICC has investigated a major imperialist power. The U.S. was not a signatory to the agreement establishing the ICC in 2002 and essentially doesn’t recognize it. The inquiry will cover the torture, rape, and sexual violence mentioned above, as well as the use of a U.S. Army hit squad, known as a “Kill Team,” that murdered, humiliated and then posed with the corpses of their victims. Much of the documentation that will be used in the investigation will be material provided by WikiLeaks in the “Afghan War Diary.”
The Afghanistan and Iraq leaks are the so-called “crimes” for which former U.S. soldier, Chelsea Manning, and the founding editor of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, have been vilified and persecuted for almost a decade.
On 11 April 2019, Assange was forcibly removed by British authorities from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had sought asylum in 2012 following dubious allegations of sexual assault in Sweden. He believed, with good reason, that requests for him to travel to Sweden for questioning would swiftly result in extradition to the U.S. (see “WikiLeaks, Sex & Imperialist Law,” 1917 No.35). Assange was quickly remanded to Belmarsh’s high-security prison for a year-long sentence. The governments of all the major imperialist powers in the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance (Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) support the attack on Assange. Australia, Assange’s home country, has refused to intervene to prevent his extradition to the U.S.
The day of his arrest in London, the U.S. opened a previously sealed indictment against Assange charging him with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion (i.e., “hacking”), alleging he assisted Chelsea Manning in downloading classified documents. He was subsequently indicted on 17 new charges relating to the U.S. Espionage Act of 1917, the first time it has ever been applied against a journalist for simply obtaining and publishing secret documents. If extradited and convicted, Assange faces a maximum penalty of 175 years in prison.
From the beginning, Assange’s rights have been systematically violated. In September 2019, it was revealed that the Spanish security company UC Global, hired to protect the Ecuadorian embassy, had been spying on Assange on behalf of the U.S. for three years while he was holed up inside the embassy (ABC, 23 February 2020). They kept detailed notes on Assange and anyone that visited him; they installed secret cameras and microphones inside the embassy to monitor his every move; they recorded legally confidential meetings between Assange and his lawyers; and then they passed all of it on to the CIA. Despite being a “low-risk” prisoner and having not been convicted of anything, Assange is being detained in a high-security prison and had until recently been held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, often under sedation. He has been denied proper legal procedures such as being given access to a computer, legal papers and even his own writings. At the opening phase of his extradition hearings last week he was held in the “dock” (a giant glass partition), physically separated from his legal team, more or less unable to confidentially confer with them, and under constant surveillance by prison guards.
The conditions under which Assange is being held are so appalling, and his health has apparently deteriorated so badly, that his life is at risk. Over one hundred high-profile doctors from around the world recently condemned what they called the “torture and medical neglect” Assange has been subjected to and have repeatedly petitioned the UK government to transfer him to a nearby medical facility for fear that he could die in prison (The Lancet, 17 February 2020). UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer, who has visited Assange, also fears his life is at risk. In November he wrote:
“Mr Assange's health has entered a downward spiral of progressively severe anxiety, stress and helplessness typical for persons exposed to prolonged isolation and constant arbitrariness.…
“However, what we have seen from the UK Government is outright contempt for Mr Assange's rights and integrity.…
“Despite the medical urgency of my appeal, and the seriousness of the alleged violations, the UK has not undertaken any measures of investigation, prevention and redress required under international law.”
—ABC, 2 November 2019
While the situation is certainly grim, it is important to note that there is growing support for Assange among youth and working people, with some 350,000 signing a petition demanding his freedom. Teachers in Australia have voiced their support. The International Federation of Journalists and trade unions representing journalists in the UK, Germany and France have come out opposing his extradition and demanding his release. Reporters Without Borders and award-winning journalist John Pilger and former “Pentagon Papers” whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg have also spoken up in his defense.
As the global capitalist order deteriorates and imperialist “great power” rivalries increase, the American ruling class, its imperialist allies and their mouthpieces in the corporate media are eager to strengthen their coercive powers to prevent serious resistance from below. At bottom, the campaign to vilify and silence whistleblowers is an attempt to curtail democratic rights, maintain complete control over the flow of information and empower the “deep state” bureaucracy: the military-industrial complex and the security-intelligence apparatus (in the U.S. represented by the NSA, CIA and FBI).
In April 2017, Mike Pompeo, then Director of the CIA and currently Trump’s Secretary of State, spoke before the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. In his first speech as head of the CIA, Pompeo openly denounced WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, and former NSA-analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden, boasting that Assange had no first amendment rights (i.e., free speech and press freedoms):
“[W]e at CIA find the celebration of entities like WikiLeaks to be both perplexing and deeply troubling. Because while we do our best to quietly collect information on those who pose very real threats to our country, individuals such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden seek to use that information to make a name for themselves.
“WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service. It has encouraged its followers to find jobs at CIA in order to obtain intelligence. It directed Chelsea Manning in her theft of specific secret information.…
“It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is – a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.…
“…Julian Assange and his kind are not the slightest bit interested in improving civil liberties or enhancing personal freedom. They have pretended that America’s First Amendment freedoms shield them from justice. They may have believed that, but they are wrong.…
“[W]e can no longer allow Assange and his colleagues the latitude to use free speech values against us. To give them the space to crush us with misappropriated secrets is a perversion of what our great Constitution stands for. It ends now.”
—”Director Pompeo Delivers Remarks at CSIS,” www.cia.gov, 13 April 2017
Despite Pompeo’s Orwellian platitudes about “improving civil liberties” and “enhancing personal freedom,” the imperialists have demonstrated time and again that their commitment to these values is non-existent.
Take, for example, the persecution of Chelsea Manning. In 2013, Manning was convicted under the Espionage Act for “aiding the enemy” and spent seven years in prison for providing WikiLeaks with the documentation detailing the crimes of U.S. imperialism in Afghanistan and Iraq. Shortly before Assange was dragged from the Ecuadorian embassy in April 2019, U.S. authorities once again threw Manning in jail for contempt of court for refusing to testify against WikiLeaks before a grand jury. The U.S. wants her to retract her original testimony that she acted alone, and instead claim that Assange helped her break into the government computer in 2010, thereby assisting their case against Assange. She has courageously refused to do so despite being subject to a $1,000 per day fine and what Nils Melzer calls “an open-ended, progressively severe measure of coercion fulfilling all the constitutive elements of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Guardian, 31 December 2019). During a recent court appearance last month Manning denounced the grand jury subpoena designed to get her to crack, demanded she be released, and defiantly declared:
“I have been separated from my loved ones, deprived of sunlight, and could not even attend my mother's funeral.… It is easier to endure these hardships now than to cooperate to win back some comfort, and live the rest of my life knowing that I acted out of self-interest and not principle.”
—Washington Post, 19 February 2020
In June 2013, Edward Snowden exposed the vast illegal domestic surveillance program carried out by the U.S. government. He revealed that the NSA was spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year through a top-secret “black budget” for a “corporate-partner project” to pay off telecommunications companies for clandestine access to the communication logs of millions of their users. U.S. tech giants like Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, YouTube and Apple were all actively participating in the NSA’s “PRISM” program, in which they simply handed over the online data of users (such as search history, email, video and voice chat, photos, file transfers and social networking details). If for some reason the NSA’s “corporate partners” refused, the PRISM program even rendered company consent unnecessary by enabling the NSA “to directly and unilaterally seize the communications off the companies’ servers” – i.e., take whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted (Guardian, 7 June 2013). James Clapper, Obama’s former Director of National Intelligence, famously lied before the U.S. Congress when asked about the NSA’s bulk-data collection only a few months prior to Snowden’s revelations. Of course, when Snowden came forward, he was immediately denounced as a “traitor” by both Republicans and Democrats and forced into exile in Russia. Pompeo has demanded he be brought back and executed (C-SPAN, 11 February 2016).
American journalist Glenn Greenwald, who played a key role in publishing Snowden’s documents, was until recently facing “criminal conspiracy” charges in Brazil, where he lives, for releasing information that exposed government corruption at the highest levels. Much like Julian Assange, Greenwald was accused of “assisting” a whistleblower in facilitating a “cybercrime.” Snowden himself has noted:
“The legal theory used by the Brazilian prosecutors – that journalists who publish leaked documents are engaged in a criminal ‘conspiracy’ with the sources who provide those documents – is virtually identical to the one advanced in the Trump administration’s indictment of WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange in a new application of the historically dubious Espionage Act.”
—Washington Post, 26 January 2020
U.S. authorities are almost certainly involved in the moves to prosecute Greenwald and would clearly like to get their hands on him for his role in helping Snowden.
Similar attacks are taking place in other imperialist “democracies.” In France, the Macron government threatened to lay charges against the investigative website Disclose for “compromising national defense secrecy” after the website published a classified military-intelligence note exposing the French authorities for lying about their role in selling weapons to Saudi Arabia in its brutal war on Yemen. In Australia last year, police conducted raids on journalists and news outlets after they published information about government plans to spy on Australians and revealed evidence of war crimes committed by Australian special forces in Afghanistan.
The attack on Assange intersects current domestic U.S. politics via the Russiagate fiasco and assertions that Russian agents hacked the DNC server to “steal” the election from Hillary Clinton. Trump claimed during the 2016 presidential campaign to “love WikiLeaks” due to its publication of compromising emails showing that the Clinton campaign and the DNC conspired to rig the primary process against Bernie Sanders. It is therefore no surprise that the Democratic Party establishment has eagerly joined in attacking Assange and other whistleblowers. Joe Biden has called Assange “a high-tech terrorist” and reportedly warned countries against granting asylum to Snowden. Elizabeth Warren has claimed: “Assange is a bad actor who has harmed U.S. national security – and he should be held accountable.” (Washington Times, 25 May 2019). This Democrat stance is nothing new--the Obama White House used the Espionage Act to charge more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined (Washington Post, 26 January 2020).
America’s best-known “socialist” Bernie Sanders has pledged to end the prosecution of whistleblowers under the Espionage Act and castigated the “troubling revelations” about “the degree to which the NSA has abused its authority and violated our constitutional rights” (The Nation, 20 September 2019). Yet Sanders refuses to directly comment on Assange and has claimed “[Snowden] did break the law, and I think there should be a penalty to that” (CNN Transcripts, 13 October 2015). He is also on record absurdly claiming: “Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies must be given the tools they need to protect us, but that can be done in a way that does not sacrifice our rights” (Guardian, 14 September 2016).
Genuine socialists stand in solidarity with Assange and condemn imperialist-backed censorship and state repression. We denounce the extradition efforts and demand the immediate and unconditional release of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, and the dropping of charges against Edward Snowden.
An effective defense campaign on their behalf requires the active intervention of the international working class, in particular in the heartland of the decaying imperialist “democracy” seeking to silence them. It must be guided by the Marxist understanding that the capitalist state is an instrument of repression against workers and the oppressed. While using every possible legal avenue to win Assange and Manning’s freedom, it is important not to have illusions in the same law enforcement agencies that persecuted them in the first place. If extradited to the U.S., Assange has no chance of anything resembling a fair hearing.
The fight to free Assange and Manning has the potential to radicalize the tens of thousands of youth and working people who have turned toward “democratic socialism” in recent years. By pointing out how ruling class repression, criminality and lies are inevitable and necessary elements of the whole system of capitalist exploitation, Marxists can win a new generation to the cause of revolutionary socialism. As we noted not long after Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy:
“Only by defending the rights and liberties won through the difficult struggles of past generations – which the capitalist class often tries to reverse during times of reaction – will it be possible to go forward to win new gains and lay the basis for overturning the entire system of global oppression and mass murder that imperialist rule entails.”
—“WikiLeaks, Sex & Imperialist Law,” 1917 No.35