AE3. Free Assange

Poem + interview with Kevin Gosztola about US DOJ’s manhunt for Julian Assange & the fate awaiting the Wikileaks founder absent a Trump pardon

death is more power / than life, if you don't ask who's / gaining in power & who's doing / the dying

For about a year, I have been following Chicago-based journalist Kevin Gosztola’s coverage of the case that the Department of Justice under former POTUS Donald J. Trump has made, to extradite and prosecute Wikileaks founder Julian Assange for “violating the Espionage Act for his role in obtaining and publishing secret military and diplomatic documents in 2010.” In Gosztola’s reporting of the Assange trial for the independent publication Shadow Proof, I yet again saw the US government seemingly reverse-engineering facts backwards from claims, which previously I saw in Aaron Maté’s legalese breakdowns for The Nation, of ex-FBI Director Robert Mueller’s hollow investigation that put the cart before the imaginary horse of the narrative that Trump’s 2016 campaign conspired with the Kremlin in ordering Wikileaks to hack Democratic party emails, exposing the party’s corruption and costing its candidate her election.

Gosztola’s and Maté’s reporting, as well as my belief in preserving whistleblowing as a weapon of civil society against power elite, informs my suspicions about the persistent lack of advocacy for Assange in US press, especially when the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post rebranded themselves as first amendment advocates under Trump. Color in Matt Taibbi’s Hate Inc thesis, and you get a bleak view of a media apparatus detached from the news of the world, instead serving up years-long fictions involving 2-D characters, propelled by ex-US intelligence officials propagating in plainclothes on cable. Maybe it’s not a stretch to say both US government and the outlets it muzzles using promises of “access journalism” would gain from Assange, a publisher of unedited whitepaper, going down, which is the sort of win-win scenario that renders suspect, in the Assange case, the synchronicity between actions and inactions of politicians and media personalities (sponsored by the same people).

Even though Assange has been in HM Prison Belmarsh for almost two years after spending a decade locked up at the Ecuador embassy in London, UK District Judge Vanessa Baraitser recently gave Assange’s legal team half a reason to breathe easy, denying the US DOJ’s extradition request deeming the US prison system too cruel, but also denying Assange bail as she otherwise upheld US government claims that Assange is a national security threat. This much an alien who writes poetry could make out, but to understand more, I reached out to Gosztola who appeared on my laptop screen and talked to me for an hour-plus.

Thank you for talking to me. I want to start talking about the trial by asking “Why should we care?” I see what the US government is doing to Assange as an imperialist state making its citizens participate in its imperialism by saying it’s “for national security purposes,” and because I have some faith that maybe people won’t willfully participate in imperialism if they saw its real face, I care about the story. Can you tell me how you, Kevin Gosztola, began covering Assange, using this opportunity also to talk about your broader work?

I have to go back as far as the last day Assange was a free man. 10+ years ago, this all began with a soldier named Chelsea Manning who gained access to some material in an Intelligence analysis unit in Baghdad. After her arrest, we came to see the publication of Iraq war logs, Afghanistan war logs, and the US diplomatic cables. I was covering these releases as an independent journalist without affiliation with any publication. Finishing college, I was still much more of an activist in the sense that I attended demonstrations regularly here in Chicago, and was also using those releases to gain notoriety for my journalism. Going beyond the drama of what Wikileaks was up to and how the US government wants to stop them, people wanted to know what was inside these documents, and how it could be helpful to their communities. Then, in the period that I interned at The Nation from January 2011 on through June 2011, Wikileaks released the Guantanamo files, which exposed how the US state was fabricating intelligence about 700-800 men carted off and renditioned to a military prison, only a handful of whom can be said to be close to as dangerous as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claimed. You had the Arab Spring, which we learned drew inspiration from Egypt, Tunisian and Libyan cables. I was in a newsroom following all this, staying on top of some worker uprisings in the US, and covering Manning’s court-martial as it unfolded in 2012 and 2013.

I have now been covering the Assange proceedings in the UK, which has made for some early days where I was up from 3:30 or 4 in the morning, which is obviously nothing compared to what Assange has had to go through in Belmarsh Prison. I just maintained a commitment, covering the source [Manning] and how she was unjustly prosecuted. Even if I expect some accountability for the leak of massive amount of material, the extent to which she was hit with charges and accused of aiding an enemy was obscene. It’s not that I expected she was going to keep her position in the military. They were going to—to use a word that’s kind of religious—excommunicate her, removing her from any future military involvement. Then she received clemency and I thought we were done, but she was subpoenaed by the Grand Jury in March 2019, was jailed for a year, and in that time, we saw this pick up where Assange was expelled from the Ecuadorian embassy. I covered Manning more closely than Assange’s legal struggles, but as it became clear that his case was going to impact journalism, I thought it had to be an extension of Manning’s. And I’ll confess, I wasn’t always the best advocate for Assange because initially, there were reservations expressed by people on the left that I entertained.

“Wikileaks coincided with the moment new media came on the scene and forced the US government to realize that their secrets were no longer as safe as they had been 10-20 years ago”

What were those reservations?

I had a different tactic when it dealt with the sexual [misconduct] allegations that were brought against Assange. It took the report put together by UN Special Rapporteur in Torture Nils Meltzer—which breaks down the way in which the Swedish prosecution authority violated Assange’s due process at every turn—for me to refine my argument about why supporting Assange didn’t make you anti-feminist. Let’s say everything those women ever said about Assange were reasonable things to bring up with the prosecutors. Then, why did prosecutors in Sweden allow this case to be stalled by the US government pursuing him for publishing their documents? It’s not justice for the women if the US government disrupts their case. If you think Assange should be held accountable for sexual abuse, then you would want the US government to back off and let Sweden pursue their case against him. So, going through this case, I have been able to test some of my own views that weren’t properly informed because it doesn’t happen that you come to a story knowing everything about it.

To the extent that there’s a weakness in my coverage, it’s just that I’m not from the UK, so I may not fully grasp the differences between the Official Secrets Act in the UK and the Espionage Act in the US. On the surface, I know there’s a history for the Official Secrets Act that we don’t have here in the US, because in the US, we have the First Amendment. So, their security agencies have been able to get away with a lot more. If you follow Greenwald, you might know that they sent people to The Guardian offices to destroy the hard drive that had the Snowden files. It was mainly ceremonial; it was just a backup of the data. But they decided that because you violated certain guideline or procedure in the UK, we need to make a show out of it.

I didn’t prepare this question, but since you brought up the sexual abuse charges: for a while, I don’t think it was revealed that Assange had a family, so much so Pamela Anderson visiting him was reported like tabloid gossip. Was this just the media using salacious details to distract from what Assange was exposing, or was it the Assange defense strategy to draw more attention to his case, since Anderson has become one of his strongest advocates? Did you get a glimpse of the inner working of the Assange Defense?

One thing that people on the progressive left have struggled with is, you’re going to have people of different ideologies and those who don’t have developed politics becoming supporters. I think it’s pretentious on the part of organizers on the left to look down at people who might not have read the socialism theory or anti-imperialist history books they have read, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be there. There have been people who visited Assange who have been involved in Republican politics before. I don’t think Assange was in a position to not have meetings with them, because he needed all the support he could get in order to obtain his freedom.

The start of his family, as I understand it—Stella Morris, who’s his fiancée and a part of the legal team, says in 2017—they believed that there was a chance to wind this down, especially based on how Trump had talked about Wikileaks and the emails. The Trump administration doesn’t come after Assange until 2019—almost exactly 2 years after he is inaugurated. Until that time, Assange and his family believe that they could leave the Embassy soon and settle down. I think it was presented as a freakshow by the news media, but they decided to have children while he was still under asylum at the embassy, when the whole time they didn’t know where they would live after he gets out. They were planning to go to Ecuador, where he has citizenship, but Ecuador has had a major political shift that mirrored what we saw happening in Brazil, and other parts of Latin America where you saw left-wing governments fall out of favor, and center-right or even far-right governments come to power.

The charges the US DOJ is bringing against Assange have nothing to do with Trump or Russia, but since it has become fashionable to link all three, has such unrelated and falsified conspiracy theorizing influenced the outcome of the ongoing case?

The charges go back to actions that took place in 2010, plus some allegations against behavior that they claim happened from 2010 to 2015. It gets complicated, and even the legal team was having trouble understanding what the justice department was trying to do because summer of 2020, we got the development of criminalizing Assange for helping Snowden leave Hong Kong, and they’re trying to tie him to a hacking collective that was active around 2011-12 leading to several major cases including one against Jeremy Hammond who recently completed his federal prison sentence. You’re right that it’s possible some of these conspiracy theories about Wikileaks have had an effect that isn’t apparent, because the judge is pointing out that the government has always viewed Assange as a national security threat. When Mike Pompeo was CIA Director, Wikileaks was labeled a non-state hostile intelligence agency. That could be considered a pretext for surveilling the Ecuador embassy, so they were targeting journalists as well as legal experts and doctors who came to visit, all of whom had to show passports, prove identities, and that kind of became dossiers kept by this company UC Global hired by the embassy.

As for the charges, they break into, first, we’re going to accuse you of conspiracy with Manning, to hack into military defence computers. We’re going to say not only that you tried to enlist Manning to work for Wikileaks, but you also were guilty of violating the Espionage Act by failing to take proper care of published materials, releasing information that contained the names of informants or confidential sources helping the US military and diplomats, putting it out on the internet and putting their lives at risk. Essentially in the case against him, they do seem to create this kind of narrative of the supervillain hacker, trying to make people see Assange not as a journalist.

In one of your pieces, you wrote about how the US government is accusing Assange of inspiring people to infiltrate it, which is ludicrous, right? Can you lay out some of the conspiracy theories and fabrications they are using in the prosecution?

Wikileaks is accused of trying to recruit the next Snowden at a forum called Systems Administrators Unite. Systems Administrators are tech savvy and are going to have access to material, but they may not have formed political allegiances. That’s why Assange and the CIA recognize that if you’re going to move somebody to expose information that the public needs to know, it’s going to be somebody who isn’t indoctrinated. Snowden, if you follow his evolution in the NSA, comes to understand that his government’s doing mass surveillance, is not in-charge of handling any of these programs, and so says he doesn’t want to go along. That’s what Assange is saying—you can get into the CIA or the Pentagon, be doing your work, and as you recognize that the US government isn’t abiding by the law or respecting civil liberties, it is up to you to tell the people about the abuses of power. Assange isn’t saying I want to recruit spies. This idea that Wikileaks was an intelligence agency of the people was only a way of branding an organization that discloses public documents that we should all have the ability to access. That has been twisted into some GRU in Russia or hacker version of MI5 that’s coming after the US. Let me put it this way—If you truly believe that Assange was inciting people to release documents to Wikileaks, why hasn’t there been anyone who has acted upon it? What they’re referencing took place 5-7 years ago. Nobody has given documents to Wikileaks because of this appeal. So, how can he be guilty of a conspiracy if nobody has followed through?

Besides that, I wrote a lengthy article about what they believed Manning was doing with Assange when the alleged conspiracy took place. They don’t have proof, but they want us all to believe Assange recruited Manning to work for Wikileaks and not the other way around. And I can tell you from covering the case, Manning went to Wikileaks because The New York Times didn’t return her request to publish, and The Washington Post didn’t show interest—she was even interested in meeting with a smaller publication called Politico. On the other hand, Wikileaks claimed that they are double-blind in their submissions; you’re submitting information anonymously, and they’re receiving it anonymously. It’s not possible to say that Assange reached out to Manning, because that’s not how it works. Manning made herself known to Wikileaks on her initiative. The US government is trying to take away the agency of Manning’s whistleblowing act, and is trying to say Assange is much more sinister and put Manning up to providing documents.

You said on Jimmy Dore’s show that Assange is taking the fall for not wanting to reveal a source, which is the kind of integrity that #resistance journalists should be championing, but such figures aren’t voicing support for Assange. Can you talk about that?

For those who think Assange is some Trump ally, his legal team put out a statement related to an informal pardon offer made by former Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher, if Assange revealed the source of the Hillary Clinton campaign emails. Assange turned it down because on principle, Wikileaks is not supposed to expose its sources. Even if the source agreed to have their identity revealed, it still wouldn’t be good if people believed that Wikileaks would bargain over identities of sources with politicians. That’s not unique to Wikileaks but is a standard for all publications. Let’s say hypothetically, in the last days of Trump’s Presidency, we got a scoop from The New York Times that said, “Oh man, we were this close to war with Iran.” They don’t have to tell us which bloodthirsty general told them, or what the motivation was for running this story. We just deserve to know that’s what our government was doing in that period in history. So, Assange has no more responsibility to protect his sources than any other outlet.

Then the point needs to be made that that’s likely why he’s still in Belmarsh—because he did not agree to bargain, and that left people in the Trump administration to feel like Assange deserved their retaliation because he did not work with them. I’m not saying that’s exactly what happened; some are career prosecutors aligned with the Republican party, who—back in 2010—used to be the most hostile to Wikileaks. These people went on TV and outright talked about sending a drone to assassinate Assange. Before they knew he would later happen to release the Hillary Clinton campaign emails, they wanted to turn him into dust.

For a neoliberal political paradigm dictated by The West Wing voluntarism, we have in Assange, Manning and Snowden individuals who all “did the right thing.” Even in your coverage as you say, you want to show neither deserves the charges with which they have been hit, but shouldn’t it be that the act of exposing the government committing a crime itself must not be illegal?

I agree with you that the act can’t be criminal either. I haven’t talked about it in the last week because the judge dismissed it as a good reason why extradition should be denied. So, I have been focused on other angles. During the trial, [the Assange defense] did make an argument to the judge that Wikileaks was being retaliated against because it has exposed US torture and war crimes, so there would be an incentive for these institutions to aggressively pursue Assange. You raise something important also when you bring up media depictions of Assange and Manning, and that horrid movie with Benedict Cumberbatch. There’s a documentary called Risk put together by Laura Poitras [of Citizenfour] that shows some time with Assange going through this case. There are a couple of documentaries on Manning, but there aren’t any narrative films. Hollywood hasn’t caught up to the story, and I don’t know why they haven’t. I could imagine a really amazing expansive story in the way that Oliver Stone gave the JFK assassination a 2½-3-hour treatment, which could be powerful. Of course, Stone also made Snowden.

There could be public figures who could be engaged in a project that could tell this story in a way that captures this hugely transformative moment. What happened with Wikileaks coincided with the moment new media came on the scene and forced the US government to realize that their secrets were no longer as safe as they had been 10-20 years ago. By “safe,” I’m not trying to use their language, but am saying that now it’s easy to put documents on removable media such as a USB stick, carry them out and expose them to the world. After Manning, [agencies] began viewing the fact that somebody inside government might release information as a security threat. Now, we have “Insider Threat” programs in the government, which I’ve done some work covering. McClatchy did a fantastic investigation during the Obama administration, about these basically McCarthy-style programs that encourage workers to become informants against each other. It promotes this culture of looking over the shoulder in constant paranoia, all of which could be vividly depicted in a film, but I think producers, directors and actors think this is some fringe story that will go away and won’t ultimately have lasting impact. But they’re missing out on a story that’s not only informative and enlightening, but also entertaining.

Do you think after the Capitol Hill riots [and the impeachment], which may have ruined the chances of Trump doing anything constructive in his last days in office, and on the other hand, him getting “cancelled” from Twitter, so would he act in solidarity, drop the charges and pardon Assange as a final “Fuck You” to everybody? [Narrator: He didn’t]

It’s not impossible, but it’s highly unlikely. That means we default to the Biden administration to see if the Justice Department is going to recognize that they didn’t approve of this case when Obama was President. We have Merrick Garland who has been nominated to be the Attorney General. He was part of the D.C. Circuit court and was also up for a Supreme Court consideration, which was a huge political saga that ultimately showed the failure of the Obama administration to force through their pick, and then Trump embarrassed Obama by appointing three judges. Anyway, Garland apparently doesn’t have much connection to any prior Espionage Act cases. I’m not sure he has been involved in litigating Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests; if it involved National Security documents, that could be a sign of how he might feel about Assange. We don’t know how he feels about whistleblowers. We know he was involved in hearing whether Guantanamo detainees should have a day in court where they could challenge their confinement conditions and treatment. He has constantly deferred to the establishment in such decisions, so he will probably go whichever direction the career people at the Justice Department tell him to go. But this is an opening, because—let’s be clear—the US government is losing its case right now.

Oh, wow. I’m glad to hear that, because I really couldn’t tell.

Logically, they didn’t win the extradition request at the district court level. Next, they have to go before the High Court of Justice and convince that panel of judges that the lower court made an error. I don’t think it’s going to be easy for them. I’m not sure the three judges on that panel will be receptive to the US DOJ’s arguments because they have gone through cases where the US incarceration system has been challenged in their courtroom as a reason why people shouldn’t be extradited to the US. They know about the abuses committed daily in US prisons. So, the DOJ might try to say that Assange isn’t actually in a terrible mental state, and in order to do that, you have to question doctors who have the professional acumen to make determinations such as that Assange is going through psychological torment, is on the autism spectrum, or was committed to committing suicide. We need to recognize that the legal team, as much as they are upset that Assange is in Belmarsh as we record this interview, as much as they are disappointed that he isn’t “free”—if not in Belmarsh, he’ll be in house arrest—they know that they are in a better position today than they were last week when they thought it was almost inevitable that Assange would have his extradition authorized to the US.

“In the same way we do independent media, I think we can push independent art to audiences and create competition with forms of corporate entertainment that simply are not long for this world”

That’s an optimistic note to end the topic. Last, if we can come full circle to the question of why we care about Assange, freedom of expression is an international crisis of varying degrees, so artists should advocate against any and all instances of infringement. Sadly, the politics of American art seems to be no more than personal brand-building and PR, and nobody beyond that paradigm has much power unless you’re Roger Waters. Since you appreciated that I’m an artist engaging in political discourse, how do you think we can build a movement of independent artists?

I’m first and foremost involved in covering whistleblower issues, national security or US foreign policy, but after that if I have time left—not the case these days with the Assange trial—I have done work on musicians who incorporate political action and social statements into their art. There’s a section of the Shadow Proof site that has closely followed protest music. We see in our art more and more that it’s corporatized. It’s cookie-cutter and doesn’t speak to experience but is about replicating a feeling. In movies, sequels, trilogies and franchises are playing to nostalgia. I’m as much as a geek for this kind of culture as anybody, but it means favoring films and TV ideas that will produce material for the next decade over telling one-off stories. There can still be a TV series or film that speaks to the moment. I think the TV adaptation of Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer is excellently done. However, it still fits into what I’m saying—they are replicating a feeling, trying to copy what was successful with the film, expanding it into a series, and believing it can’t fail because it has already done well with audiences.

We need to be supporting artists who take risks. They don’t always have to be speaking about politics and society in order to be encouraged, but we have to support people who are going to challenge the corporatization of our culture, and I view this not as the top 10 things, but maybe among the top 25 things that we should be concerned with. Dave Zirin, a writer at The Nation I enjoy, has always believed that we need to contest sports because otherwise they just reflect our capitalist culture. People who enjoy sports around the world, do so for the experience that brings them together, but we lose it in the way that it’s commodified. I feel the same way about art—we should contest it instead of just complaining about corporatization. If we just sit here as critics doing blogs on a daily basis about why something is propaganda or junk isn’t improving the buffet of entertainment that I have available. There are more streaming services than ever. There’s more ability to get entertainment out that’s enlightening, engaging, and possibly informative. In the same way we do independent media, I think we can push independent art to audiences and create competition with forms of corporate entertainment that simply are not long for this world.