It began with WikiLeaks
Assange was targeted by the U.S. government after his organization, WikiLeaks, disclosed hundreds of thousands of U.S. documents, including exposés of crimes committed by the U.S. military against Afghan and Iraqi civilians. A 2010 Christian Science Monitor report on the leak noted that it was “unclear how Americans might react to revelations about apparent indiscriminate killing of Afghan civilians” by American forces. But the Monitor headline captured the verdict in Washington: “Congress’s response to WikiLeaks: shoot the messenger.” Vice President Joe Biden denounced Assange as a “high-tech terrorist.”
The Obama administration examined the case against Assange and concluded that he could not be prosecuted without setting precedents that imperiled freedom of the press. But that concern didn’t hobble the Trump administration. In 2019, as the Justice Department prepared to drop the hammer on Assange, several organizations protested. The ACLU warned that prosecuting him for WikiLeaks’ publishing operations would be “unconstitutional” and sets a “dangerous precedent for U.S. journalists, who routinely violate foreign secrecy laws to deliver information vital to the public’s interest.” Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation declared: “Any charges brought against WikiLeaks for their publishing activities pose a profound and incredibly dangerous threat to press freedom.” After Assange was indicted, a New York Times editorial declared that the charges were “aimed straight at the heart of the First Amendment” and would have a “chilling effect on American journalism as it has been practiced for generations.”
Trump and Clinton unite against Assange
After filing the initial charge, Trump’s Justice Department added 17 charges against Assange for allegedly violating the Espionage Act for disclosing classified information. The Espionage Act is a World War One relic that presidents are increasingly using to suppress exposure of U.S. government crimes at home and abroad. Assange faces up to 175 years in prison if he is convicted, but his lawyers are fighting extradition from Britain. If the Brits deliver Assange to the U.S. government, he has almost no chance of a fair trial because of how Espionage Act prosecutions are rigged in federal court.
After Britain acceded to U.S. government demands to arrest Assange, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt boasted that the arrest showed “no one is above the law.” Except for the governments whose crimes WikiLeaks and Assange exposed. Former secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton declared that the charges prove that Assange “must answer for what he has done.” But Assange’s arrest did nothing to prevent legions of conniving politicians and bureaucrats from continuing to deceive the American public. In reality, the Assange indictment only proved that no government critic “is above the law.”
The Washington establishment pilloried Assange for leaking classified information. Inside the Beltway, classified information is viewed as a holy relic that cannot be exposed without damning the nation. How much classified information are the feds certifying nowadays? Trillions of pages per year. Yet, any information which is classified becomes sacrosanct – at least to the bureaucrats hiding their actions from citizens. The status quo amounts to trillions of asterisk exemptions to Americans’ self-government.
Washington policymakers ignored WikiLeaks’ revelations and expanded the role of the U.S. military in the Afghan conflict. Atrocities continued, helping turn the Afghan people against the U.S. military and a Kabul government that was seen as a Washington puppet. When the Afghan military collapsed like a house of cards in 2021, Washington policymakers were stunned at the Taliban’s lightning triumph. But they were shocked only because they had ignored the truths that WikiLeaks revealed.
Federal agencies have not proven that any of the information that WikiLeaks released was false. At the court martial of Corporal Manning, who leaked the documents, prosecutors failed to show that any information WikiLeaks disclosed had led to the death of a single person in Afghanistan or Iraq. That conclusion was reconfirmed by a 2017 investigation by PolitiFact. Even Biden admitted in 2010 that “I don’t think there’s any substantive damage” from the WikiLeaks revelations. But Assange was guilty of violating the U.S. government’s divine right to blindfold the American people.
After Britain arrested Assange, Sen. Joe Manchin whooped that Assange “is our property and we can get the facts and the truth from him.” But Manchin had no recommendations on how Americans can “get the facts and the truth” from the federal government.
Biden has ramped up U.S. bombings in Somalia. Who exactly is being killed there? It is a secret (and maybe nobody in Washington cares).
Why is the United States continuing to assist Saudi atrocities against Yemen civilians?
It’s a secret.
The long history of government secrecy
Few Americans are aware of the Iron Curtain shrouding U.S. foreign policy. Consider the U.S. military intervention in Syria. Beginning in 2013, the Obama administration began covertly providing money and weapons to Syrian rebels fighting the government of Bashar Assad. Much of the U.S. aid ended up in the hands of terrorist groups, some of whom were allied with al-Qaeda. After Trump tweeted derisively about the program in 2018, a journalist filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents on CIA payments to rebel groups. A 2020 federal appeals court declared that the records must be kept secret because the court owed “appropriate deference” to the CIA. The judges neglected to cite the provision in the Constitution that obliged them to kowtow.
Syrians know that CIA-backed rebels have wreaked havoc, killing women and children. But federal judges insist on blindfolding Americans to the crimes they are helping finance. The selective censorship is reminiscent of the perpetual falsehoods about the Vietnam War that were exposed in the Pentagon Papers. As philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The policy of lying was hardly ever aimed at the enemy but chiefly if not exclusively destined for domestic consumption, for propaganda at home and especially for the purpose of deceiving Congress.”
And then there’s the biggest and most dangerous secret operation on the horizon right now — the U.S. intervention in the war between Russia and Ukraine. Do Washington policymakers deserve a blank check to potentially drag America into a nuclear war? Are CIA analysts or Pentagon officials issuing warnings about how U.S. government actions in this conflict could lead to a spiral that ends in catastrophe? Unfortunately, Americans won’t learn of any such memos until the damage has been done. Biden promised last February that if Russia invaded Ukraine, “we will bring an end to” the Nord Stream pipeline delivering natural gas from Russia to Europe. That pipeline was blown up last September. Short afterwards, Secretary of State Blinken declared that the explosion “offers tremendous strategic opportunity for the years to come” to reduce European reliance on Russian energy. Unfortunately, Team Biden and their allies in Congress believe that American citizens have no right to know whether their government blew up the Russian pipeline.
Democrats in Congress blocked proposals to appoint an Inspector General to audit the tens of billions of dollars of aid the United States has already delivered to Ukraine (one of the most corrupt nations in the world). If U.S. intervention ends again in disaster, then we’ll see the same sham that occurred after the Iraq War. Some Senate committee blathering that no one is to blame because everyone in Washington was a victim of “group think.”
According to Politico, the Biden White House is launching a “new war on secrecy” and is especially concerned about “potentially illegal [government] activities that have been shielded from the public for decades.” A Biden administration official, speaking anonymously, declared that it is in the “nation’s best interest to be as transparent as possible with the American public.” (Explicitly attaching one’s name to such a dangerous notion could ruin one’s D.C. career.) Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) recently commented, “We spend $18 billion protecting the classification system and only about $102 million … on declassification efforts…. That ratio feels off in a democracy.” But inside the Beltway, rigging the game 176-to-1 is “close enough for government work” for transparency.
Growing support for Assange’s release
Assange’s cause may not be hopeless, as more people in America and abroad are speaking up on his behalf. Protests supporting Assange erupted around the world in October. In London, 7,000 protestors linked hands to surround the Parliament building, demanding that the United Kingdom not extradite Assange. Protests occurred in several U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C., where Assange supporters ceremonially circled the Justice Department headquarters. That protest drew support from both libertarians and leftists and featured prominent former military and CIA officers championing Assange’s cause.
Media outlets are also belatedly taking a firm stand against the suppression of truth. On November 28, the New York Times — along with its British, French, Spanish, and German partners who published WikiLeaks revelations — published a joint open letter on the danger of the Assange prosecution: “Holding governments accountable is part of the core mission of a free press in a democracy.” The publications also declared: “Obtaining and disclosing sensitive information when necessary in the public interest is a core part of the daily work of journalists. If that work is criminalised, our public discourse and our democracies are made significantly weaker.” (The Washington Post, which used many of Assange’s leaks in its articles, did not associate itself with the open letter.)
Dropping the charges against Assange is the best way for the Biden administration to prove it is serious about ending excessive secrecy. Assange declared years ago, “If wars can be started by lies, they can be stopped by truth.” Organizations like WikiLeaks are among the best hopes for rescuing democracy from Leviathan.
Pervasive secrecy helps explain the collapse of trust in Washington. Americans today are more likely to believe in witches, ghosts, and astrology than to trust the federal government. There’s an old saying: If exposing a crime is a crime, then you’re being ruled by criminals. Attorney General Ramsey Clark warned in 1967, “Nothing so diminishes democracy as secrecy.” At this point, America is an Impunity Democracy in which government officials pay no price for their abuses. Adding Assange’s scalp to the Justice Department’s trophy wall will do nothing to end the mistrust of the political ruling class that has dragged America into so many debacles.
This article was originally published in the March 2023 edition of Future of Freedom.