The wikileaks saga continued

As predicted just a few days ago, Queensland-boy Julian Assange is now in police custody and has been denied bail pending his extradition to Sweden to answer allegations of having had consensual sex without a condom. In Sweden, American prosecutors will no doubt try to have him extradited to the US where he would face trumped-up charges of willingly damaging national security. Whether he will be extradited to the US seems unlikely, but you can be assured that a whole raft of further allegations will emerge in the coming weeks to keep him occupied with legal issues. It is ominous in that regard that Eric Holder, the US Attorney General, reported to be in an ‘active, ongoing criminal investigation’ into WikiLeaks.

In a previous blog I discussed what the long-term impact was of having private citizens trying to hold whole administrations accountable for their dealings with other countries and for the way they ran their administration. The ensuing thread uncovered differences of opinion on whether whistle-blowing sites had something of value to offer over and above the usual checks and balances in the form of ombudsmen, constitutional protection, and the existing media.

In this blog I want to highlight the behavioural and political economy aspects of the wikileaks saga, including the question of whether Australia should put in formal protests at the American embassy due to senior American politicians like Sarah Palin calling for the assassination of an Australian citizen who has so far not been convicted or charged with anything. It is ironic, but it is probably Rudd’s current duty to defend his countryman against unconstitutional death threats made by foreigners.

Some salient observations to be made on the current saga:

1.       The wikileaks affair has made it clearer than ever before that the Internet is the new Wild West, i.e. a self-regulating social entity that lacks a police force. Within hours of the arrest of Queensland-boy Julian Assange, a group of hackers calling themselves ‘Anonymous’ launched cyber attacks on organisations deemed to have abandoned wikileaks, including the Swiss post, and PayPall. It now also appears as if some of these organisations or their sympathisers retaliated by launching cyber attacks on the group of hackers. We thus find ourselves in an age where vigilantes and particular vested interests fight for dominance on the web. One would expect from history that after a few such skirmishes, some kind of Internet Police will arise. If governments wont set it up, then private organisations will band together to create a kind of Internet Watchdog that uses whatever methods available to silence troublemaking sites via blacklists and the like.

2.       The wikileaks affair has lead to surprisingly hostile US reactions in camps you would normally think would favour it. The Tea Party in particular, which purports to defend the US constitution and that is purportedly sceptical of big government, has swung right behind the administration and vilified wikileaks, blatantly ignoring the 1st amendment of the US constitution and calling for illegal acts of violence in support of the discretionary power of the government. Those who drew up the constitution would turn in their graves! Make no mistake though: should Julian Assange be extradited to the US and face charges there, the civil rights movement will have no choice but to swing behind him and an army of American pro-bono lawyers will probably defend him all the way to the Supreme court.

3.       The latent US-European divide on press freedom has opened up. The web-sites that mirror wikileaks after its original URL (wikileaks.org) was disrupted are nearly all in Europe, first in Switzerland (wikileaks.ch), but then all over the continent, run by all kinds of organisations. In the Netherlands, for instance, it is a public media organisation (the VPRO) which now openly supports and hosts wikileaks.nl.

4.       When push comes to shove, national media feast on the wikileaks saga and focus on what the cables reveal about their country. This has happened in Australia, where the Sydney Morning Herald has announced it is going to run several stories, and it seems to be happening in many countries. It is probably a one-off media-fest, but a fascinating one.

5.       The saga is a classic case of ‘shoot the messenger’. The criticism of slack American protocols surrounding their diplomatic cables has been muted even though it should be clear that so many people had access to these cables (the Guardian alleges it was millions) that all the real enemies will have known all the bits important to them already. Instead, American politicians are falling over themselves to accuse wikileaks of being irresponsible, showing remarkable disdain for freedom of information. The witch-hunt is intense enough for private companies to fall in line out of fear of further retribution, as witnessed by Amazon pulling back from wikileaks, and Visa and PayPal pulling the plug too. The vice-president of Pay Pal reports to have been sent a letter by the US state department on November 27th, i.e. before the latest round of leaks, telling him that wikileaks’ activities were illegal. If true, such a letter would seem to be a clear-cut case of political interference with free speech. The psychology of this is truly fascinating: instead of thanking wikileaks for pointing out the major security breaches in its system and the generally positive image that the cables give of American diplomacy and America’s role in the world, there is a blind lashing out at the messenger of sensitive news. Would the same American politicians have preferred it if slack security would have gone on, so that all the major enemies would have continued looking over their shoulder? The logic of shooting the messenger in this case is very primal. Animal spirits are on display. Some do recognise this even within the US, witnessed by the following quote in a BBC interview:

Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who in 1971 released the Pentagon Papers which detailed government lies and cover-ups in the Vietnam War, is sceptical of whether the government really believes that lives are at stake.

He told the BBC’s World Today programme that US officials made that same argument every time there was a potentially embarrassing leak.

“The best justification they can find for secrecy is that lives are at stake. Actually, lives are at stake as a result of the silences and lies which a lot of these leaks reveal,” he said.

“The same charges were made against the Pentagon Papers and turned out to be quite invalid.”

6.       The reaction of close American allies has been mixed. In the UK, there is embarrassment at the revelations of being seen to beg the US to acknowledge a mythical ‘special relationship’, but there are also positive messages in the media about whether the leaks are desirable. The Guardian, a UK newspaper, is one of the most ardent consumers of the wikileaks cables and runs many stories supportive of it. On the other hand, the current and former foreign affairs ministers condemned the leaks, particularly the leaked lists of strategic sites. A propos: the list of security critical sites, even if one doesnt think much of real interest was on the list, is an odd thing to publish because there is not much public interest in knowing this list. Wikileaks’ defense was that the list showed that it contravened the official position of the US government that its embassies are not involved in scanning sensitive sites. Whilst that may be true, it is so obvious to anyone that embassies spy that it must fall into the same category as exposing Santa.

7.       (Australian response) The first reaction in Julian’s home country was to straighten the backs and fall in line with what our big ally seemed to be doing. The prosecutor general made threatening noises towards Julian Assange and several politicians condemned wikileaks in strong wordings, calling the publication of the leaks illegal even though Ben Saul argued quite quickly that the leaks were most likely not illegal. Yet, it is clear that, down the line, the Australian government and its departments will have to become involved in the defense of one of its citizens. Julian Assange has been demonized by foreign leaders and there have been calls for his assassination, even though he has not been charged with anything yet and even though it is very doubtful that he can be convicted of anything at this moment. What else is our government to do once the dust settles down, but to heed the demands that will undoubtedly come from his friends and family in Australia to insist on due process and freedom of movement for one of its citizens? We are hence at the moment in a little time bubble where our politicians and some commentators join in with the demonization of an Australian citizen by foreigners (though Gillard’s latest reaction was much more careful than her first one), whilst after the bubble bursts these same people will have no choice but to stand up for the rights and good treatment of this Australian citizen (calls for this have apparently already been made). I even dare say that there will come a time when Australia will be proud of an Aussie who is, like a lone outback crusader, trying to hold large governments to account by revealing their internal deliberations.

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15 Responses to The wikileaks saga continued

  1. Ken Parish says:

    BTW After a bit more Googling I think we need to be a bit measured about drawing any definitive conclusion that the rape allegations against Assange are just trumped up. According to this article:

    [T]he fact remains that when the condom broke, the second accuser says she told him to stop, and he did not. That’s a pretty clear statement for a court case in most countries.

    According to this article:

    She would later tell police that Assange used his body weight to hold her down during sex and that she was a victim of “unlawful coercion.”

    If true, this would clearly constitute a sexual assault under Australian law.

    Similarly (see second article linked above), the other complainant’s story is:

    Aug. 16: The second woman, identified only as Miss W by Swedish officials, calls Assange and they meet in Stockholm. They go by train to her hometown and to her apartment, where they have sex. According to her testimony to police, Assange wore a condom.

    Aug. 17: Miss W later tells police that Assange that morning had unprotected sex with her while she was still asleep.

    Again, the second event might well be sexual assault under Australian law, although no doubt there would be an issue as to Assange’s state of belief as to whether the sleeping woman was consenting. However, it is very likely that such a case WOULD result in charges being laid in Australia.

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  3. pablo says:

    Watching a US PBS Newshour debate on likely US reaction if they could get their hands on Assange, it is by no means clear what his fate would be. Their Espionage Act dates from 1917 and takes no cognisance of electronic data, ‘stolen’ or otherwise. Since Assange only received such data, it then becomes whether he coerced the original theft/theives into their illegal act. If he can claim a journalistic endeavour to ‘process’ the data he has a 1st Amendment immunity which the print media, like the NY Times now claim for on-sale of WikiLeaks data. As a foreigner Assange is also in a grey area regarding charges under their Espionage Act, but if any time previously spent in the US was for nefarious purposes then ‘better get a good lawyer son’, seems the go as the aiding terrorism panoply takes hold. The test will possibly be a US extradition claim.
    Coming so soon after its dark side ‘rendition’ rides, it’s possibly a real test for Obama facing a hostile Republican majority. A ‘show trial’ in the lead up to the 2012 presidential campaign anyone?

  4. If it had been Yu Lian Ah Sangh in China who had published on wiki leaks some Chinese correspondence and been locked up or charged we and the USA would be calling for his release and holding him up as a Brave Defender of Democracy.

    What little I’ve seen of the diplomatic briefings shows what a lazy bunch they are – I’m sure some of the stuff has been cribbed off blogs, copied from Lateline or newspaper and radio opinion and cut and pasted back to the USA. All with no attribution of acknowledgement even of Media Monitors.

  5. Oh and my Swedish contacts tell me a “summer crayfish party” is a cross between a Melbourne Cup BBQ and schoolies week with the added element of Swedish drinking habits – as my friend says ” We place a high value on getting drunk”. The likelihood of anyone being sober at a crayfish party is slim. This might make any evidence form either side a bit difficult to rely on.

  6. Hannah Lee says:

    After much research about these women who alledge that Julian Assange raped them, I hasfounbd that one of them has ties to An Anti-Castro regime and that it wa fundewd byt the CIA. Also that same woman threwe a party in his honour after the so-called rape and tweeted about it. Do your researchand you will find the truth. It’s all a ploy to discredit him from what he is saying. It’s disgusting!nd the truth.

  7. Hannah Lee says:

    How is a woman raped and then throws a party for her “rapist”? And tweets about it, I quote: “the world’s coolest smartest people, it’s amazing!”M unheard of.

  8. conrad says:

    I think there is far too much focus on the US on this topic. I would think they were one of the better behaved countries, since one of the interesting things about the recent saga was that there was far less call to do anything when just the US stuff was released — all of the sources of funding, the web site attacks, and so on didn’t happen until stuff about other countries was released. Perhaps that’s just because the US was a bit lazy about doing something, but it seems likely that a lot of these things were instigated by other countries.

  9. Patrick says:

    I’m amazed by the speculation here and elsewhere that Assange wouldn’t face a fair trial in the US. Gee you lot would make easy jurors for the defence.

    I haven’t seen a scintilla of evidence or actual argument as to why that might be the case, and the last time I checked, the US was doing pretty well on judicial independence.

  10. Jacques Chester says:

    One would expect from history that after a few such skirmishes, some kind of Internet Police will arise.

    Various police organisations already exist to police crimes committed via the Internet, but most of the time they can’t be bothered with anything under $large_amount. Basically these attacks are possible on a systemic basis, merely identifying and arresting a few people won’t stop Anonymous or anyone else from doing what they do.

  11. Ken Parish says:

    I agree that some sort of Internet Police could not work. Nor is it necessary. As I commented on Paul’s other post, this whole fiasco arose from slack US security. I’ve seen figures of anywhere between 250,000 and 2 million US public servants who had authorised access to these “confidential” diplomatic cables. There is no way to maintain secrecy effectively with so many people having access. However, it isn’t rocket science to fix the problem. The Americans will just drastically slash the number of people who have access, and implement a secure document checkout and tracking system to ensure that mass document theft can’t occur in future. The claim that Wikileaks represents “a fundamental shift in the relationship between information and power” is absurdly hyperbolic. This whole Wikileaks story is getting much more intense and serious attention than it deserves.

  12. derrida derider says:

    Yuo’re surely joking, Patrick. Quite apart from the traditional boast of US prosecutors that they could “indict a ham sandwich”, surely the way they have blatantly ignored due process since 9/11, the way they have widened that process anyway through the Patriot Act should open your eyes. The rhetoric coming from the US here, and the behaviour of their corporations too, is ominous.

    The real question here is not the iniquities of so called “mainstream” politicians, lawyers and spooks in the US – take that as given – but the position of Swedish politicans, lawyers and spooks when either formal extradition or more “informal” rendition is pressed on them by the Yanks. Our pollies, of course, have already failed this test dismally.

  13. Ken Parish says:

    NB The Swedish Special Prosecutor has indicated that it would not be legally possible under Swedish law for Assange to be extradited to the US until Swedish criminal proceedings (if any) have been completed and any prison sentence served (if found guilty). That is also roughly how extradition works under Australian law – foreign countries take their place in the queue after Australia’s legal system has done its work. Swedish history and practice does not provide any reasonable basis for suspecting that its government would be likely to subvert its own laws and collaborate in extra-legal rendition to the US.

    I suspect that by the time the Swedish system has finished with Assange (even if that’s only after an investigation of a couple of months that doesn’t result in formal charges), all the posturing and hysteria from the US will be yesterday’s news and the pressure for politicians to strike a tough stance against Assange will have disappeared. It’s possible that the vacuous Sarah Palin doesn’t even understand privately that this is all about slack US government document security rather than any evil-doing by Wikileaks; any politician with half a brain well understands the true situation but doesn’t want to give Fox News a free kick.

  14. Paul Frijters says:

    Ken,

    the best analysis I have found so far of the rape allegations is this article by the Times of India (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/us/Sex-accusers-boasted-about-their-conquest-of-WikiLeaks-founder-Julian-Assange/articleshow/7068149.cms). It really makes it sound highly unlikely that rape in any reasonable sense of that word occurred. Just think of what is now the most likely sequence of events: after the first encounter, the ‘victim’ still took him to a conference where a video was made of both her and the second ‘victim’. Boastful tweets apparently exist of the first victim. The second victim (2 days later) made Julian breakfast after the intercourse. The two victims then get in touch, worried that they might have contracted STDs because of the lack of condom use. They go to the police and the current circus is set in motion.

    What are the odds, Ken, that Julian Assange, forewarned that he should be careful of honey traps, goes to Sweden, has consensual sex with 2 women in a short space of time, but nevertheless oversteps the boundaries of decency in both cases, then mesmerises both his victims so that the first brags about her encounter and the second makes him breakfast, only for the two of them to realise their victimhood days later after chatting to each other for a few days? It’s possible and if so, he should be convicted, but damned unlikely.

    Whilst I dont believe in a conspiracy, it sounds to me highly unlikely that Mr Assange is guilty of what he is accused of, and I do have enough faith in the Swedish justice system to expect him to be acquitted of this (my money is on the younger one breaking rank). Nevertheless, it will take up a lot of his time and I would be immensely surprised if there wouldnt be a whole raft of other accusations laid at his feet by the time his first trial is concluded.

  15. SJ says:

    Something that’s been missed in all of this is that Wikileaks hasn’t actually published the 250,000 or so documents on its website. What it did was to send them to a number of newspapers around the world, which so far have themselves published about 960 of the documents, with whatever redactions they thought necessary. Wikileaks has subsequently put onto its website the already published 960 documents, with the same redactions. You can’t get anything from Wikileaks that you can’t get from the NYT or the Guardian.

    See Glenn Greenwald Anti-WikiLeaks lies and propaganda – from TNR, Lauer, Feinstein and more

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