From Jefferson to Assange

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared at Truthdig, www.truthdig.com/

All you need to know about Julian Assange’s value as a crusading journalist is that the New York Times and most of the world’s other leading newspapers have led daily with important news stories based on his WikiLeaks releases. All you need to know about the collapse of traditional support for the constitutional protection of a free press is that Dianne Feinstein, the centrist Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, has called for Assange “to be vigorously prosecuted for espionage.”

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Feinstein, who strongly supported the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, has the audacity to call for the imprisonment of the man who, more than any other individual, has allowed the public to learn the truth about those disastrous imperial adventures—facts long known to Feinstein as head of the Intelligence Committee but never shared with the public she claims to represent.

Feinstein represents precisely the government that Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he said, in defense of unfettered freedom of the press, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

In the 1787 letter in which he wrote those words, Jefferson was reflecting the deep wisdom of a political leader who often had been excoriated by a vicious press that would make the anarchist-inflected comments of an Assange seem mild in comparison. More than 35 years later, after having suffered many more vitriolic press attacks, Jefferson reiterated his belief in a free press, in all its vagaries, as the foundation of a democracy. In an 1823 letter to Lafayette, Jefferson warned: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted to be freely expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”

It is precisely that agitation that so alarms Feinstein, for the inconvenient truths she has concealed in her Senate role would have indeed shocked many of those who voted for her. She knew in real time that Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack, yet she voted to send young Americans to kill and be killed based on what she knew to be lies. It is her duplicity, along with the leaders of both political parties, that now stands exposed by the WikiLeaks documents.

That is why U.S. governmental leaders will now employ the massive power of the state to discredit and destroy Assange, who dared let the public in on the depths of official deceit—a deceit that they hide behind in making their claims of protecting national security. Claims mocked by released cables that show that our puppets in Iraq and Afghanistan are deeply corrupt and anti-democratic, and that Al Qaeda continues to find its base of support not in those countries but rather in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, the very nations we arm and protect. The notion that the official tissue of lies enhances our security is rejected by the growing strength of radical Islam in the region, as evidenced by the success of Iran, the main benefactor of our invasion of Iraq, as the leaked cables make clear.

Julian Assange

The pretend patriots who use the national security argument to gut what remains of our most important security asset—our constitutional guarantees of a truly free press—are just what President George Washington feared when in his farewell address he warned “against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the Impostures of pretended patriotism.”

The pretended patriotism of Feinstein, the first Democrat to co-sponsor the bill extending the U.S. Patriot Act, represents the death of the Democratic Party as a protector of our freedoms. As a California resident, I will not vote for her again, no matter how dastardly a right-wing Republican opponent she might face. There is no lesser evil to be found in one who would so cavalierly imprison practitioners of a free press.

That is the issue here, pure and simple. It is unconscionable to target Assange for publishing documents on the Internet that mainstream media outlets have attested had legitimate news value. As in the historic case in which Daniel Ellsberg gave the New York Times the Pentagon Papers exposé of the official lies justifying the Vietnam War, Assange is acting as the reporter here, and thus his activities must be shielded by the First Amendment’s guarantee of journalistic freedom.

Actually, Ellsberg’s position, as morally strong as it was, was weaker than that of Assange, in that the former Marine and top Pentagon adviser was working at the government-funded Rand Corp., where he had agreed to rules about the handling of classified information, including the Pentagon Papers. Assange operates under no such restraints and is an even clearer example of the journalist who ferrets out news and attempts to report it. He had no special clearance that provided him access, and what he did was no different from what the editors of the New York Times did in publishing news that was fit to print.

It is outrageous for any journalist, or respecter of what every American president has claimed is our inalienable, God-given right to a free press, not to join in Assange’s defense on this issue, as distinct from what increasingly appear to be trumped-up charges that led to his voluntary arrest in London in a case involving his personal behavior. Abandon Assange and you abandon the bedrock of our republic: the public’s right to know.

Robert Scheer, editor in chief of Truthdig, has built a reputation for strong social and political writing in his 30 years as a journalist.  For more information, visit www.truthdig.com/.

In His Own Words

By Julian Assange

(WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange wrote this Op-Ed for The Australian http://www.theaustralian.com.au/)

In 1958 a young Rupert Murdoch, then owner and editor of Adelaide’s The News, wrote: “In the race between secrecy and truth, it seems inevitable that truth will always win.”

His observation perhaps reflected his father Keith Murdoch’s expose that Australian troops were being needlessly sacrificed by incompetent British commanders on the shores of Gallipoli. The British tried to shut him up but Keith Murdoch would not be silenced, and his efforts led to the termination of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.

Nearly a century later, WikiLeaks is also fearlessly publishing facts that need to be made public.

I grew up in a Queensland country town where people spoke their minds bluntly. They distrusted big government as something that could be corrupted if not watched carefully. The dark days of corruption in the Queensland government before the Fitzgerald inquiry, in response to a series of articles on high-level police corruptions, are testimony to what happens when the politicians gag the media from reporting the truth.

These things have stayed with me. WikiLeaks was created around these core values. The idea, conceived in Australia, was to use Internet technologies in new ways to report the truth.

WikiLeaks coined a new type of journalism: scientific journalism. We work with other media outlets to bring people the news, but also to prove it is true. Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?

Democratic societies need a strong media and WikiLeaks is part of that media. The media helps keep government honest. WikiLeaks has revealed some hard truths about the Iraq and Afghan wars, and broken stories about corporate corruption.

People have said I am anti-war: for the record, I am not. Sometimes nations need to go to war, and there are just wars. But there is nothing more wrong than a government lying to its people about those wars, then asking these same citizens to put their lives and their taxes on the line for those lies. If a war is justified, then tell the truth and the people will decide whether to support it.

If you have read any of the Afghan or Iraq war logs, any of the U.S. embassy cables or any of the stories about the things WikiLeaks has reported, consider how important it is for all media to be able to report these things freely.

WikiLeaks is not the only publisher of the U.S. embassy cables. Other media outlets, including Britain’s The Guardian, the New York Times, El Pais in Spain and Der Spiegel in Germany have published the same redacted cables.

Yet, it is WikiLeaks, as the coordinator of these other groups, that has copped the most vicious attacks and accusations from the U.S. government and its acolytes. I have been accused of treason, even though I am an Australian, not a U.S., citizen. There have been dozens of serious calls in the United States for me to be “taken out” by U.S. special forces. Sarah Palin says I should be “hunted down like Osama bin Laden,” a Republican bill sits before the U.S. Senate seeking to have me declared a “transnational threat” and disposed of accordingly. An adviser to the Canadian Prime Minister’s office has called on national television for me to be assassinated. An American blogger has called for my 20-year-old son, here in Australia, to be kidnapped and harmed for no other reason than to get at me.

And Australians should observe with no pride the disgraceful pandering to these sentiments by Prime Minister, Julia Gillard and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who have not had a word of criticism for the other media organizations. That is because The Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel are old and large, while WikiLeaks is as yet young and small.

We are the underdogs. The Gillard government is trying to shoot the messenger because it doesn’t want the truth revealed, including information about its own diplomatic and political dealings.

Has there been any response from the Australian government to the numerous public threats of violence against me and other WikiLeaks personnel? One might have thought an Australian prime minister would be defending her citizens against such things, but there have only been wholly unsubstantiated claims of illegality. The Prime Minister and especially the Attorney-General are meant to carry out their duties with dignity and above the fray. Rest assured, these two mean to save their own skins. They will not.

Every time WikiLeaks publishes the truth about abuses committed by U.S. agencies, Australian politicians chant a provably false chorus with the State Department: “You’ll risk lives! National security! You’ll endanger troops!” Then they say there is nothing of importance in what WikiLeaks publishes. It can’t be both. Which is it?

It is neither. WikiLeaks has a four-year publishing history. During that time, we have changed whole governments, but not a single person, as far as anyone is aware, has been harmed. But the United States, with Australian government connivance, has killed thousands in the past few months alone.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitted in a letter to the U.S. Congress that no sensitive intelligence sources or methods had been compromised by  the Afghan war logs disclosure. The Pentagon stated there was no evidence the WikiLeaks reports had led to anyone being harmed in Afghanistan. NATO in Kabul told CNN it couldn’t find a single person who needed protecting. The Australian Department of Defence said the same. No Australian troops or sources have been hurt by anything we have published.

But our publications have been far from unimportant. The U.S. diplomatic cables reveal some startling facts:

The United States  asked its diplomats to steal personal human material and information from UN officials and human rights groups, including DNA, fingerprints, iris scans, credit card numbers, Internet passwords and ID photos, in violation of international treaties. Presumably, Australian UN diplomats may be targeted, too.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia told the U.S. Officials in Jordan and Bahrain that he wanted Iran’s nuclear program stopped by any means available.

Britain’s Iraq inquiry was fixed to protect “U.S. interests.”

Sweden is a covert member of NATO, and U.S. intelligence sharing is kept from parliament.

The United States is playing hardball to get other countries to take freed detainees from Guantanamo Bay. Barack Obama agreed to meet the Slovenian President only if Slovenia took a prisoner. Our Pacific neighbor, Kiribati, was offered millions of dollars to accept detainees.

In its landmark ruling in the Pentagon Papers case, the U.S. Supreme Court said that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” The swirling storm around WikiLeaks today reinforces the need to defend the right of all media to reveal the truth.

*****

Julian Assange is the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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