A problematic figure - GulfToday

A problematic figure

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

As expected, Britain’s hard-line Home Secretary Priti Patel approved the extradition to the US of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange where he would face trial on 17 charges which could inflict a maximum sentence of 170 years in prison. If extradited, he will be prosecuted for publishing classified diplomatic documents and sensitive military reports on the Afghan and Iraq wars, neither of which were authorised by the UN Security Council. The US had depended on the “fog of war” to provide cover for the most egregious actions of its military in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Since these wars were illegal under the UN Charter and international law, it was imperative that media should record events on the ground and in the skies of these two countries. WikiLeaks, a publisher, was empowered by the right of freedom of information, to reveal information which gave a more complete picture of what was taking place than that provided by journalists on the ground.

The 91,000 documents on Afghanistan, covering 2004-2009, were leaked in July 2010 and published in The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, which argued that the global public had a right to know what was happening. The Times wrote that the leak “offers an unvarnished and grim picture of the Afghan war.” The Guardian called the material “a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, Taliban attacks have soared, and NATO commanders fear neighbouring Pakistan and Iran are fuelling the insurgency.” Der Spiegel wrote that the recipients of the leak were “unanimous in their belief that there is a justified public interest in the material.”

The Iraq war logs consisting of nearly 400,000 documents and covered the same period. They were leaked in October 2010 to the same three newspapers plus al-Jazeera, Le Monde, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and the Iraq Body Count website. These documents revealed that the US war had caused tens of thousands of civilian deaths, human rights abuses, arrests and disappearances. One video showed a US helicopter gunship firing on insurgents seeking to surrender while another pictured two Apache helicopters shooting down 10 men, including two Reuters journalists, in a small square in Baghdad. The torture and beatings administered to detainees at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad (which I visited in 2004) were investigated only after after being revealed by WikiLeaks.

In October 2010, the US Justice Department launched a criminal investigation of Assange. A month later Sweden issued an international arrest warrant for him for sexual misconduct while he was in Britain. In 2012, after losing his effort to avoid extradition to Sweden which, he feared, would hand him over to the US, he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he was granted asylum. In 2019 Sweden dropped the extradition warrant, Ecuador revoked his asylum status, the British police arrested him inside the embassy and he was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for breaking the terms of bail while a British court decided on Sweden’s application. He remains in prison while fighting extradition to the US.

The US issued indictments and called for extradition on the host of charges, including violation of the 1917 Espionage Act, which Assange has been fighting since then. Meanwhile, WikiLeaks has published documents on the US prison at Guantanamo, US involvement in Yemen before 2015, and emails on purges by Turkiye which followed the 2016 failed coup and Democratic party emails during the 2016 presidential campaign. 

The Washington Post, New York Times, The Guardian, and other media outlets call the charges an attack on the First Amendment to the sacrosanct US Constitution, which guarantees press freedom. The current period is particularly sensitive for US media which is beset by radical conservatives who undermine the credibility of the press and crazies who propagate improbable conspiracy theories and absurd plots.

Assange is a problematic figure, neither hero nor villain. He cannot be a traitor to the US because is is Australian. Born in 1971 in Queensland, he had a nomadic childhood until he took root in Melbourne. He became a hacker at 16 under the name of Mendax and at the age of 19 he was arrested for hacking into a Canadian telecommunications firm and fined but did not serve jail time. He studied programming, mathematics and physics at two universities but did not earn a degree. He registered the “leaks” domain in 1990 but did not go further. However, he did argue that an Australian National Security Agency-owned patent for phone call tapping and recording could benefit foreign secury agencies. He and colleagues established WikiLeaks in 2006 and began publishing material about drone strikes in Yemen, Kenyan police killings, and Tibetan resistance against Chinese occupation. Wikileaks gained publicity in 2008 when it published records of a Swiss bank, claiming that such institutions operate outside the law.

The attitude of the US government — whether under ex-presidents Barack Obama or Donald Trump, or President Joe Biden — is to “shoot the messenger” not the perpetrators of war crimes. While imprisoned Assange is the messenger, George W. Bush is the prime example of a perpetrator who has suffered only verbal criticism and spent not one night in jail.  He is guilty of using lies to launch a war on Iraq that has wrecked the country. During a speech this month a clearly guilt-consumed Bush condemned “a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq — I mean of Ukraine, adding Iraq... anyway.”

Bush should have been but was not put on trial in The Hague for the Iraq war which destroyed the country and killed up to a million Iraqis. This being the case, Assange and WikiLeaks should have been given a medal for publishing material on Iraq as well as Afghanistan. However, the US is never called to account for its actions by the UN, international legal bodies, or the world community.

Since its creation in 1946, the US has had a complicated relationship with the International Court of Justice. While collaborating with the court on certain case submissions, the US does not accept the authority of the court and has rejected rulings Washington considers harmful to US interests. The US has flatly rejected the International Criminal Court. This amounts to US dismissal of the rule of law which does not count if not applied to all.

Photo: TNS

Related articles