Counterpunch: Robert Fisk – The Final Punishment of Julian Assange

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture is warning that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is suffering from the effects of “psychological torture” due to his ongoing detention and threats of possible extradition to the United States. The U.N. expert, Nils Melzer, also warned that Assange would likely face a “politicized show trial” if he were to be extradited to the United States. Melzer writes, “In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution, I have never seen a group of democratic states ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonize and abuse a single individual for such a long time.”

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

Cross-posted from Counterpunch

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I’m getting a bit tired of the US Espionage Act. For that matter, I’ve been pretty weary of the Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning saga for a long time. No one wants to talk about their personalities because no one seems to like them very much – even those who have benefited journalistically from their revelations.

From the start, I’ve been worried about the effect of Wikileaks, not on the brutal western governments whose activities it has disclosed in shocking detail (especially in the Middle East) but on the practice of journalism. When we scribes were served up this Wikileaks pottage, we jumped in, paddled around and splashed the walls of reporting with our cries of horror. And we forgot that real investigative journalism was about the dogged pursuit of truth through one’s own sources rather than upsetting a bowl of secrets in front of readers, secrets which Assange and co – rather than us – had chosen to make public.

Why was it, I do recall asking myself almost 10 years ago, that we could read the indiscretions of so many Arabs or Americans but so few Israelis? Just who was mixing the soup we were supposed to eat? What had been left out of the gruel?

But the last few days have convinced me that there is something far more obvious about the incarceration of Assange and the re-jailing of Manning. And it has nothing to do with betrayal or treachery or any supposed catastrophic damage to our security.

In The Washington Post this week, we’ve had Marc Theissen, a former White House speechwriter who defended CIA torture as “lawful and morally just”, telling us that Assange “is not a journalist. He is a spy … He engaged in espionage against the United States. And he has no remorse for the harm he has caused.” So forget that Trump’s insanity has already turned torture and secret relations with America’s enemies into a pastime.

No, I don’t think this has anything to do with the use of the Espionage Act – however grave its implications for conventional journalists – or “reputable news organisations”, as Thiessen cloyingly calls us. Nor does it have much to do with the dangers these revelations posed to America’s locally hired agents in the Middle East. I remember well how often Iraqi interpreters for US forces told us how they had pleaded for visas for themselves and their families when they came under threat in Iraq – and how most were told to get lost. We Brits treated many of our own Iraqi translators with similar indifference.

So let’s forget – just for a moment – the slaughter of civilians, the lethal cruelty of US mercenaries (some involved in child-trafficking), the killing of Reuters staff by US forces in Baghdad, the army of innocents held in Guantanamo, the torture, the official lies, the fake casualty figures, the embassy lies, the American training of Egypt’s torturers and all the other crimes uncovered by the activities of Assange and Manning.

Let’s suppose that what they revealed was good rather than bad, that the diplomatic and military documents provided a shining example of a great and moral country and demonstrated those very noble and shining ideals which the land of the free has always espoused. Let’s pretend that US forces in Iraq repeatedly gave their lives to protect civilians, that they denounced their allies’ tortures, that they treated the inmates of Abu Ghraib (many of them completely innocent) not with sexual cruelty but with respect and kindness; that they broke the power of the mercenaries and sent them back to prison in the US in chains; that they owned up, however apologetically, to the cemeteries of men, women and children whom they sent to an early grave in the Iraq war.

Better still, let’s just think for a moment how we might have reacted to the revelation that the Americans had not killed these tens of thousands of people, had never tortured a soul, that the prisoners of Guantanamo – every man jack of them – were provably sadistic, cowardly, xenophobic, racist mass murderers, the evidence of their crimes against humanity proved before the fairest courts in the land. Let’s even fantasise for a moment that the US helicopter crew who cut down 12 civilians in a Baghdad street did not “waste” them with its guns. Let’s imagine that the voice on the helicopter radio cried: “Wait, I think these guys are civilians – and that gun might just be a television camera. Don’t shoot!”

As we all know, this is escapism. For what these hundreds of thousands of documents represented was the shaming of America, its politicians, its soldiers, its torturers, its diplomats. There was even an element of farce which, I suspect, enraged the Thiessens of this world even more than the most terrible of revelations. I’ll always remember the outrage expressed by Hillary Clinton when it was revealed that she had sent her flunkies to spy on the United Nations; her State Department slaves had to study the encryption details of delegates, credit card transactions, even frequent flyer cards. But who on this earth would want to waste their time studying the tosh emanating from the UN’s hopelessly incompetent staff? Or, for that matter, who in the CIA wasted their time listening to Angela Merkel’s private telephone conversations with Ban Ki Moon.

One of the cables Assange revealed went right back to the 1979 Iranian revolution and attache Bruce Laingen’s assessment that “the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism”. Interesting, but Iranian students had painstakingly stuck together all the shredded US embassy papers in Tehran in the years after 1979, and had already published Laingen’s words decades before Wikileaks gave them to us. So vast was the first 250,000-document hoard – which Hillary denounced as “an attack on the international community” while still calling the papers “alleged documents” (as if they might be a hoax) – that few could discover what was new and what was old. Thus The New York Times breathlessly highlighted the Laingen quote as if it was an extraordinary scoop.

Some of the material was not so obvious before – the suggestion that Syria had allowed anti-American insurgents to pass through its territory from Lebanon, for example, was absolutely correct – but the “evidence” of Iranian bomb-making in southern Iraq was far more doubtful. This story had already been happily farmed out to The New York Times by Pentagon officials in February 2007, to be reheated in more recent years, but was largely nonsense. Iranian military equipment had been lying around all over Iraq since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and most of the bomb-makers who used it were Iraqi Sunni Muslims.

But this is nitpicking amid the garbage tip of paper. Such tomfoolery is insignificant compared to the monstrous revelations of American cruelty; the account, for example, of how US troops killed almost 700 civilians for coming too close to their checkpoints, including pregnant women and the mentally ill. And the instruction to US forces – this bit of history from Chelsea Manning – not to investigate when their Iraqi military allies whipped prisoners with heavy cables, hung them from ceiling hooks, bored holes into their legs with electric drills and sexually assaulted them. In the secret US assessment of 109,000 deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan (itself a gross underestimation), 66,081 were officially classified as non-combatants. What, I wonder, would have been the American reaction to the killing of 66,000 US citizens, 20 times more than the dead of 9/11?

None of this, of course, were we supposed to know. And you can see why not. The worst of this material was secret not because it accidentally slipped into a military administration file marked “confidential” or “for your eyes only”, but because it represented the cover-up of state crime on a massive scale.

Those responsible for these atrocities should now be on trial, extradited from wherever they are hiding and imprisoned for their crimes against humanity. But no, we are going to punish the leakers – however pathetic we may regard their motives.

Sure, we journalists, we folk from “reputable news organisations”, may worry about the implications of all this for our profession. But far better we hunt down other truths, equally frightening for authority. Why not find out, for example, what Mike Pompeo said in private to Mohammed bin Salman? What toxic promises Donald Trump may have made to Netanyahu? What relations the US still secretly maintains with Iran, why it has even kept up important contact – desultory, silently and covertly – with elements of the Syrian regime?

Why wait 10 years for the next Assange to drive up to us with another dumper truck of state secrets?

But the usual red warning light: what we find out through the old conventional journalism of foot-slogging, of history via deep throats or trusted contacts, is going to reveal – if we do our job – just the same vile mendacity of our masters that has led to the clamour of hatred towards Assange and Manning and, indeed, Edward Snowden. We’re not going to be arraigned because the prosecution of these three set a dangerous legal precedent. But we’ll be persecuted for the same reasons: because what we shall disclose will inevitably prove that our governments and those of our allies commit war crimes; and those responsible for these iniquities will try to make us pay for such indiscretion with a life behind bars.

Shame and the fear of accountability for what has been done by our “security” authorities, not the law-breaking of leakers, is what this is all about.

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1 Comment

  1. Yes, Mr Fisk, the trade of journalism in the West is changing. Remember, if you’re not with them, you’re against them. Increasingly, journalists who raise the ire of the authorities will have to consider themselves combatants. It is curious how things change, yet in some respects stay the same. There was never a time when the authorities were open and upfront about what they were up to. Though sinds the Sixties there has been an increase in revelations about behind-the-scenes goings-on, of a widely varied nature from the relatively innocuous to serious stuff, appearances seem to indicate that there is a lot more serious stuff going on behind the scenes than before, or than we’re allowed to know.

    This situation raises questions, as all situations do. What, uberhaupt, can we believe. Are we to take for gospel truth the revelations which come to us by way of journalists who appear or likely are against the Establishment? How would the general public know what to believe? Many people have not the time and/or inclination to study news reports from a wide variety of sources-A must if one is to have a stab at weighing up the various shades of reporting. It is hard to know for certain which source is telling the truth from a neutral perspective. Maybe some international busy bodies are neutral and knowledgeable both, and willing to tell the public all that there is to know. Oxfam anyone? Perhaps.

    Then, how much need the general public know about what secrets are kept by whom. In theory, in a parliamentary democracy, the electorate needs to know a lot in order to be able to make a judgement. In practice, the majority in the western democracies appear not to want to know too much. Maybe there are a lot of people in the West who are morally challenged, or ethically challenged, or philosophically challenged, or politically challenged, or psychologically challenged. People have to worry about their job, their families and what not. Who can give these issues such as the journalists on the outer reveal the proper attention? Maybe, even, there are more important matters of state to worry about for the general public. The issues you have raised in the past, if memory serves me right, were important enough, though in the light of mainstream media fare of outlandish appearance or interpretation. Then, there is a propaganda war, always, as a matter of course. One needs to maintain a balance by countering the mainstream propaganda by going overboard the other way-or so it seems to some observers. Pontius wanted to know of Jesus, ” What is truth?”. He got no answer, apparently.

    What strikes me about the fulminating against Trump, as if he is to take all the blame for all of the US of A’s wrongdoing overseas, is the partisanship shown in that regard. If people who supported Obama and the Clintons full-on and then turn around painting Trump black, how, exactly, can pne take these protesters seriously?

    The West is entering a most interesting period in it’s entire functioning. It looks like the masses, the broadly based public amongst the electorates are getting politically educated. If one considers what has been happening in the EU, and lately with Brexit, then follows voting patterns, does it not stand out how the general public, insofar as they are allowed to vote, have an enormous capacity for tolerance of openly demonstrated contempt for the nation-state, parliamentary democracy and the civil rights pertaining to citizenship, on the part of politicians, bureaucrats, international busybodies, the rich and wealthy and the host of supporters, supplicants and applicants who are so keen to do the bidding of those in power? Reading the public, knowing what they must, or ought be able to, know, does one who thinks about this not get the impression that the democratic majority in the West is quite willing to put up with the incumbents, the entrenched, the arrivistas, the progressive(pass me the sick-bag) woke and with-it who fancy they have already arrived as part of the new world order establishment? Journalists are not, as a rule, philosophers. Maybe the true anti-establishment anti-authority journalists should balance out their trade by taking a long look at how they are situated vis-a-vis the rest of the population. I am assuming Asange knew what he was doing, but even if he did not, he is still a child of our historical development. Our history is not quite finished, yet. More than ever, life in the West is a play, a piece of theatre. We are actors, but many of us have yet to realise it, even as they are playing their role. Soon, all news will be fake news. We, each of us individually, will have to work out our own salvation.
    The world is a Jungian individuation exercise. The European is out in front, in that regard. Democracy was never for the faint-hearted, certainly not for the slavish. Many are called, fewer are chosen, fewer yet can see their way through.

    Have a look at the EU, and the UK’s Brexit performance, and the voting patterns. The slavish followers are still in the majority. Where does journalism xome in here? By far the majority are playing the game. Risk your nexk only for your own purposes, your own development, your own individuation, one should think. Why be a hero for the slavish?

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