Scarcely a day after the WikiLeaks disclosures of U.S. State Department cables the U.S. political establishment went ballistic. Some called for the assassination of WikiLeaks’ spokesperson, Julian Assange, whereas others wanted to amend the 1917 Espionage Act to target the website. Targeted “denial of service” attacks shut down the web site, and then the political pressure on the web servers built up. Senator Joe Lieberman led the armies of Internet Un-Freedom.
There was little concern about how odd this seemed from, say, Beijing. In January 2010, State Department head Hillary Clinton challenged China’s censorious behavior with Google. She called it “politically motivated censorship,” and pointed out further, “Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation.” In November 2009, President Obama lectured students at the Museum of Science and Technology in Shanghai on the need for Internet freedom. “I am a big supporter of non-censorship,” he said. “I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes.”
By U.S. law, a media outlet is only culpable if it colludes with the theft of information (including government secrets). If the law were any less generous, the New York Times would have been as guilty as WikiLeaks. Nonetheless, the political class threw off its liberty mask when it felt tight. What followed was Digital McCarthyism.
But why was there this massive outrage at the release of these cables, and why the virtual silence at the release of the Iraq and Afghan War Logs by WikiLeaks earlier this year? The War Logs depict the willful killings of civilians by US and NATO forces, including several incidents that should constitute war crimes. There was a mild consternation at the release, and Private First Class Bradley Manning was arrested for the alleged theft of those documents. But no talk of assassination of Assange, and no talk of WikiLeaks as a terrorist organization.
The State Department cables show the elite at their venal worst, conniving with each other, making light of each other’s failings. The War Logs, on the other hand, showed the misadventures of teenaged working-class soldiers, suborned to a war that they did not understand. Their violence was dismissed as the work of a few “bad apples,” men and women who had not been sufficiently civilized. In these cables, on the other hand, the civilized talk about their dark plans of conquest. It is an abomination. They know it. They are embarrassed.
One of the most curious sideshows of this embarrassment has been the targeting of Julian Assange. When it became clear that there is no short-term method to legally deal with WikiLeaks, pressure mounted from mysterious quarters to arrest Assange on the basis of a complaint filed earlier this year in Sweden. Unlike the United States, Sweden has a robust set of laws against violence against women. It is an unheralded model for the world. In August 2010, the Swedish chief prosecutor Eva Finne had declined to prosecute the case against Assange brought by two women. They stated that, in consensual sexual encounters, Assange had not used a condom (a violation of a statute in the rape laws). Eva Finne did not find the evidence compelling at that time (“Julian Assange is not suspected of rape,” she noted pointedly).
Miraculously, on November 29, the day after the release of the State Department cables, the prosecutor in Gothenburg asked Interpol to issue a “Red Notice” (warrant) for Assange. Even the word “naïve” can no longer cover the denial that this is a politically motivated prosecution (which would make his extradition from the UK to Sweden very difficult as a result of the protections through the European Arrest Warrant statue). Rape is a serious crime. Each case requires serious consideration. In Sweden itself, 90% of rape charges do not come to court. As Katrin Axelsson of Women Against Rape put it, “There is a long tradition of the use of rape and sexual assault for political agendas that have nothing to do with women’s safety. In the south of the US, the lynching of black men was often justified on grounds that they had raped or even looked at a white woman. Women don’t take kindly to our demand for safety being misused, while rape continues to be neglected at best or protected at worst.”
To make the case against Assange more difficult, one of the women who accused him, Anna Ardin, has now left Sweden for the Middle East. Ardin works for an organization to bring peace between Israel and Palestine. She no longer seems keen to pursue the case, which is why a formal charge has not been filed against Assange. The debate in the media has focused on the “rape charge.” This is a false approach to the issue. Julian Assange has not been charged. This is a political prosecution that is using the cover of rape to take our attention away from what has been revealed by the documents. The New York Times has ceased to report from the cables; it is now transfixed on the Assange case.
Order prevails on the Internet, declares the political establishment. They are misguided. The more freely information flows, the stronger a society becomes.
Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History at Trinity College, where he directs the International Studies Program. His latest book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, which won the Muzaffar Ahmed Prize of 2009.