Last week the US District Judge Anthony Trenga released Chelsea Manning from detainment after concluding that the grand jury that she had been subpoenaed to testify before no longer needed her, since it was being disbanded. Manning was incarcerated because of her principled stance against the secrecy of the grand jury and her refusal to cooperate in its coercive procedure.
The release of Manning came after the US government tried to break her to the point of suicide. Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, wrote a letter to the US government late last year indicating that Manning’s imprisonment amounted to torture. Her resistance is a part of the US government’s war on the free press, going after WikiLeaks’ publisher Julian Assange.
Assange has been charged under the Espionage Act for publishing classified documents which exposed US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. This indictment is recognized by free speech groups as an unprecedented attack on the First Amendment. In February, the first week of the UK hearing of the US request for Assange’s extradition revealed a scale of this "war" that goes well beyond press freedom. What took place inside the Woolwich Crown Court in southeast London was a sign of a dangerous slippery slide towards fascism.
Guilty without trial
Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s deliberations on the US extradition request for Assange was a trial for journalism, where bullying of an innocent man is camouflaged as a judicial process and the prosecution of a publisher that has no legal ground is given legitimacy. As Assange’s defense team argued, the proceedings have shown a serious disregard for the rule of law, including abuse of process and ignoring the political nature of this case.
Craig Murray, a UK ex-diplomat who attended the hearing everyday, gave a report of his first hand account, pointing out the very oppressive nature of the building and physical arrangement inside the maximum security anti-terrorist court. He made it clear that Assange is a remand prisoner who completed an unprecedentedly long sentence for a minor bail violation and an innocent man facing charges for publishing documents that exposed the US and UK government’s war crimes.
The former ambassador to Uzbekistan described how Assange is now treated like a violent criminal. On the first day of trial, Assange was subjected to strip searches twice, handcuffed 11 times and his court papers were removed. In the courtroom he was held behind a glass pane in the presence of private security officers, being unable to communicate with his legal team confidentially during proceedings. During the hearing, Assange spoke:
"I cannot communicate with my lawyers or ask them for clarifications without the other side seeing. The other side has about 100 times more contact with their lawyers per day. What is the point of asking if I can concentrate if I cannot participate?"
Clare Daly, member of the European Parliament from Ireland for the Dublin constituency was at the hearing and commented on this draconian measure taken against international standards. She mentioned that she was shocked to see Assange isolated behind the glass window, away from his legal team. Another member of the Parliament, Stelios Kouloglou, who was also at the court observing the hearing noted how what he saw reminded him of the dictatorship in Greece.
Erosion of civil liberties
What is this prosecution of WikiLeaks founder really about? What has quietly taken place in the US government’s war on free press was a shredding of the Magna Carta as the very foundation of democracy. The Magna Carta is one of the most important historical documents, having established the principle of due process. It embodies the idea that everyone is subject to the law, even the king, and that all are entitled to the right to a fair trial, thus guaranteeing the rights of the individual.
The Founding Fathers of the United States considered this protection against unlawful and indefinite imprisonment essential in securing individual liberty. For this, they aimed to guarantee the constitutional due process right of habeas corpus, in Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution.
By prosecuting Julian Assange, the US government is not only violating the First Amendment, but also engaged in a direct assault on the core of civil liberties. The steps toward destruction of the constitution didn’t just begin now. It didn’t happen accidentally, nor does this government’s obstruction of human rights only concern Assange as an individual. If we look carefully, we can see a series of events that were carefully orchestrated, leading to the extremely disturbing scenario of the detention of a multi-award winning journalist inside a glass box, as seen during the extradition hearing.
Assange through his work with WikiLeaks came to understand the hidden oppressive force that has insidiously stripped him of his own democratic rights. In his 2006 essay Conspiracy as Governance, he wrote:
Authoritarian regimes create forces which oppose them by pushing against a people’s will to truth, love and self-realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce further resistance. Hence such schemes are concealed by successful authoritarian powers until resistance is futile or out weighed by the efficiencies of naked power. This collaborative secrecy, working to the detriment of a population, is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial.
What Assange described as "conspiratorial interactions among the political elite" can be identified in power networks documented by Peter Phillips in his book Giants: The Global Power Elites. This includes efforts such as the Project for the New American Century – an enterprise established in 1997 for the purpose of exercising American global leadership. Consisting of top-level personnel in the George W. Bush administration, it aims for total military domination of the world.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, networks of "collaborative secrecy" that Assange analyzed, seemed to have gained momentum. Investigative journalist John Pilger revealed the American plan to exploit a catastrophic event and the way the 9/11 disaster provided the "new Pearl Harbor" (discussed in the plan) as the opportunity for the extremists in America to grab the world’s resources.
Right after the event the US, supported by its close allies, invaded Afghanistan. Then, just weeks later The USA PATRIOT Act, that radically expanded the government’s capability of surveillance, was developed as anti-terrorism legislation. The following year, in 2002, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp was set up in Cuba – in violation of due process clauses of the Constitution. From the Iraq War in 2003 to the passing by Congress of the Military Commissions Act (MCA), that completely dismantled the principle of habeas corpus, the erosion of civil liberties was made under the pretext of "fighting terrorism" – America’s official mission to wipe out al Qaeda and the terrorist Taliban leaders.
The doctrine of "war on terror"
How did this radical transgression against democracy come about? Author Naomi Klein in Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism investigated how the state exploits crises through taking advantage of the public’s psychologically vulnerable state to push through their agendas. She described the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq as a prime example of this shock doctrine.
The terror invoked by the Bush doctrine of "war on terror" in the wake of 9/11 was truly an attack on the heart of democracy. It paralyzed people and decapitated their ability to define reality, uprooting them from their own history. With the mainstream media broadcast of repeated images of the collapse of the Twin Towers, a climate of fear was amplified.
In response to the event portrayed as "terrorist attacks", President Bush in his address to Congress and the American people, expressed his patriotism with the deep emotional tones of vendetta. While the nation was disoriented, and before people had time to process this tragic incident or even really know who perpetrated it, the narrative of victimization was deftly put forth. Many wrapped themselves in the flag and joined the drumbeat of war with a sense of righteous self-defense.
The hearts of people that had frozen became numb. Many of us became unable to feel a sense of wrongness in the face of injustice. A steady advance in the reduction of civil liberties came to be normalized. In the euphemisms of "enhanced interrogation" and "extraordinary rendition" reprehensible human acts such as torture and kidnapping were made more acceptable. The term "bulk collection" was used to disguise "mass surveillance", making unconstitutional NSA spying of an entire world seem less severe or immoral. Cruel killings of civilians became less sensational when they are called "noncombatants" or become "collateral damage" after they were killed.
Conscience of Chelsea Manning
Two months after 9/11, in a news conference, President Bush urged the international community to form a coalition for military action. He said, "You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror!" – claiming there is no neutrality in this war against terror. With a police crackdown on activists creating a chilling effect, the nation entered a political winter. Consequently, Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election appeared to have lifted up the dark cloud of the post-9/11 world. Yet by the end of 2009, the American public became disillusioned with Obama’s empty promises of "hope and change".
In spring of 2010, as waves of apathy were moving through the country, a shift in the tide emerged. WikiLeaks published classified military footage of the July 2007 attack by a US Army helicopter gunship in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad. The video, titled Collateral Murder, depicted the killing of more than a dozen men, including two Reuters’ staffers.
The release of the Collateral Murder video brought a real catalyst for change. In the 17-minute film that portrayed the everyday life of the brutal military occupation in Iraq, we were given an opportunity to see with our own eyes who those labeled as enemies in the "war on terror" really were – a group of adults and children trying to defend themselves from being shot and journalists risking their lives to do their job.
The light that unveiled the US military’s senseless killing was the conscience of the US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. It brought an awakening to the heart that remembers our inherent obligation to one another, helping to recover stolen memories of our own history.
Journalism with moral courage
The act of conscience of this young American whistleblower was met with cowardliness and indifference of the established media. Manning first reached out to major US news outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post with material that exposed US war crimes, but they turned her away.
With a vacuum of moral courage in the media landscape, WikiLeaks became the publisher of Manning’s last resort. Nelson Mandela, who led the emancipation of South Africa, once spoke on how courage is "not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it" and that "the brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear".
In the face of the prevailing terror of an authoritarian state, WikiLeaks demonstrated truly fearless journalism, igniting the courage of their sources. A project of Sunshine Press launched in 2006, WikiLeaks began to melt frozen hearts, revealing the reality covered up by the corporate media.
In releasing the Collateral Murder video, Assange indicated that the purpose of this publication was to show the world what modern warfare actually looks like and that "his mission is to expose injustice, not to provide an evenhanded record of events." An Australian journalist, Assange explained how WikiLeaks gave a political slant to their naming of the video as a way to give it maximum political impact, because the organization wanted to "knock out the euphemism of ‘collateral damage’, so when anyone watches it they will think ‘collateral murder’".
Empire’s war of aggression
In the summer of 2010, the light of transparency grew stronger. WikiLeaks published the Afghan War Diary, the trove of US classified military records concerning the war in Afghanistan, revealing around 20,000 civilian deaths by assassination, massacre and night raids. This was quickly followed by their subsequent release of the Iraq War Logs, which informed people in Iraq about 15,000 civilian casualties previously unreported and not known to the international community. WikiLeaks’ release of 779 classified reports on prisoners of the US military prison in Guantanamo shed light on illegal detention and interrogation practices that were carried out during the Bush regime.
After their release of documents concerning wars in the oil-rich Middle East, the Pentagon swiftly attacked WikiLeaks. Despite the organization’s careful harm minimization efforts of redacting sensitive information, US Joint Chief of Staff Mike Mullen threatened the whistleblowing site with a bombastic line of "blood on their hands". This official spokesperson of the Pentagon called WikiLeaks publications "reckless" and "irresponsible" although not one single shred of evidence has ever been brought forth that any of these disclosures caused anyone harm.
At the time WikiLeaks began publishing the US Diplomatic Cables, revealing countless wrongdoing, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (in the Obama administration) strongly condemned the whistleblowing site. Clinton, who admitted the Iraq War was a mistake and confessed how the US had created Al Qaeda and ISIS, said: "This disclosure is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community…".
Contrary to the US government’s portrayal of itself as a victim, WikiLeaks’ released documents which have shown the truth – that they are the perpetrator of human rights abuses, engaging in illegal wars. Manning’s conscience, through WikiLeaks’ brave act of publishing, was a response to the US imperial war of aggression – the massive political offense committed against the entire world.
Resuscitating the heart of democracy
America’s political offense continued even after the Bush-Cheney era. President Obama not only refused to prosecute the previous administration’s war criminals, he himself became a successor to their crimes. In 2009, instead of withdrawing troops, he added more, fueling the war in Afghanistan. Despite his promised "sunshine" policy – to make the government more transparent – Obama waged an unprecedented war against truthtellers, charging Manning and the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden under the Espionage Act.
With his 2012 campaign slogan of "Forward", Obama went "forward" with Guantanamo Bay and drone attacks. He signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012 that contained controversial provisions of a sweeping worldwide indefinite detention, which is still effective today. With his "kill list", this supposedly "progressive" president expanded the power of the executive branch in ways that enabled him to act as accuser, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner all in one, including assassinating anyone, even US citizens.
In 2012, declassified military documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that the US government has designated WikiLeaks and Julian Assange as enemies of the United States, putting the media organization in the same legal category as Al Qaeda and violent terrorist groups.
From secret grand jury investigation to extrajudicial financial blockade, to harassment of WikiLeaks’ associates at borders (including Assange’s lawyer), the Obama administration attacked the publisher who has fiercely defended the public against the empire’s repeated human rights abuses and egregious political offenses. Now, in the Trump administration’s indictment against Assange on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act and one count of conspiracy to commit computer crime, we are seeing the escalation of this unprecedented war against the First Amendment.
Assange’s US extradition case is our fight against the empire’s perpetual "war on terror" – the war that started with lies, and a war with no end. This is a political battle and Assange’s freedom cannot be won by the court.
Julian Assange created a new form of journalism that enabled a free press to perform its true function – the role of watchdog for democracy. WikiLeaks opened a possibility for ordinary people to use information as power to participate in unfolding events, thwart authoritarian planning, so as to never repeat the tragic hijack of history that led to atrocities in distant lands – killing tens of thousands of innocent people.
Networks of contagious courage that emerged through waves of whistleblowers began to dissolve the conspiracy of governance. The heart of democracy that is resuscitated now inspires us to move toward justice, to recognize our own significance and look one another in the eyes as we become who we are meant to be – movers and shakers of our own history. Only through the courage of each individual to overcome fear and confront this terror that has been unleashed, can we end this war and free those who sacrificed their liberty, so we all can be free.
Nozomi Hayase, Ph.D., is a writer who has been covering issues of freedom of speech, transparency, and decentralized movements. Her work is featured in many publications. Find her on twitter @nozomimagine.