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Burning the Messenger

The Persecution of Wikileaks

by JAMES ROTHENBERG

The just finished Banned Books Week serves as a vivid reminder that we must be vigilant about freedom of expression and freedom from censorship. Absent this vigilance, we could wake up in a society that not only bans books, but takes the next step and burns them as well. The German writer, Heinrich Heine, extended this with grim historical accuracy: “Where books are burned, it ends in burning people.”

We can extend these thoughts about books into the general area of censorship, military and government censorship. Presently there is a landmark case, actually more of an affair, involving the US government and WikiLeaks, the online organization that provides anonymity for sources to leak information. The US feels it has leaked too much information about the wrong country, the US.

Mr. Obama, the Constitutional law professor, had a lot to say about whistleblower protection when aspiring to the presidency. As President-elect, this was posted on the campaign’s website: “Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government.”

This marked Mr. Obama as one who would not abuse the powers of office as his predecessor had done. It turns out that he didn’t mean it. What transpired was that protection was afforded for trivial leaks, the kind that don’t amount to much. For non-trivial leaks, the whistleblower is on his/her own because control still lies in the hands of state managers, pitting the whistleblower against the state with its unrestrained capacity for intimidation and retaliation.

Had someone in the administration of George W. Bush,  a George Tenet or a Colin Powell or a Condoleezza Rice, leaked the truth, Iraq might have been spared its invasion. Nobody spoke out and so the Commander in Chief committed the most serious international crime, the crime of aggression, also a crime under US law. Professor Obama, unsurprisingly, did not pursue justice for the criminal regime of his predecessor. Nor would Bush have pursued Obama, should their situations be reversed. It isn’t done in those circles where state supremacy trumps law.

It’s fair to ask why there is any need at all for secrecy in government. While there may be legitimate reasons, it is the state and not the citizen that gets to make that determination. The citizen is asked to trust the state, and not just trust, but trust completely. Prudence would suggest that there be some mechanism to inform the populace whether or not that trust is deserved. The whistleblower provides that with his/her “acts of courage and patriotism”.

Sometimes the state keeps secrets merely to avoid embarrassment, sometimes to cover up wrongdoing, and sometimes to conceal criminal activity or intent. As part of Operation Northwoods, directed against Cuba, there is a memorandum titled, Justification for US Military Intervention in Cuba (TS). It’s declassified now, but when written on 13 March 1962 it was headed, TOP SECRET SPECIAL HANDLING NOFORN. The proposal was drafted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and directed to the Secretary of Defense. Ultimately, it was not acted upon, but it is informative to see what top military commanders will resort to under the cloak of secrecy.

Many pretexts are suggested to make it appear that Cuba has initiated hostilities against the US so the US would be justified in retaliating. Especially cynical is “…to create an incident which will demonstrate convincingly that a Cuban aircraft has attacked and shot down a chartered civil airliner en route from the United States to Jamaica, Guatemala, Panama or Venezuela. The destination would be chosen only to cause the flight plan route to cross Cuba. The passengers could be a group of college students off on a holiday…”

Newspapers would be telling a story of Americans in mourning while their grief is exploited into public support for military retaliation. The aircraft attack would be faked, complete with parts of an exploded drone floating around.

Another false flag operation, less oblique and equally cynical, is the suggested Communist Cuban terror campaign, including “The terror campaign could be pointed at refugees seeking haven in the United States. We could sink a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida (real or simulated). We could foster attempts on lives of Cuban refugees in the United States even to the extent of wounding in instances to be widely publicized.” Real or simulated! Murdering a boatload of Cuban refugees!

“President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history…”, this from the White House website. This would be a welcome change, but the evidence is to the contrary.

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, is being hounded by Mr. Obama and his Justice Department with cooperation from the UK and Sweden. PFC Bradley Manning, the presumed leaker, has been imprisoned for over 2 years, quite harshly in the beginning. The US is pressuring the UK and Sweden with an eye toward having Assange extradited to the US for the alleged crime of publishing leaks, some of which expose US war crimes.

Assange and Manning are linked by deed and common enemy. After that, they face vastly different challenges. Because Manning is a soldier, he is subject to military justice. Military justice is to justice what religious truth is to truth. Common conceptions about the one, under the added qualification, are not just narrowed down, they are completely transformed. Military justice serves the military. That’s as far as it goes, as far as it’s ever gone, and as far as it’s ever going to go.

I will even submit that the base need of the military is the power to determine whether you’re likely to live or to die. Not an attractive thought, and it wouldn’t make much of a recruitment poster, but if the military expects control over the life and death of its soldiers, it can’t have competition from them in the form of individual opinions and desires. No military will tolerate deviance from the military formula precisely for the reason that resistance to it is the expected human reaction. The institution is constructed to render human reaction moot.

Assange is high stakes for the US government. Though technically free, he remains holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, fighting extradition to Sweden where he faces sex crimes allegations. The timing of the accusations brought by two women is curious, given that it occurred when Assange became a prime target of the US. If US pressure is not involved and the women are acting independently, it is a serious matter but not the greatest of his troubles. Swedish justice declined the chance to question Assange in London. Assange fears the figurative double play of Tinkers to Evers to Chance. Diplomatically speaking, that would be UK to Sweden to US.

What Assange would face in that case is not pleasant to contemplate. He would be the biggest political prisoner since the Rosenbergs. A show trial in the age of cable TV. The corporations that brought “shock and awe” into American living rooms will wade in behind  musical themes and carefully crafted sets. Impeccably credentialed security-experts-for-hire will have perspired in make-up rooms. Wolf Blitzer will “put this all in perspective” for us.

The ultimate purpose of the trial would be to warn, intimidate, and frighten others that might be tempted to go down the same path. The ultimate message: Assange messed with the wrong country. Something tells me they will stop short of a death sentence for appearances, the point being made.

On the plus side, if Assange is able to escape extradition and US justice (which is to justice what…see above), a piano may fall on his head.

Tellingly, the New York Times, that published many of the same leaks, is not being targeted. Neither is The Guardian, Der Spiegel, El País, or Le Monde. Retaliation against these European papers is to incredible to consider, if not totally impossible. Better to grab the snake by the head and not the tail anyway.

On the homefront, the paper of record does enough to earn its liberal media tag. Given the current political climate, that’s not saying much. They may even appreciate the compliment. This serves to bolster its credibility when it functions as a propaganda arm of the state. Of course it’s a far cry from a state run paper. Nobody tells the New York Times what to print. But on matters that put you on one side of the barricades or the other, matters that weigh heavily on state supremacy and state security, nobody has to.

James Rothenberg can be reached at: jrothenberg@taconic.net