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Torturing Assange: An Interview with Andrew Fowler

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

“I love Wikileaks.”

– DJ Trump

“Can’t we drone him?”

– Hillary Clinton

Andrew Fowler is an Australian award-winning investigative journalist and a former reporter for the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent and Four Corners programs. and the author of The Most Dangerous Man in the World: Julian Assange and WikiLeaks’ Fight for Freedom. This is an updated edition of his 2011 account of the rise and political imprisonment of Assange. Much of that account explained how Assange seemingly inevitably moved toward an adversarial positioning against American imperialism abroad. He was a tonic for the indifference expressed by so many ordinary Americans in the traumatic aftermath of 9/11 and the rise of the surveillance state. Boston Legal’s Alan Shore (James Spader) seems to sum it up succinctly.

His updated version discusses the torture Assange is currently undergoing at Belmarsh prison in Britain. Here is a mut-see film regarding his torture.

His book also contains the latest on UC Global’s comprehensive spying on Assange and his visitors at the Ecuadorian embassy in London in the last year of his ‘refuge’ there. UC Global is a Spanish security company hired to protect the embassy. It has since been revealed that they were passing on data to American intelligence, presumably the CIA. Certainly, Fowler implies such a connection in his updated book, citing two Assange hacking breaches of US government servers, each of which, Fowler writes, the CIA went berserk, as if they’d been hit by a foreign enemy. In the last (new) chapter of the book, “The Casino,” Fowler describes how outraged the CIA was when Assange published their hacking tools, known as Vault 7, on Wikileaks: “Sean Roche, the deputy director of digital innovation at the CIA, remembers the reaction from those inside the CIA. He said he got a call from another CIA director who was out of breath: ‘It was the equivalent of a digital Pearl Harbor.’” Below is my recent interview with the author.

* Note: Upon his release of the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg was referred to as “the most dangerous man in the world.”

What is the up-to-date status of Julian’s health?

It seems quite clear that there is an attempt by the British and US administrations to destroy Assange, either driving him to suicide or a psychological breakdown. He has had a lung condition for a number of years, which has not been properly treated, and is clearly suffering from huge stress. During his last court appearance over a video link, there were long pauses between his words, even when speaking his own name.

When Chelsea Manning was imprisoned at Quantico she spent 23 hours per day in solitary confinement and was stripped naked at night. How does Julian’s treatment at Belmarsh compare? Manning’s treatment was said to be an attempt to coerce her into ratting on others, including, presumably Assange. What do you see as the ultimate purpose of Assange’s treatment? And how does it amount to torture?

The ultimate purpose of Assange’s treatment is a warning to others. Particularly other journalists. It’s the modern day equivalent of crucifixion, putting heads of enemies on spikes, or public hangings. The torture of Assange involves two main areas: being confined to three rooms in a single building for 7 years, and unable to leave without fear of arrest and extradition to Sweden which was playing an underhand role to allow Assange to be extrdited to the US. As the UN rapporteur on torture Nils Meltzer wrote that never in the two decades he had spent investigating war crimes had he ever seen such a ganging up of so many powerful nations against one individual. It is a testament to Assange’s mental strength that he resisted at all.

No effort was made by the Swedes to “question” Assange once he was lifted from the Ecuadorian Embassy, suggesting that their purpose all along was, as Assange and his defenders averred, a pretext for hand-over. You’d think there was some way to nix the bail jump charge given this likelihood of intergovernmental collusion. Thoughts?

There are no outstanding allegations for Assange to answer in Sweden. They were always only allegations, rather than charges. It is important to understand that if the Swedish prosecutors had charged Assange, they would have had to reveal the evidence of the ‘offences’ to his lawyers upon which those charges were based. And the evidence was not only thin, it pointed to a conspiracy. So it was possible to keep Assange in the embassy, while the UK prosecuting authority worked at ways of getting him extradited to Sweden. There seems little doubt that the plan all along was to use Sweden as a holding pen for Assange as the US applied for his extradition. It is possible he could take his case to the European Human Court of Human Rights, but the Brexit decision, makes this area extremely murky.

Can you provide more details about the UC Global, the Spanish company brought into the Ecuadorian Embassy to spy on Assange? Do we know more about what data that they gathered? Has a more definitive connection to the CIA been made? Has any further effort been put into place to quash the extradition process based on this fact alone? (He could never expect a fair trial back in the US if such surveillance and potentially framing were done.)

UC Global not only recorded hundreds of conversations inside the Ecuadorian embassy, but also photographed the phones [and] their location identifying IMEI numbers, passports and other documents of everyone who visited Assange in the embassy between 2015 and 2018. It’s my understanding that the case running in Madrid at the moment against the former CEO of UC Global, David Morales, who is charged with illegally spying on Assange and his lawyers (a specifically illegal act in Europe) will be used by the Assange legal team to argue that the US extradition case should be thrown out. It is my understanding that if any material gathered spying on Assange and his lawyers is used, or even known about, by those involved in the US prosecution – the charges must be withdrawn. There has been no definitive connection to the CIA. The closest I have managed to make the link is to the State Department and White House confidantes.

Snowden’s, Permanent Record is one of the best reads I’ve had in quite some time. You could argue that his revelations are equally, if not more significant, than what Assange offers up through Wikileaks. Where do you stand on the difference of value, if any, between Wikileaks and the Snowden revelations?

The main differences are: Assange is a recipient of information which as a journalist he publishes. Snowden is a source. When it comes to quantifying the different values of their work, Assange mainly provided information and analysis, whereas Snowden exposed intelligence gathering systems. In the source-journalist relationship, they both need each other. Both exposed the activities of a war-making machine. Without Assange it is unlikely that we would have had Snowden. It was WikiLeaks that opened up the public on a truly massive scale to a secret world of horror and deception which until then had been largely hidden from view. For Snowden’s part he brought the argument home that it wasn’t just foreign governments who were being spied on, it was the Americans themselves. They both played a significant and at times overlapping role in revealing the truth about the world we’re in.

Assange and Snowden seem to have had their differences over the years. Snowden describes in PR how he chose his nickname: “The final name I chose for my correspondence was ‘Verax,’ Latin for ‘speaker of truth,’ in the hopes of proposing an alternative to the model of a hacker called ‘Mendax’ (‘speaker of lies’)—the pseudonym of the young man who’d grow up to become WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange.” (p.193) There was irritability there between them, and Snowden didn’t trust Assange with his life (fearing that a dump, rather than a journo-processed revelation system, would close off future whistleblower arguments). His first choice had been the NYT, but their suppression of James Risen’s 2004 pre-election piece on STELLARWIND enraged him and he ended up going with Greenwald et al, instead. Snowden suggests character differences between the two, but on the other hand Assange really pissed the US government off when he sent a woman to rescue Snowden from Hong Kong. Some of us thought Obama was going to shoot down Bolivia One with president Evo Morales on board because Obama thought Snowden was onboard.

I see in Permanent Record Snowden says he decided not to go with WikiLeaks because of a change of policy to publish material unredacted, or ‘pristine’ as he calls it. Not sure why he says this because WL policy is to redact. [Here’s Snowden’s explanation.] WL did put all the Iraq/Afghanistan/Cablegate documents online un-redacted, but only after David Leigh of the Guardian published the password — and the material was already out on the internet. I’ve never asked Assange this, but there is another Mendax. In the 1920s an Australian science fiction writer Erle Cox’a Mendax was an eccentric inventor. Mendax experiments with ‘matter transmission’ ‘invisibility’ and ‘extracting gold from seawater’. There is a tension between the two, no doubt about it. Snowden still errs on the side of secrecy and Assange on the side of publication, possibly the difference between an ex-intelligence agent and a journalist.

Covid-19 seems to be the wild card in the deck, vis-a-vis Assange’s extradition to the US. If he doesn’t contract the illness in prison, then his extradition next year could prove problematic — courts, protests, circus. How do you think the virus will affect the legal proceedings? Do you think he’ll be better off under Biden’s DOJ? Or worse, given the perceived threat to the Democrats he represents? Do you see a way for his defense to exploit the DNC/Russia hack dishonesty?

Not sure how Covid will impact anything much, other than slowing down the process, which in itself is extremely problematic for Assange. He’s already been in prison or under house arrest (including the embassy) for nine years. I’m not sure what it takes to embarrass the UK government into refusing the extradition request, but the new indictment is surely turning the political prosecution into a farce. The US now wants to re-arrest Assange to wrap in a new indictment because the first one was likely to fail. In past years it might have been possible for the UK Government to reject this deceptive or incompetent behaviour by the US, but Britain is a spent force now on the world stage, and the US can do whatever it wants.

As for Biden’s DoJ, he’s called Assange a ‘high-tech terrorist’ and has recently said though he favours freedom of the press it should not compromise US national security. Not much hope there.

One hope Assange has is the possible pardoning of Snowden. It plays to Trump’s ‘deep state’ argument that the intelligence agencies are out of control and were involved in the fabrication of Russian collusion. [Here’s Snowden referencing his work for the “Deep State”] Assange’s work has exposed CIA atrocities (which supports Trump’s position) but WikiLeaks has also revealed evidence of war crimes by the US military, an establishment so admired by his core supporters. I fear that a Snowden pardon, much as I would personally welcome it, would only further isolate Assange.

If Assange goes down, do you see a future for journalism in the world — given America’s so-called leadership in this area, by way of the holy first amendment, but with dwindling global newspapers. The Guardian, WaPo and the NYT remain the only papers of record available in every international terminal in the world — and sales falling for them, the fight over what’s real news and what isn’t underway (a proxy war to control the narrative), how do you see the fight for journalism ahead?

If Assange goes down, it will be the third domino. First, the rising power of executive government; second, the destruction of the, at times, countervailing power of the mainstream media, including public broadcasters who draw their political power from their audiences (and thus to a certain extent are independent). The internet has savaged media budgets which has weakened the overall media environment and empowered governments to attack and cut public broadcasters. Assange who used the internet as a weapon for journalism provided a way to re-energise old media structures — engage readers and challenge executive government authority. He provided a way to democratise journalism. It is the reason he is such a threat to the hegemony of the US led five eyes nations, who until recently in a uni-polar political and strategic world, have ruled supreme.

I sometimes marvel at the effect on journalism and even constitutional issues in America that Australians have had. Early on, Assange seems to have declared war on the DoD and, later, the US State Department; John Pilger has, with his interview with the CIA “rogue” Duane Clarridge, exposed the full fuckin hubris of American foreign policy; and, Fox News has so dumbed down the political conversation in America that it may be heading for a fate like that depicted in Idiocracy. Any thoughts?

There’s a strange contradiction in Australia. Australians are very conservative, and cautious, but part of the national identity is tied to the notion of anti-authoritarianism, dating back to the nation’s convict past. The degradation of the mainly poor, transported to Australia from the UK and Ireland two centuries ago for often minor crimes, created a bedrock of antagonism against the ruling ‘elites’. This long history of dissent in Australia has produced outstanding journalists such as Pilger and Assange, Wilfred Burchett and Philip Knightly. I can think of no better way to explain how Assange and Murdoch became two of the most influential global media figures in the past century. Murdoch rose to power as an anti-establishment figure in the UK and Assange has done the same on a global basis.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.

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