On June 19, in a final bid to avoid extradition to Sweden, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange requested asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Credible commentators argue that Assange has good reason to fear extradition to the United States from Sweden. Ray McGovern, who was a CIA analyst for 30 years, commented:
‘Not only is Julian Assange within his rights to seek asylum, he is also in his right mind. Consider this: he was about to be sent to faux-neutral Sweden, which has a recent history of bowing to U.S. demands in dealing with those that Washington says are some kind of threat to U.S. security.’
Former US constitutional and civil rights lawyer Glenn Greenwald supplied some detail:
‘The evidence that the US seeks to prosecute and extradite Assange is substantial. There is no question that the Obama justice department has convened an active grand jury to investigate whether WikiLeaks violated the draconian Espionage Act of 1917. Key senators from President Obama's party, including Senate intelligence committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, have publicly called for his prosecution under that statute. A leaked email from the security firm Stratfor – hardly a dispositive source, but still probative – indicated that a sealed indictment has already been obtained against him. Prominent American figures in both parties have demanded Assange's lifelong imprisonment, called him a terrorist, and even advocated his assassination.’
Greenwald argued that smaller countries like Sweden are more vulnerable to American manipulation. Moreover, Sweden ‘has a disturbing history of lawlessly handing over suspects to the US. A 2006 UN ruling found Sweden in violation of the global ban on torture for helping the CIA render two suspected terrorists to Egypt, where they were brutally tortured.’
Greenwald concluded that Assange's ‘fear of ending up in the clutches of the US is plainly rational and well-grounded’.
Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights and attorney for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, explained the risks associated with extradition to Sweden:
‘Sweden does not have bail. Now, these are on allegations of sex charges — allegations, no charges — and they’re to interrogate Julian Assange. But despite that, he would have been in prison in Sweden. At that point, our view is that there was a substantial chance that the U.S. would ask for his extradition to the United States.
‘So here you have him walking the streets in London – sure, under bail conditions – going to a jail in Sweden, where he’s in prison, almost an incommunicado prison; U.S. files extradition; he remains in prison; and the next thing that happens is whatever time it takes him to fight the extradition in Sweden, he’s taken to the United States. There’s no chance then to make political asylum application any longer. In addition, once he comes to the United States—we just hold up Bradley Manning as example one of what will happen to Julian Assange: a underground cell, essentially abuse, torture, no ability to communicate with anybody, facing certainly good chance of a life sentence, with a possibility, of course, of one of these charges being a death penalty charge…
‘So, he was in an impossible situation… This is what Julian Assange was facing: never to see the light of day again, in my view, had he gone to Sweden.’
Journalist Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, stated:
‘Political asylum was made for cases like this. Freedom for Julian in Ecuador would serve the cause of freedom of speech and of the press worldwide. It would be good for us all; and it would be cause to honor, respect and thank Ecuador.’
In considering Assange’s plight, it is also worth considering the tremendous good he has done at extreme personal risk. Coleen Rowley, a former FBI Special Agent and Division Counsel, commented:
‘WikiLeaks’ efforts combating undue secrecy, exposing illegal cover-ups and championing transparency in government have already benefited the world. And I’m convinced, more than ever, that if that type of anti-secrecy publication had existed and enabled the proper information sharing in early 2001, it could have not only prevented the 9/11 attacks but it could have exposed the fabricating of intelligence and deceptive propaganda which enabled the Bush Administration to unjustifiably launch war on Iraq.’
Newsweek recently placed Assange first in its list of ‘digital revolutionaries’.
Consideration of the hideous suffering inflicted on Bradley Manning, who is alleged to have leaked information to WikiLeaks, should generate further concern for Assange’s plight. A UN investigation found that Manning’s pre-trial conditions of severe solitary confinement were ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading’.
As a serving US soldier, rather than a journalist, Manning was certainly more vulnerable to this type of punishment. But consider the ferocity with which US elites are pursuing Assange. A leading article in the Washington Post commented of Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa:
‘There is one potential check on Mr. Correa’s ambitions. The U.S. “empire” he professes to despise happens to grant Ecuador (which uses the dollar as its currency) special trade preferences that allow it to export many goods duty-free. A full third of Ecuadoran foreign sales ($10 billion in 2011) go to the United States, supporting some 400,000 jobs in a country of 14 million people. Those preferences come up for renewal by Congress early next year. If Mr. Correa seeks to appoint himself America’s chief Latin American enemy and Julian Assange’s protector between now and then, it’s not hard to imagine the outcome.’
On Fox News, Roger Noriega, US Ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001-2003 and Assistant Secretary of State from 2003-2005, observed:
‘It remains to be seen whether Correa will grant Assange asylum in Ecuador. If he does, it will put his country on a collision course with Britain, Sweden, and the United States, which has spoken publicly of charging Assange with crimes for publishing classified government documents.’
‘The Most Massive Turd’ Goes To Harrods
The evidence, then, that Assange has plenty to fear is overwhelming. But not for the great and the good of liberal journalism. The Guardian’s Suzanne Moore set the tone on Twitter on June 19:
‘Seems like Assange's supporters did not expect him to skip bail? Really? Who has this guy not let down?’
She added: ‘I bet Assange is stuffing himself full of flattened guinea pigs. He really is the most massive turd.’
Moore later complained that, after writing articles about Assange, she had suffered ‘vile abuse’. We wrote to her:
‘That's a real shame, sorry to hear that. But how would you describe calling someone “the most massive turd”? Vile abuse?’
Moore replied: ‘no I wouldnt call that vile abuse. I mean nasty threats etc.’
She added: ‘also I would advise you to stop sounding so bloody patronising’.
Moore later commented to Deborah Orr of the Guardian and 'Victoria Peckham' (Janice Turner) of The Times: ‘I never met him [Assange]. Did you?’
Journalists found Assange’s predicament endlessly amusing. The Guardian’s Luke Harding commented:
‘Assange's plight seems reminiscent of the scene in Monty Python where the knights think to storm the castle using a giant badger’
Christina Patterson of the Independent wrote:
‘Quite a feat to move from Messiah to Monty Python, but good old Julian Assange seems to have managed it. Next Timbuktu?’
She wrote again: ‘Meanwhile, the latest on Assange: he's hiding up a tree. Or in a ditch. Or in an embassy.’
Twitter quickly filled up with this curiously insipid form of comedic sludge. The Guardian’s Technology editor Charles Arthur tweeted:
‘It is absolutely not true that Julian Assange got twitter to fall over so that he could sneak out of the Ecuadorean embassy for a latte.’
David Aaronovitch of The Times wrote:
‘When the embassy stunt fails expect Assange, slung over the shoulders of muscular friend, to be swung into St Paul’s shouting “thanctuary!”’
The Times' home news reporter, John Simpson, tweeted:
‘There are now signs offering a free #assange at the Ecuadorian embassy. Apparently nobody wants him. #occupyknightsbridge’
Charlie Beckett, Guardian contributor and director of Polis at the London School of Economics, wrote:
‘Fly Me To Cuba! (Or Ecaudaor) [sic] Julian Assange hijacks WikiLeaks’
The Deputy Editor of the Guardian US, Stuart Millar, tittered:
‘I like to think that Assange chose the Ecuadorean embassy because it's so convenient for Harrods bit.ly/LcMsNd’
Millar posted a link to a map showing the proximity of the Ecuadorian embassy to Harrods. Indeed this was a popular theme among senior liberal journalists. The Independent’s Joan Smith wrote a piece under the title: ‘Why do we buy Julian Assange's one-man psychodrama?:
'The news that the increasingly eccentric founder of WikiLeaks had sought political asylum in Knightsbridge, of all places, was greeted with equal measures of disbelief and hilarity. The London embassy of Ecuador is convenient for Harrods, although I don't imagine that was a major consideration when Assange walked into the building on Tuesday afternoon.'
Indeed not – Harrods was, of course, a total irrelevance. But anyway Smith concluded with these words:
'Ladies and gentlemen, I give you this superb vignette: the people's champion, shopping for human rights near Harrods.'
But it wasn’t a ‘superb vignette’; it made no sense at all. Smith also joked on Twitter: ‘Some people will go to any lengths to avoid the Olympics.’
In the Financial Times, Robert Shrimsley wrote a spoof of Assange’s ‘imagined embassy diary’:
‘Hour 1: Have to say Harrods is looking very faded. Not what I expected at all. Have given police the slip and smuggled myself into the store where I intend to hide out in the Food Hall till I can request political asylum from the Qataris.’
In the Guardian, Tim Dowling offered ‘five escape routes from the Ecuadorean embassy’, including:
‘Ascend to embassy roof. Fire cable-loaded crossbow (all embassies have these; ask at reception) across the street to Harrod's roof. Secure and tighten the cable, then slide across, flying-fox style, using your belt as a handle. Make your way to the Harrod's helipad.’
BBC World Affairs correspondent, Caroline Hawley, enjoyed Dowling’s piece,sending the link to her followers on Twitter:
‘Advice for #Assange escape: order a pizza and escape as delivery boy via @guardian guardian.co.uk/media/2012/jun…’
Ian Dunt, Editor of politics.co.uk. wrote:
‘Julian Assange, Chris Brown and Mike Tyson are party of the same depressing tapestry of hatred towards women bit.ly/LjSKZI’
Chris Brown and Mike Tyson have both been convicted of serious crimes against women – assault and rape, respectively. Assange has not been charged with any crime.
Aaronovitch tweeted on the same theme: ‘Don’t you think that many Assange supporters are misogynistic?’
On the Reuters website, John Lloyd, a contributing editor to the Financial Times, took the prize for crazed comparisons:
'When we talk of fallen angels, we invoke the original fallen angel, Satan or Lucifer, once beloved of God, the highest in his closest council, whose pride impelled him to challenge for heaven’s rule – and came before his fall to Hell. Assange was an angel of a sort, at least to many.'
Contributor to the Guardian and Gay Times, Patrick Strudwick, commented: ‘Does anyone think Julian Assange isn't enjoying all this?’
Stephen Glover wrote in the Daily Mail: ‘The story of Julian Assange would be hilarious if he had not caused so much damage.’ Glover added:
‘If Julian Assange comes out, he shouldn’t be given free passage to anywhere. If he stays put, I suggest we happily leave him for 15 or even 30 years in the Ecuadorean embassy, where his hosts can furnish him with a computer so that he can continue to hack away. Female embassy staff, however, should probably tread warily.’
On and on, journalists poured scorn on Assange. The Guardian’s Deborah Orr tweeted: ‘I think we can safely say that Julian Assange's bid to run the world has faltered. A bit.’
Orr added in the Guardian: ‘It's hard to believe that, until fairly recently, Julian Assange was hailed not just as a radical thinker, but as a radical achiever, too.’
The sub-heading above Orr’s article read: 'Of course Assange should face the charges brought against him in Sweden.'
We, and others, asked her: ‘What “charges”?’
Orr replied: ‘I've informed the Guardian's reader's editor of the Assange inaccuracy. They'll follow it up. Thanks to all who pointed it out, and sorry.’
The Guardian’s Stuart Millar commented: ‘The serious downside of the #Assange situation is having to watch his risible Russia Today show for research purposes’
The Economist’s International editor Edward Lucas quipped: ‘my short piece on Assange: Leaker unplugged. I wonder if he's really in the embassy at all.’
Lucas's piece was surprisingly balanced and restrained, until the final paragraph:
‘The choice of Ecuador is not as odd as it seems. Mr Assange recently interviewed Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, for Russia Today, a Kremlin-backed television channel. The men got on splendidly, sharing splenetic anti-American views. Both also come across as thin-skinned, narcissistic and selective when it comes to media freedom. Mr Assange wanted to censor his own biography. Mr Correa has built up a state media empire while threatening private outlets. Ecuador says it is now weighing the fugitive Australian’s request, though its options seem limited. So do his.’
George Monbiot asked on Twitter:
'Can anyone point me to persuasive piece on why Sweden would be more likely to extradite #Assange to US than UK? Genuine inquiry.'
Monbiot's judgement was duly delivered two hours later:
'OK, having read strongest cases tweeps cld find, not convinced that Sweden more likely to extradite #Assange than UK.'
'Now that's what I call professional journalism! Research begins (on Twitter!) 4:54 and ends 6:55 – done and dusted! :o)'
David Allen Green, legal correspondent for the New Statesman, wrote:
‘Wonder what those well-meaning sorts who stood #Assange bail now think of his latest ploy to evade due process.’
‘And @Jemima_Khan, on hook for #Assange's bail, *not* told of his flight to Ecuador embassy, see bit.ly/LColT0. Shameful.’
A Guardian piece also focused on Khan, concluding with these words:
‘Jemima Khan, socialite and associate editor at the New Statesman, was a high-profile donor to the fund – to the tune of £20,000 – but has called for Assange to face the allegations made against him in Sweden.
‘"For the record, in response to those asking about Assange and bail money …" she wrote on her Twitter page, "I personally would like to see Assange confront the rape allegations in Sweden and the two women at the centre have a right to a response."’
Rod Liddle made the same point in a Sunday Times article about ‘the WikiLeaks weirdo’. (Liddle, 'Leaking cash, WikiMugs?,' Sunday Times, June 24)
But in fact Jemima Khan had said rather more than these reports suggested. She tweeted:
‘Annoyed by journos quoting only half my tweet about Assange & deliberately ignoring other half.’
And: ‘My tweet misinterpreted. Obvs I'd like Assange to answer allegations & clear his name but I understand why he's taken such drastic action.’
The media response to Assange’s asylum request tells us much about the default brutality and reflexive herdthink of elite corporate journalism. We witnessed a rush to be seen to revile Assange as a ‘turd’, ‘weirdo’, ‘narcissist’ and joke. The crucial importance of his achievements, of his cause, was deemed utterly irrelevant beside his allegedly unbearable personal failings.
Almost as disturbing as the tsunami of mindless vitriol is the lack of dissent. US analyst Glenn Greenwald has so far been the sole high-profile political commentator willing to take on the UK’s hard-right ‘liberals’. By contrast, the Guardian and Independent’s dissident figleaves, and the many aspirational leftists who long to join them, have kept their heads down, saying nothing in support of a man who has risked his freedom and life to expose vast crimes of state.
It is yet more evidence, if any were needed, that political ‘convergence’ – the empty ‘choice’ between Old Tories and New Tories – has brought with it a dramatic and dangerous narrowing of 'mainstream' thought and dissent. We seem to be at the dawn of a brave new world: a high-tech Dark Age dominated by a kind of corporate feudalism.