Julian Assange: wanted by the Empire, dead or alive

Alexander Cockburn: How the US press have colluded with government in their fury at the WikiLeaks founder

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:10 ON Thu 2 Dec 2010
Alexander Cockburn

The American airwaves quiver with the screams of parlour assassins howling for Julian Assange's head. Jonah Goldberg, contributor to the National Review, asks in his syndicated column, "Why wasn't Assange garroted in his hotel room years ago?" Sarah Palin wants him hunted down and brought to justice, saying: "He is an anti-American operative with blood on his hands."

Assange can survive these theatrical blusters. A tougher question is how he will fare at the hands of the US government, which is hopping mad. The US attorney general, Eric Holder, announced on Monday that the Justice Department and Pentagon are conducting "an active, ongoing criminal investigation" into the latest Assange-facilitated leak under Washington's Espionage Act.

Asked how the US could prosecute Assange, a non-US citizen, Holder said, "Let me be clear. This is not sabre-rattling," and vowed "to swiftly close the gaps in current US legislation…"

In other words the espionage statute is being rewritten to target Assange, and in short order, if not already, President Obama – who as a candidate pledged "transparency" in government - will sign an order okaying the seizing of Assange and his transport into the US jurisdiction. Render first, fight the habeas corpus lawsuits later.

Interpol, the investigative arm of the International Criminal Court at The Hague, has issued a fugitive notice for Assange. He's wanted in Sweden for questioning in two alleged sexual assaults, one of which seems to boil down to a charge of unsafe sex and failure to phone his date the following day.  

This prime accuser, Anna Ardin has, according to the journalist Israel Shamir, writing on the CounterPunch site, "ties to the US-financed anti-Castro and anti-communist groups. She published her anti-Castro diatribes in the Swedish-language publication Revista de Asignaturas Cubanas put out by Misceláneas de Cuba…Note that Ardin was deported from Cuba for subversive activities."

It's certainly not conspiracism to suspect that  the CIA has been at work in fomenting these Swedish accusations. As Shamir reports, "The moment Julian sought the protection of Swedish media law, the CIA immediately threatened to discontinue intelligence sharing with SEPO, the Swedish Secret Service."

The CIA has no doubt also pondered the possibility of pushing Assange off a bridge or through a high window (a mode of assassination favoured by the Agency from the earliest days*) and has sadly concluded that it's too late for this sort of executive solution.

The irony is that the thousands of diplomatic communications released by WikiLeaks contain no earth-shaking disclosures that patently undermine the security of the American empire. We are supposed to be stunned that the King of Saudi Arabia wishes Iran was wiped off the map, that the US uses diplomats as spies, that Afghanistan is corrupt?
 
This is not to downplay the great importance of this latest batch of WikiLeaks. Millions in America and around the world have been given a quick introductory course in international relations and the true arts of diplomacy – not least the third-rate, gossipy prose with which the diplomats rehearse the arch romans à clef they will write when they head into retirement.

Years ago Rebecca West wrote in her novel The Thinking Reed of a British diplomat who, "even when he was peering down a woman's dress at her breasts managed to look as though he was thinking about India." In the updated version, given Hillary Clinton's orders  to the State Department, the US  envoy, pretending to admire the figure of the charming French cultural attaché, would actually be thinking how to steal her credit card information, obtain a retinal scan, her email passwords and frequent flier number.

There are also genuine disclosures of great interest, some of them far from creditable to the establishment US press. Gareth Porter has identified  a diplomatic cable from last February released by WikiLeaks which provides a detailed account of how Russian specialists on the Iranian ballistic missile program refuted the US suggestion that Iran has missiles that could target European capitals or that Iran intends to develop such a capability. Porter points out that:
 
"Readers of the two leading US newspapers never learned those key facts about the document. The New York Times and Washington Post reported only that the United States believed Iran had acquired such missiles - supposedly called the BM-25 - from North Korea. Neither newspaper reported the detailed Russian refutation of the US view on the issue or the lack of hard evidence for the BM-25 from the US side.

"The Times, which had obtained the diplomatic cables not from WikiLeaks but from the Guardian, according to a Washington Post story Monday, did not publish the text of the cable. The Times story said the newspaper had made the decision not to publish 'at the request of the Obama administration'. That meant that its readers could not compare the highly distorted account of the document in the Times story against the original document without searching the WikiLeaks website."

Distaste among the "official" US press for WikiLeaks has been abundantly apparent from the first of the two big releases of documents pertaining to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The New York Times managed the ungainly feat of publishing some of the leaks while simultaneously affecting to hold its nose, and while publishing a mean-spirited hatchet job on Assange by its reporter John F Burns, a man with a well-burnished record in touting the various agendas of the US government.

There have been cheers for Assange and WikiLeaks from such famed leakers as Daniel Ellsberg, but to turn on one's television is to eavesdrop on the sort of fury that Lord Haw-Haw used to provoke in Britain in World War II. As Glenn Greenwald writes in his column on the Salon site:

"On CNN, Wolf Blitzer was beside himself with rage over the fact that the US government had failed to keep all these things secret from him... Then - like the Good Journalist he is - Blitzer demanded assurances that the Government has taken the necessary steps to prevent him, the media generally and the citizenry from finding out any more secrets: 'Do we know yet if they've [done] that fix? In other words, somebody right now who has top secret or secret security clearance can no longer download information onto a CD or a thumb drive? Has that been fixed already?' The central concern of Blitzer - one of our nation's most honoured 'journalists' - is making sure that nobody learns what the US Government is up to."
 
These latest WikiLeaks files contain some 261,000,000 words - about 3,000 books. They display the entrails of the American Empire. As Shamir writes, "The files show US political infiltration of nearly every country, even supposedly neutral states such as Sweden and Switzerland. US embassies keep a close watch on their hosts. They have penetrated the media, the arms business, oil, intelligence, and they lobby to put US companies at the head of the line."

Will this vivid record of empire in the early 21st century soon be forgotten? Not if some competent writer offers a readable and politically vivacious redaction. But a warning: in November 1979 Iranian students seized an entire archive of the State Department, the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at the American embassy in Tehran. Many papers that were shredded were laboriously reassembled.

These secrets concerned far more than Iran. The Tehran embassy, which served as a regional base for the CIA, held records involving secret operations in many countries, notably Israel, the Soviet Union, Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Beginning in 1982, the Iranians published some 60 volumes of these CIA reports and other US government documents from the Tehran archive, collectively entitled Documents From The US Espionage Den. As Edward Jay Epstein, a historian of US intelligence agencies, wrote years ago, "Without a doubt, these captured records represent the most extensive loss of secret data that any superpower has suffered since the end of the Second World War."

In fact the Tehran archive truly was a devastating blow to US national security. It contained vivid portraits of intelligence operations and techniques, the complicity of US journalists with US government agencies, the intricacies of oil diplomacy. The volumes are in university libraries here. Are they read? By a handful of specialists. The inconvenient truths were swiftly buried – and perhaps the WikiLeaks files will soon be forgotten too.

And Assange? Hopefully he will have a long reprieve from burial. Ecuador has offered him sanctuary and they say Quito, once you get used to the altitude, is a pleasant place.
 
* Footnote: in 1953 the CIA distributed to its agents and operatives a killer's training manual (made public in 1997) full of hands-on advice: "The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface. Elevator shafts, stair wells, unscreened windows and bridges will serve... The act may be executed by sudden, vigorous [excised] of the ankles, tipping the subject over the edge. If the assassin immediately sets up an outcry, playing the 'horrified witness', no alibi or surreptitious withdrawal is necessary." ·