Conspiracy against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks?

Last update 8 December 2010

Is Senator Joseph Lieberman to the 2010’s what Senator Joseph McCarthy was to the 1950’s?

Have a look at this quote, which was published in the New York Times:

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, said Tuesday on Fox News that he believed The Times should be investigated alongside WikiLeaks, although he cautioned, “This is very sensitive stuff because it gets into the America’s First Amendment.”

“I certainly believe that WikiLleaks has violated the Espionage Act, but then what about the news organizations — including The Times — that accepted it and distributed it?” Mr. Lieberman said, adding: “To me, The New York Times has committed at least an act of bad citizenship, and whether they have committed a crime, I think that bears a very intensive inquiry by the Justice Department.”

The parallels in style and in leadership are striking. By the time that McCarthy reached his apogee in the 1950s, all it took was this kind of a threat for just about anyone to turn tail and run for their lives. Alas, McCarthy’s political career ended in disgrace after his methods were revealed by the likes of Edward R. Murrow. Perhaps we need a new Murrow…

Last update 7 December 2010

Today Julian Assange has presented himself at a police station in London. He has been arrested as a result of a warrant issued by Sweden. Many believe that the allegations behind the warrant are part of a conspiracy to silence Assange. Even if they are not—this blogger believes that they may well be (see below)—the actions of people within and just beyond the U.S. government, including calls for the outright assassination of Assange, show up the contradiction that is now so apparent in US domestic and foreign policy. The contradiction in question was inadvertently made explicit by Hillary Clinton in a speech delivered earlier this year in Washington’s Newseum:

‘ [New] technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights.

In the last year, we’ve seen a spike in threats to the free flow of information. China, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan have stepped up their censorship of the internet. In Vietnam, access to popular social networking sites has suddenly disappeared. And last Friday in Egypt, 30 bloggers and activists were detained. One member of this group, Bassem Samir – who is thankfully no longer in prison – is with us today. So while it is clear that the spread of these technologies is transforming our world, it is still unclear how that transformation will affect the human rights and welfare of much of the world’s population. […] On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress. But the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it.

This challenge may be new, but our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic. The words of the First Amendment to the Constitution are carved in 50 tons of Tennessee marble on the front of this building. And every generation of Americans has worked to protect the values etched in that stone.’

In this blogger’s opinion, the US is now caught at a crossroads: when we look back to the pre-Bush years, the US tried to exercise moral leadership by restricting its illegal, or quasi-legal activities to the shadows of what Goffman describes as the ‘back regions’ (see below). After Bush, and after the current government’s attempts to shut down WikiLeaks, the divide between front and back regions has been eliminated. The contradiction between public and ‘private’ US policy is there for all to see. And if the current actions are anything to go by, the response of the Obama administration will be to pursue its detractors with precisely the same methods used by the Bush administration to silence its own critics. We have now come full circle; the Obama-Clintons are, in many if not most respects, the Bush-Cheneys. How long until the US is led by a Putin or a Berlusconi equivalent? If or when that happens, we may look back and say that Obama prepared the ground for that change—however inadvertently—in the way that the Clintons prepared the ground for George W. Bush.

Updated 30 November 2010

The Wiki-Leakers have struck again. I’m reminded of the now famous distinction made by the sociologist Erving Goffman, who noted that individuals have ‘front regions’ and ‘back regions’: simplifying somewhat, ‘front regions’ are those in which an individual attempts to project an image that is compatible with social conventions and frameworks, while the ‘back region’ involves actions or aspects of self which are felt to be inappropriate, or which might discredit the image that the person is seeking to project (for more on the distinction, see Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life). It seems clear that what Wiki-Leaks have done is that they have propelled the US’s equivalent of a ‘back region’ to the very front of public attention. If a country can be said to have front and back regions, then the leaking of the diplomatic cables appears to have effectively dissolved the boundary in the US’s case.

What will be the consequences of this action? On one level, I think we can safely say that it will change little or nothing. The US will continue trying to claim the moral high ground even as its diplomats, spies, soldiers and informers carry on contradicting both the spirit and the letter of its own laws. Nothing terribly surprising there. This should not, however, lead us to conclude that Assange et al’s actions will have no lasting effects, no consequences. I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog that part of the reason why the US managed to become the imperial power that it is today is precisely that it could lay claim, plausibly, to a moral high ground. Since George W. Bush, that strategy, if we can call it that, has started to be unmasked. While it will still be some time before the US loses its current position as the world’s superpower, there can be little doubt that every new unmasking is another nail in the coffin of US hegemonic relations, in the strict sense of the term ‘hegemony’. A country whose leaders are known to be willing to torture, lie, and more generally contradict their own state’s claims to democracy, cannot maintain a position of moral leadership. And such a position is, or at least has been, key to securing all manner of US national interests.

This shift will, however, also have consequences for Assange and the rest of the people at WikiLeaks. If, as I myself increasingly believe, Assange was the victim of a honey trap style conspiracy, then after this and any forthcoming leaks, it is difficult to believe that the US and other compromised powers (Putin’s Russia? Berlusconi’s Italy?) will stop at anything to prevent further leaks. It seems that Assange faces an increasingly isolated life.

By way of a coda: if there was a ‘honey trap’ that sought to discredit Assange by revealing, or claiming to reveal his ‘back regions’, then the attempt has backfired spectacularly in that it is the US’s back regions that are now on display for each and all to see.

Update 24 August 2010 16.40 BST

I’ve decided to re-write this post in light of the extraordinary twists and turns of this story. It seems to me that, after the latest news—and they are still just that, ‘news’, as opposed to facts—we need to treat the events surrounding the accusations against Julian Assange in a more complex manner than I initially suggested.

I still believe that there is room for interpretation along the lines of a conspiracy theory. On the balance of evidence, I also still think there is plenty of room for the events to be regarded as an elaborate ‘honey trap’. But the most recent revelations also suggest the possibility of a string of mistakes, mis-translations, and sheer tabloid bad faith which could amount to less than a conspiracy. To be fair to the alleged victims of this story, it may also involve a scenario in which there has been some degree of sexual foul play on Assange’s part. Even if one believes in the real possibility, perhaps even probability of conspiracy, one also has to be on guard for the possibility of that oldest of crimes, a man taking sexual advantage of a woman.

*  *  *

Here is what first led me to think there was a conspiracy.  First, a Swedish tabloid got the story, and this apparently before even Assange had been notified. As far as I can tell, on this count alone, there must be some form of foul play. However, three scenarios, beyond the possibility of a textbook honey trap, now come to mind: a) someone in the Swedish police works for, or is sympathetic to U.S. and allied intelligence agencies, and did them the favour of leaking the story to compromise Assange; b) someone in the police, or perhaps even in the prosecutor’s office, saw the possibility of eventual promotion via media coverage. And c) someone took money from the tabloid. Whatever the case, and as a former chief prosecutor told the press, the leak was wrong not least because it compromised the investigation; the last thing you want to do is to alert an alleged criminal that s/he is about to be arrested.

The second reason to suspect foul play was that just six hours after an arrest warrant was issued, it was rescinded. And an extraordinarily serious allegation—rape—was declared to be unfounded. Again, this is so strange that, despite Swedish authorities’ efforts to normalise it, it had to trigger suspicions.

However, in the light of additional information, we can now conceive of three alternative scenarios: a) over-eager cops and possibly also the junior prosecutor ‘bigged up’ the case, perhaps in part because of Assange’s reputation; b) the women who made the allegation were unclear or back-tracked, and left the junior prosecutor on a limb; or c) paradoxically, shear inexperience, and a fear of being accused of a cover-up to protect Assange led the junior prosecutor to be too quick on the trigger.

Both ‘bungles’ more than justified an extremely suspicious reading of the chain of events. And again, we still cannot discount the possibility of a conspiracy. Whatever the case, one thing does now seem clear: the Swedish authorities (and I include both the police who presumably leaked the story, and the prosecutor who put her/his service out on a limb) don’t look too good after this. Even if there is no conspiracy, if all of the charges are proven to be false, the Swedish authorities will have served, however inadvertently, the purposes of the Pentagon (the Pentagon’s denials of involvement to one side). Nothing could be sweeter to those out to destroy WikiLeaks than the current allegations.

After making this point very strongly, I also feel compelled to make the counter-argument. We now have, or appear to have more information about the precise allegations, and these force us/me to consider additional scenarios. Any discussion of the allegations is inherently invasive, and ought not to be part of internet discussion. But it seems to me that the information we have (which admittedly, may be subsequently denied, changed, modified, etc.) also suggests the possibility of a complex, and very problematic sexual politics.

Let us assume for a moment that the information is not itself a total fabrication on the part of Assange’s alleged ‘victims’—a fabrication which, I insist, remains a real possibility. If it is the case that what started out as consensual sex ended up as some kind of ‘ofredande’ (what has been wrongly translated from Swedish as sexual ‘molestation’, but which could be anything from stalking to groping to calling offensive names), then it would certainly not be the first time that a man exploits a possible ambiguity in sexual relations to ‘get his way’ over and against his companion’s desires. We still don’t know, and perhaps may never, should never know the details. But if this is what did happen—for example, that there was a refusal to use a condom, and then a refusal to get an HIV test—then such actions could be very serious, even if they don’t amount to ‘rape’.

In this scenario the women might have good reason to be aggrieved, and indeed to accuse Assange. The question is what then happens to that grievance if and when the police are brought into the picture, in the way that they were. How did the whole event become an accusation of out-and-out rape, with the leaks, rescinded arrest warrants, etc.? Was there a bona fide attempt to change behaviour that then spiralled out of control once it reached the media?

We will have to await further information to be able to get a better sense of what happened. One thing is for sure: unless Assange can prove that all of the claims are baseless, his reputation may well have been tarnished, however unfairly. If there was ‘foul-play’ on the part of the women, then they have succeeded brilliantly in any scam to smear Assange.  If, on the contrary, Assange failed to respect the women’s wishes, then he has only himself to blame, and may deserve to be brought to book. At this stage, we simply don’t know.

In the latter scenario, Assange’s fans will have a hard time reconciling his brilliant, well-intentioned, and indeed vitally important WikiLeaks project with any machismo. Although my original suspicion of a honey trap is a horrible one to have to entertain, I sincerely hope that the opposite possibility—that Assange did do something wrong—does not prove to be the right one. I don’t mind being proven wrong; if I am concerned it is because the stakes for democracy at this critical historical juncture could not be higher. I have to hope that Assange, presumably being hyper aware of this, is innocent. To be sure, we must presume him to be innocent until the opposite is proven.

24 August 16.40 BST

The New York Times is a tremendous newspaper. But a critical reader really has the grit her/his teeth when reading much of its coverage. It’s scary to think that what is patently tendentious reporting might be confused for ‘objective coverage’ amongst any readers who believe everything it says.

A case in point, an article penned today by John F. Burns, and titled ‘Plotting doubted in WikiLeaks case‘. The very title is extraordinary: it is, firstly, not the ‘WikiLeaks case’; if Swedish prosecutors determine that there is a case, then it will be a case involving Julian Assange. But secondly, note how the grammar neatly eliminates the doubters, and replaces them with an apparently universal ‘plotting doubted’.

When you begin to read the actual article, you then find this suppression of the doubters again, this time in the form of ex-nomination: ‘those who say they have detailed knowledge of the case discount conspiracy theories linking it to efforts to discredit WikiLeaks’. Unless the journalist identifies whom he is referring to, then strictly speaking, he is producing a categorically false representation: one of those who presumably has ‘detailed knowledge of the case’ is Assange, and as far as I know, he’s by no means ‘discounting conspiracy theories’.

What is perhaps most insulting is the way in which the paper then goes on to effectively legitimate the views of what may well be one or more interested parties in any conspiracy:’…the conspiratorial view has found no backing from the prosecutor’s office, where the senior prosecutor in charge of the case, Eva Finne, said Monday that nothing she knew of the case suggested that there had been any outside involvement in the events that led the two women to make their accusations against Mr. Assange.’ Pardon me for stating the obvious, but would Mr Burns, and the NY Times actually expect the senior prosecutor to say that there was evidence of a conspiracy?

To quote, finally, an unidentified ‘close friend’ of Assange’s in the way that the paper does is nothing short of scandalous—the potential for manipulation either way (for or against Assange) should be obvious: ‘But one of Mr. Assange’s close friends in Sweden, who said he had discussed the case in detail with Mr. Assange and one of the women, said he was “absolutely sure” that what was involved were personal animosities and grievances that flowed out of brief relationships Mr. Assange had with the women.’ Eh? This is the kind of thing you’d expect to find in The Sun.

In my view, this is the style of journalism that, after Fox-News-Journalism (which is in a class of its known), has done the most to legitimize the rise of neoliberalism in the United States. Let us not forget that this is also the paper that referred to U.S. military torture as ‘torment’, and as ‘harsh interrogation techniques’.