Uncorking Saint Julian: WikiLeaks and Mr. Assange
by Mike Mosher
There's a winery in western Michigan called St. Julian. It's compromised. No, not morally compromised and complicated, or—merely, one might say—legally, or behaviorally confusing to the palate like the unfortunate Mr. Julian Assange, founder of the website WikiLeaks. St. Julian wine is just not very good, or at least not the bottles we've tried.
June 20, 2012 it was announced that Assange has approached the nation's London embassy to ask for political asylum in Ecuador. I had a friend (grandfather of a guy in my high school Punk band) who fled Germany for Ecuador in the late 1930s, a wonderful learned, life-loving, secular intellectual who was a bit too Jewish and liberal for the Nazis who had come to power. At age 40, he and his Christian wife and young children fled Europe, and only Ecuador would take him in. When he learned that setting up a ceramics factory demanded little capital, he started one in Quito to feed his family. But that's probably not Julian Assange's intention.
Flash back to a year and a half ago. We might have called winter 2011 the winter of our WikiLeaks, causing all patriots—both sunshine and winter soldiers—to examine their allegiance to the war machine taking foreign lives for the previous nine years under our flag. On November 28, 2010 WikiLeaks started posting examples from over 251 thousand US diplomatic cables, officially classified under various levels of secrecy. The US government threatened indictment, and irate America conservatives called for Julian Assange's speedy arrest, trial and execution. An American soldier, Bradley Manning, was arrested for passing information to WikiLeaks. Amazon, Pay Pal, and MasterCard soon stopped providing services to WikiLeaks, claiming it was because of false information when they were opened, while Assange claimed the cessation of service was ordered by the US government.
In the 20 January 2011 London Review of Books, Slavoj Zizek compares Assange to the Joker in Batman comics and movies. There the respectable district attorney Dent and police commissioner Gordon tell the public lies, in order to protect Batman from being unmasked, the truth that the Joker demands. To Zizek, Wikileaks threatens the polite, formal functioning of power, not with its revelations as much as in the unconventional way the truths are revealed. Even when released to major newspapers, WikiLeaks' revelations make the usual channels of criticism and reform suspect, even irrelevant. Ken Silverstein, writing in the February/March 2011 Bookforum, compared reading the leaked cables to novels by Patricia Highsmith. US embassy staffers commented, with arched eyebrows, at lucrative concerts by Elton John in Kazakhstan and Sting in Uzbekistan, as bemused onlookers might note the actions of Highsmith's talented Mr. Ripley.
One might also cite artist Jenny Holzer's 2006 exhibitions "Redaction Paintings" and "Archive", at the Chiem & Read and Yvon Lambert galleries, where declassified US government documents relating to violent military activity in Iraq were reproduced in silk-screened oil on lushly colored linen, portions obscured before release in censorious swaths of black. The February 2011 WIRED magazine pictured the 8,000-server Pionen Data Center in Stockholm that houses WikiLeaks operations 115 feet below ground and run by the internet service provider Banhof, impressively photographed the way Architectural Digest might feature P. Diddy's or Rod Stewart's posh digs. Inconvenient truths—whether hidden or revealed—make for rich, or at least provocative, aesthetic experiences.
Wanting to jump on the WikiLeaks whistle-blowing bandwagon, Rudolf M. Elmer, director of Caribbean operations of Bank Julius Baer in Switzerland, gave Assange documents in 2011 concerning over two thousand prominent individuals are guilty of tax evasion, perhaps worse. WikiLeaks had published some documents on the bank's offshore activities in 2008, for which the bank obtained a court order to shut down WikiLeaks.org , which was later overturned. In early 2011 we were supposed to see documents implicating British Petroleum and Bank of America, yet to be delivered or published on the website.
Yet there are criminal charges of a more disturbing nature than whistle-blowing against Assange. The warrant list "unlawful coercion, sexual molestation and rape", but a minor level of rape that carries no minimum sentence and a maximum of four years imprisonment. Assange claims sex was consensual with the two women, one in her late twenties, the other in her early thirties. Former Swedish judge Brita Sundberg Weitman said the signer of the extradition warrant, prosecutor Marianne Ny "has a rather biased view against men in the treatment of sexual offenses." Assange should face his accuser in court, yet it's not Sweden's justice system he fears.
He fears extradition to the US, internment in Guantanamo Bay and even the death penalty; imprisonment no more about Swedish women that Al Capone's incarceration was for tax evasion. In an interview with RT America in February, 2011, a former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration said Assange "is very much a threat. Not just to the American government but the British government and any number of governments. And so, there is a concerted effort to nail him, to shut him up." and if legal attempts fails, "he’ll simply be assassinated by a CIA assassination team. It’s common practice for the CIA to do that. It’s nothing unusual about it." British lawyer Clare Montgomery QC, representing the Swedish authorities, said the country provided "protection against that sort of threat and violation" taking place. She said the European Court of Human Rights would intervene if Mr Assange was to face the prospect of "inhuman or degrading treatment or an unfair trial" in the US.
John F. Burns and Ravi Somaiya's New York Times story, a day after Assange's February 7, 2011 court hearing in London, reported that Assange said a "black box has been applied to [his] life. And on the outside of that black box has been written the word rape." Only open proceedings, not expected in Sweden for such legal cases, could ensure justice for him. In an echo of those who opposed Roman Polanski's statutory rape trial, Assage's supporters include socialite Bianca Jagger and socialist Tony Benn. Despite the Swedish charges, Norwegian legislator Snorre Valen nominated Assange for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, saying his secret-spilling website has promoted human rights, democracy and freedom of speech.
The February 11, 2011 New York Times story on Daniel Domscheit-Berg's book Inside WikiLeaks, released that week in Germany, notes the author calls Assange paranoid for traveling with bodyguards, and says Assange boasted of fathering children around the world, "lots and lots of little Julians...on every continent." Domscheit-Berg and other former WikiLeaks staffers started a complementary whistle-blowing site OpenLeaks in 2010, which intended to go live summer of 2011, though someone leaked the website contents to cryptome.org in January. Some Icelandic programmers and other WikiLeakers felt Assange's legal battles were distracting from the WikiLeaks organization's mission, putting Julian Asssange in the spotlight instead of the documents revealed to the world upon the site. Domscheit-Berg says OpenLeaks will be politically neutral and not rely on secrecy the way WikiLeaks does. They took some leaked content with them that he doesn't intend to release but will return if Assange "can prove that he can store the material securely and handle it carefully and responsibly." Assange has begun legal action against them.
While silver-tressed in his late thirties (like Andy Warhol), gnomic Julian Assange, exiled for a year to a supporters lush country house in the English countryside, gets the press, others are more concerned about the fate of Bradley Manning, the US Army Private mouldering incommunicado in an Army brig, who has supposedly been denied clothing during various times in his incarceration. In 2011, the United Nations torture investigator Juan Mendez was denied an unmonitored visit to Manning imprisoned in Quantico, Virginia, and both Amnesty international and Congressman Dennis Kucinich have expressed concern over his conditions there. Philip Crowley of the US State Department had to resign in March, 2011 after he opined publicly that the military's treatment of Manning was "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid."
Though the massive trove of US diplomatic cables leaked by Pfc. Manning have caused the most consternation to the US government, this citizen thinks the greater gift was for the world to hear the callous joking of US helicopter gunmen in Iraq as they took human lives on the ground. This is the true face of empire, the Tommy, Ivan or G.I. Joe far from home, morally warped into invader and occupier. These men should be at home, serving in a purely defensive military or, better yet, in good unionized manufacturing, service or professional jobs...but that's not our rulers' agenda. WikiLeaks virtue is to expose war and the machinations of power that promote it. Yet John Cook pointed out in the April/May 2011 Bookforum that of all the cables Manning has provided, Assange has only dribbled out a small portion, and at the current rate it would be a dozen years before they were all published.
Russia expelled Luke Harding of the Guardian and revoked his visa, presumably for his involvement in writing about WikiLeaks cables, which depicted Russia as a "corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy centered on the leadership of Vladimir Putin", binding officials, oligarchs and organized crime together into a "virtual Mafia state." Previously some Kremlin officials had told Harding that Prime Minister Medvedev thought Assange a hero for exposing other nation's duplicity and crimes.
Now here comes the weirdness. An article in the magazine Private Eye March 1, 2011 by editor Ian Hislop claims Assange made a phone call to him February 16 complaining about coverage by Jewish reporters in London, especially Private Eye's claim that Assange's Russian associate Israel Shamir was a Holocaust denier. And, therefore, somehow tied to Russia's expulsion of the Guardian's Luke Harding? Assange's relationship to the Guardian, one of those few papers he offered the US diplomatic cables (he snubbed the New York Times), appears problematic. The New York Times' Ravi Somaiya reported March 2 that Assange claimed in the phone call to Hislop that a smear campaign was led by the Guardian's editor Alan Rusbridger, investigations editor David Leigh (Jewish, and therefore rendering brother-in-law Rusbridger "sort of Jewish"), and journalist and book reviewer John Kampfner. Assange later asked Hislop to "forget the Jewish thing" but affirmed in belief in a conspiracy among Rusbridger, Leigh and Kampfner to smear WikiLeaks.
Whatever Assange's dark private thoughts or crude ethnic prejudices while his parsing his very real critics, potential persecutors and prosecutors, it doesn't make sense that he would talk like this to a journalist. Is he a stupid man? Well, neglecting condoms in his Swedish ménage-a-trois does suggest a certain carelessness. Is he a sloppy motormouth'd drunk like actor Mel Gibson and fashion designer John Galliano? Someone expecting off-the-record intimacy in conversation, like Jesse Jackson did tossing off his rude term for New York? After the article appeared, Assange promptly said on the WikiLeaks Twitter feed that Hislop "distorted, invented or misrepresented every significant claim and phrase" in the conversation. The Private Eye report that he believed in a "Jewish conspiracy' is false, in spirit and in word", and he then pointed out the number of libel suits Hislop has received over the years. "We treasure our strong Jewish supporters and staff, just as we treasure the support from pan-Arab democracy activists and others who share our hope for a just world."
Thomas Friedman wrote in March last year how activists in Arab gulf states see the royal families' huge land holdings on Google Earth and are moved to righteously indignant action. While facebook's contribution has been acknowledged, the effect of WikiLeaks on that region's roiling political transformation is yet to be determined.
In Ecuador in 1976, I had some sweet wine that came in an orange plastic bottle with a built-in handle, like a bottle of bleach. In April, 2011, Ecuador expelled the US Ambassador Heather M. Hodges over her cables, released by WikiLeaks, on presidential collusion with the nation's police corruption. This spring NPR pointed out that Assange had recently interviewed Ecuador's president on his website, with easy questions and much gemütlich.
Wikileaks must be acknowledged, with its team (both loyal and apostate), as a contributor to the exposure of state power around the world, and its injustices. A messy, contradictory character, this Julian Assange, enmeshed in webs and putting his foot in his own dog piles. Nevertheless, his project has asserted its importance as a significant political actor (or perhaps tractor, too-slowly towing diplomacy towards the light), if only in its yet-unrealized potential a Web 2.0 implement of transparency.
So raise a half-full glass to eccentric, tarnished, embattled Julian. Even if it's just one of unsatisfying St. Julian.
Cotopaxi, Cuenca, Pichincha, Riobamba, Atavalo... These are the Ecuadorian place names Mike Mosher recites when he can't get to sleep.