by ALEC SMART
Who exactly is Julian Assange? Is he a journalist – or an opportunist? A hero – or a traitor? And what about those rape charges? As Assange, now in prison in Britain, faces extradition to the US to face espionage charges, here are some answers.
Who is Julian Assange?
Assange is an Australian editor, publisher and activist. He was born Julian Paul Hawkins on July 3, 1971, in Townsville, Queensland. A computer whiz, in 1993, Assange gave technical advice to the Victoria Police Child Exploitation Unit that assisted in prosecutions of online paedophiles. He was also involved in starting one of the first public internet service providers in Australia.
What did he do in the years before he came to public attention?
Between 1987 and 1994, from the age of 16, Assange used his computer skills to hack into company mainframes under the name Mendax, along with a hacking group called the International Subversives.
In September 1991, at the age of 20, Assange was traced by Australian Federal Police via his phone line modem after he was discovered hacking into the master terminal of Canadian telecommunications corporation Nortel. His home was raided the following month and he eventually pleaded guilty to 24 charges of hacking and related offence. In December 1996 he was ordered to pay reparations of $2,100 and released on a good behaviour bond. The relatively light sentence was due to the perceived absence of malicious or mercenary intent.
What is WikiLeaks?
Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006. It is designed to be a secure online disclosure portal where restricted or unobtainable documents from the world of intelligence-gathering and corporate secrecy can be shared anonymously. His intent was to encourage “whistle-blowers.” Initially borrowing from the Wikipedia template, wherein unpaid contributors could post material anonymously, the open-editing aspect was abandoned so hosts could maintain control of the material published. However, the administrators still accepted anonymous submissions and published those they felt should be in the public domain.
The webpage came to international attention in 2010 when it published a series of leaks provided by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, now Chelsea Manning.
Who is Bradley/Chelsea Manning?
Bradley, who now identifies as a woman and has changed her name to Chelsea, is a former United States Army intelligence analyst. She was assigned to a US Army unit in Iraq in 2009 but after a series of bullying incidents, followed by interactions with data hackers, Manning decided to leak classified information about America’s military activities in the Middle East.
Did Assange encourage Manning to steal secrets?
US Army investigators found 15 pages of encrypted conversation between Manning and someone believed to be Assange on Manning’s laptop. In any case, she released to WikiLeaks nearly 750,000 military and diplomatic documents ranging from “classified” to “unclassified but sensitive.”
Between April 2010 and April 2011, Wikileaks released this vast archive, most notoriously including a video that showed US Army helicopters gunning down civilians in Baghdad, Iraq.
How did Manning smuggle the sensitive material out?
On 5 Jan 2010 Manning downloaded 400,000 documents that upon release became known as the Iraq War Logs. On 8 Jan she downloaded 91,000 documents known later as the Afghan War Logs.
She saved the copied data – including other sensitive material she lifted – on a CD disc and smuggled it through security by labelling it “Lady Gaga.” She then transferred it via her personal laptop computer to an SD card, which she inserted into her camera, enabling her to take it back to the USA undetected when she was on leave from Iraq. Manning told a friend she’d leaked the data; the friend notified authorities. Manning was arrested in May 2010 and eventually convicted by court-martial in July 2013 of violations of the US Espionage Act and other offenses.
Didn’t she serve her time?
Yes and no. In 2017 her sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama to seven years of confinement dating from her arrest in May 2010. But on March 8, 2019, Manning was held in contempt of court by a US District Court judge for refusing to testify to a federal grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. She was returned to custody and has remained incarcerated since.
What did Manning copy and what did WikiLeaks publish?
Manning initially contacted the Washington Post and The New York Times newspapers to see if they were interested in publishing any of the material she obtained, then settled on WikiLeaks, enabling the entire cache she copied to be made public.
What was in the leak?
The documents embarrassed the US government in many ways. They included:
* The Iraq War Logs – These documents specifically examined civilian deaths in Iraq. Documents describe how US troops killed almost 700 civilians for coming too close to army checkpoints, including pregnant women and the mentally ill.
Der Spiegel, The Guardian, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, Le Monde, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Iraq Body Count Project also published these.
* The Collateral Damage Video aka Baghdad Airstrike – This was cockpit video footage from July 12, 2007, showing US helicopters shooting a group of 10 men in the Amin District of Baghdad, including two camera-carrying reporters from Reuters news agency. The voice recordings included US pilots laughing and saying, “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards!” The helicopters also fired repeatedly into a van that stopped to help wounded members of the first group they fired upon. Two children in the van were wounded and their father was killed.
* Cablegate – Over 250,000 State Department diplomatic cables revealing messages written between December 1966 and February 2010 from 271 American embassies and consulates in 180 countries. The cables contained diplomatic analysis from world leaders, and the diplomats’ assessment of host countries and their officials, a fair number of them embarrassing to the US or the people involved, like pressure from the US not to use the word ‘genocide’ in relation to Serbian massacres in the former Yugoslavian wars.
El Pais, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, The Guardian and The New York Times also published these.
* Guantánamo Bay files – 779 formerly secret documents relating to detainees at the United States-run Guantánamo Bay Naval Base Detention Camp in Cuba. The documents revealed more than 150 innocent Afghans and Pakistanis, including farmers, chefs, and drivers, were interrogated and held for years without charge.
The Telegraph (UK), The Guardian and The New York Times also published these.
* Granai Airstrike Massacre – The 4 May 2009 killing of over 140 civilians by a US Air Force B1 bomber in Granai, Afghanistan.
* Afghan War Logs – The logs consist of over 91,000 Afghan War documents, mostly labelled secret, covering the period January 2004 to Dec 2009. 75,000 of them were released to the public. They reveal information on the deaths of civilians, Iranian and Pakistani involvement in encouraging Iraqi insurgencies against the US military, and the rise of Taliban-orchestrated attacks.
The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel also published these.
Did Assange put people in danger?
A key government witness during the Chelsea Manning trial, Brigadier General Robert Carr, testified under oath that no one was hurt by Manning’s revelations. Defense Secretary Robert M Gates added that the leaks were “awkward” and “embarrassing” but the consequences for US foreign policy were “fairly modest.”
But didn’t he reveal the names of agents?
Assange redacted names from the WikiLeaks releases. Later, a pair of Guardian journalists, David Luke and Leigh Harding, published passphrases in a book allowing unrestricted online access to the unredacted files that WikiLeaks did not publish. As a result, the US Government had to relocate multiple agents from foreign assignments for their protection.
Didn’t he go to Russia?
No, that’s another leaker, Edward Snowden. Assange was in London, in the Ecuadorian Embassy.
Oh, right. How did he end up there?
Assange, worried that he would be arrested by British authorities and extradited to the US, sought sanctuary in the embassy in Aug 2012 and was granted political asylum by Ecuador’s then-president, Raffael Correa. He was unable to leave for Ecuador due to permanent British police stationed outside. There were also unrelated rape charges from Sweden.
In Aug 2010 Assange was accused of rape in Sweden based on the testimony of two women. Both women had consensual sex with Assange; in both cases aspects of the relations had given them pause. Assange was visiting Sweden for political meetings and had stayed at the apartment of a 31-year-old Swedish woman, Anna Ardin.
During his stay, the two engaged in sexual relations. Ardin asked Assange to use a condom, which he complied. She said he had “done something” with the condom so that it ripped whilst they were in action. Assange agreed they had consensual sex and denied tearing the condom. Of the condom submitted as ‘evidence’, not a single trace of DNA from Assange or Ardin could be detected.
Also whilst in Sweden, Assange engaged in sexual relations with another woman, known as SW. Ardin and SW later spoke to one another and upon realising they’d both had sexual relations with Assange, SW decided to seek advice from Stockholm Police on whether they could compel him to take a test for any sexually transmitted diseases. Police passed her statements to a prosecutor. Within hours the police opened a rape investigation.
Swedish authorities then leaked to the media that there was a warrant for Assange’s arrest for the “rape of two women,” violating a ban in Swedish law on releasing the names of alleged perpetrators or victims in sexual offense cases. Soon afterward, SW wrote that she “did not want to accuse” Assange “for anything” and it was the “police who made up the charges.” SW declined to cooperate further with Swedish police.
Police then rewrote SW’s statement without her consent, claiming she said she awoke to find Assange penetrating her without consent. The public discussion then centred on whether she’d been asleep or “half asleep” while this took place. The difference between being asleep and half asleep is significant – the former constitutes rape under Swedish law.
According to Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture who read transcripts of the original police interview, the Swedish police altered SW’s statement.
Was Assange in the UK on the run from Sweden?
No. He remained in Sweden for 5 weeks for questioning after learning about the rape allegations through the media. On 25 Aug 2010, Assange was cleared of the suspicion of rape by the Stockholm prosecutor Eva Finne, who stated she “made the assessment that the evidence did not disclose any offence of rape.”
In September he was told he was free to leave; he went to London.
Then what happened?
On 18 Nov 2010, Swedish government prosecutor Marianne Ny again ordered the arrest of Julian Assange on suspicion of rape, three cases of sexual molestation and unlawful coercion. The Stockholm District Court granted a domestic warrant but instead Ny issued a European Arrest Warrant. In London, Assange sparred with authorities over whether he would be questioned further about the case in UK, or in Sweden.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention later declared that Assange’s detention had been unlawful and arbitrary from 7 Dec 2010, the date he surrendered in London to Ny’s non-court sanctioned EAW.
On 20 Nov 2019 Swedish authorities announced they were discontinuing their investigations into the rape allegation, the third time they’ve been dropped.
So why was Assange hiding in the embassy?
He was worried about the US espionage case against him. Assange entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London in Aug 2012 and applied for asylum, and was granted it. He ended up staying there for 6 years and 7 months.
Didn’t he cause all sorts of trouble there?
On 28 March 2018, relationships turned sour when Ecuador, now run by president Lenin Moreno (who succeeded Assange-supporting Raffael Correa in May 2017), disconnected his Internet connection at its London embassy. Assange criticised Spain’s arrest of Catalan separatist Carles Puigdemont, which Ecuador claimed risked “harm” to the country’s relationship with European nations.
Ecuador then prevented a visit by a Human Rights Watch general counsel and refused him several meetings with his lawyers. They also threatened to confiscate his pet cat. In response Assange mounted an unsuccessful legal challenge.
On 26 Sept 2019 the Spanish newspaper El Pais revealed that that the Spanish defence and security company UC Global had spied on Assange for the CIA during his time in the Ecuadorian embassy. Although they were initially employed to prevent British police forcing their way into the building, they provided the CIA with audio and video of meetings Assange held with his lawyers and colleagues.
Why did the Ecuadorians turf Assange out after so long?
On 28 March 2019 Moreno revoked Assange’s citizenship after Ecuador entered a new military alliance with the USA. The following week Moreno blamed WikiLeaks after photos appeared on the internet linking the president to a corruption scandal. WikiLeaks then posted on Twitter that that they’d been tipped off to expect Assange’s expulsion from the embassy, and although Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry denied it, on 11 April they invited British police to enter the premises and arrest Assange.
Moreno has since referred to Assange as a “spoiled brat” and a “miserable hacker.”
How did he end up in London’s Belmarsh Prison?
Assange was found guilty of breaching the Bail Act and on 1 May 2019 he was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison in the United Kingdom.
Wasn’t he supposed to be dying recently?
More than 60 leading doctors signed a joint letter, supported by organisations like Amnesty International, voicing concerns for Assange’s ailing health, questioning why he was kept in solitary confinement in a prison meant for murderers, terrorists and other ‘Category A’ serious criminals.
What is his legal predicament now?
Most importantly, Assange faces 17 charges of espionage in the USA, which can theoretically earn him a prison sentence totalling 175 years. The Espionage Act bans the publication of US Government secrets, including any revelations by the media. The Act is 102 years old but this will be a landmark case as no US Government has yet prosecuted a journalist under the laws.
Why aren’t the Australian Government helping him?
They prefer to leave the matter to the British and Americans.
On 11 April 2019, when Assange was taken from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Assange is “not going to be given special treatment … It has got nothing to do with us, it is a matter for the US, and there is a range of judicial matters. When Australians travel overseas and find themselves in difficulty with the law, they face the judicial systems of those countries.”
On 31 May 2019 the Dept. Foreign Affairs and Trade released the following statement: “We reject any suggestion by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture that the Australian Government is complicit in psychological torture or has shown a lack of consular support for Mr Assange. We are confident that Mr Assange is being treated appropriately in Belmarsh Prison… As with any consular client, we will continue to visit Mr Assange in prison, monitor and advocate for his health, welfare and equitable treatment, and closely follow his legal proceedings.”
Can the magistrate overseeing Assange’s extradition be considered impartial?
Magistrate Vanessa Baraitser distanced herself from Assange’s intensive security monitoring for his Court appearances. She insisted she had no jurisdiction over his isolation in a glass case in the courtroom, where he struggled to hear proceedings, nor any power to interfere with the handcuffing and regular strip-searching he was subjected to when led back and forth from solitary confinement by staff from Serco and Group4.
Baraitser further claimed she had no jurisdiction to request that Assange’s defence lawyers be granted more access to their client in Belmarsh Prison in order to prepare a proper defence case.
Assange wasn’t allowed to sit next to his lawyers in court, nor was he allowed to pass notes to them. Baraitser also forbade him from speaking to his lawyers in Court, and he remained isolated from them in a glass box.
Is Julian Assange a journalist?
The label has of course been used in many different ways in recent years, as so many writers online have broadened the job and its implications. Certainly, seen one way, Assange gathered information and disseminated it; seen another, he’s more of a middle man, connecting sources to traditional news organizations. Whether a US court will or won’t find that his work was protected under the First Amendment isn’t clear. Interestingly, while the US judiciary, and particularly its Supreme Court, has had a conservative bent of late, on First Amendment issues the Court has been expansive. Given Assange’s notoriety, his case may test that commitment.
Isn’t he a Hillary Clinton hater? Didn’t he released the hacked Democratic Party emails to help Putin and Trump?
On 19 March 2016, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign manager, John Podesta, clumsily fell for a ‘spear phishing’ scam on his main Google/Gmail account. He responded to an email from a fake Google website requesting a password change, followed the link and provided them with a new password, gifting his entire back-catalogue of thousands of emails to outsiders.
The cache, when released, revealed transcripts of Clinton’s highly paid speeches to Wall Street banks, efforts by her campaign team to undermine the challenger in the 2016 Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders, much infighting, and allegations Clinton opposed gay marriage.
Another document, Libya Tick Tock, described Hillary Clinton as the primary force driving the destruction of Libya after the fall of leader Colonel Gaddafi in Oct 2011, resulting in 40,000 deaths and facilitating the arrival of ISIS into North Africa.
On 12 June 2016, Assange tweeted “We have upcoming leaks in relation to Hillary Clinton . . . We have emails pending publication.”
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) announced a few days later that the Russian intelligence service, GRU, had hacked into the email accounts of Clinton’s campaign team and would release them through WikiLeaks. An anonymous hacker named ‘Guccifer 2.0’ then publicly claimed responsibility, providing ‘clues’ that he was working for Russia.
However, despite requests from the FBI and CIA to inspect the DNC internet servers for traces of Russian hackers’ activity, the DNC refused to allow any federal inspectors to examine their servers, only CrowdStrike, an independent contractor on the DNC’s payroll.
On 7 Oct 2016, WikiLeaks began releasing Podesta’s emails, but by then their alleged association with Russian intelligence was firmly in the public mind. This was attributable, in part, to the FBI revealing that Russia was manipulating public opinion via fake Facebook accounts to support Donald Trump, and a general anxiety that Russia was interfering in US politics.
In April 2017 CIA Director Mike Pompeo declared WikiLeaks was a hostile intelligence agency aided by foreign states including Russia, facilitated by RT (Russia Today) media organisation. An anonymous CIA official claimed that Russian officials transferred the hacked e-mails to WikiLeaks using “a circuitous route” via third parties.
The DNC filed a lawsuit against Assange and WikiLeaks in April 2018 claiming they worked together with Russian agents to obtain the emails. The suit was dismissed by a judge in July 2019 who said that the DNC case was “entirely divorced” from the facts, refusing leave to appeal due to its “substantive legal defect.” The judge ruled Assange and Wikileaks “did not participate in any wrongdoing in obtaining the materials in the first place” and were therefore within the law in publishing the information.
Assange denied that the Russian government was the source of the emails, although he has stated he thinks Hillary Clinton is a “sadistic sociopath.” However, most US political analysts agree the hacked email story contributed to Clinton’s defeat, whilst Assange was blamed for contributing to Trump’s ascendancy.
Hmm, did he meet anyone from Trump’s campaign team to help Trump win the presidency?
Representatives of the Trump campaign, including lobbyist and self-proclaimed ‘dirty trickster’ Roger Stone, a former Nixon aid, then attempted contact with WikiLeaks and it has been suggested that this also ‘proves’ collusion between Trump and Assange.
The Guardian reported in Nov 2018 that Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, met Assange inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in Aug 2013, Aug 2015 and March 2016. Both Manafort and Assange vociferously denied the claim.
The Washington Post cast doubt on this claim, stating: “‘No other news organization has been able to corroborate The Guardian’s reporting to substantiate its central claim of a meeting.“
Former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook also refuted the claim: “The Guardian worked tirelessly to promote Clinton and undermine Sanders in the 2016 Democratic nomination process – another reason the paper has been so assiduous in promoting the idea that Assange, aided by Russia, was determined to promote Trump over Clinton for the presidency.”
Fidel Narváez, a former consul and First Secretary at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, said “It is impossible for any visitor to enter the embassy without going through very strict protocols and leaving a clear record: obtaining written approval from the ambassador, registering with security personnel, and leaving a copy of ID… In fact, security personnel have always spied on Julian and his visitors. It is simply not possible that Manafort visited the embassy.”
How significant are WikiLeaks’ leaks?
The WikiLeaks revelations were arguably the greatest journalistic scoop in history. Politically, they exceeded the 1971 release of the shocking Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, published in The New York Times, which detailed history of the decision-making behind United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1967.
Ellsberg was initially charged with conspiracy, espionage, and theft of government property, but the charges were later dismissed after prosecutors investigating the Watergate scandal (which began with the Nixon campaign’s break-in of the DNC headquarters) discovered that the staff members in the Nixon White House had ordered unlawful efforts to discredit Ellsberg. In June 2011, all the Pentagon Papers were declassified and publicly released.
The first week of the Julian Assange extradition trial in London has concluded and will be resumed in May.
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