The U.S. government, determined to extradite and try Julian Assange for espionage, must find a way to separate what Assange and WikiLeaks did in publishing classified material leaked to them by Chelsea Manning from what The New York Times and The Washington Post did in publishing the same material. There is no federal law that prohibits the press from publishing government secrets. It is a crime, however, to steal them. The long persecution of Manning, who on March 8 was sent back to jail for refusing to testify before a grand jury, is about this issue.
If Manning, a former Army private, admits she was instructed by WikiLeaks and Assange in how to obtain and pass on the leaked material, which exposed U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, the publisher could be tried for the theft of classified documents. The prosecution of government whistleblowers was accelerated during the Obama administration, which under the Espionage Act charged eight people with leaking to the media—Thomas Drake, Shamai Leibowitz, Stephen Kim, Manning, Donald Sachtleben, Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou and Edward Snowden. By the time Donald Trump took office, the vital connection between investigative reporters and sources inside the government had been severed.
Manning, who worked as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq in 2009, provided WikiLeaks with over 500,000 documents copied from military and government archives, including the “Collateral Murder” video footage of an Army helicopter gunning down a group of unarmed civilians that included two Reuters journalists. She was arrested in 2010 and found guilty in 2013.
The campaign to criminalize whistleblowing has, by default, left the exposure of government lies, fraud and crimes to those who have the skills or access, as Manning and Edward Snowden did, needed to hack into or otherwise obtain government electronic documents. This is why hackers, and those who publish their material such as Assange and WikiLeaks, are being relentlessly persecuted. The goal of the corporate state is to shroud in total secrecy the inner workings of power, especially those activities that violate the law. Movement toward this goal is very far advanced. The failure of news organizations such as The New York Times and The Washington Post to vigorously defend Manning and Assange will soon come back to haunt them. The corporate state hardly intends to stop with Manning and Assange. The target is the press itself.
“If we actually had a functioning judicial system and an independent press, Manning would have been a witness for the prosecution against the war criminals he helped expose,” I wrote after I and Cornel West attended Manning’s sentencing in 2013 at Fort Meade, Md. “He would not have been headed, bound and shackled, to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. His testimony would have ensured that those who waged illegal war, tortured, lied to the public, monitored our electronic communications and ordered the gunning down of unarmed civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen were sent to Fort Leavenworth’s cells. If we had a functioning judiciary the hundreds of rapes and murders Manning made public would be investigated. The officials and generals who lied to us when they said they did not keep a record of civilian dead would be held to account for the 109,032 ‘violent deaths’ in Iraq, including those of 66,081 civilians. The pilots in the ‘Collateral Murder’ video, which showed the helicopter attack on unarmed civilians in Baghdad that left nine dead, including two Reuters journalists, would be court-martialed.”
Manning has always insisted her leak of the classified documents and videos was prompted solely by her own conscience. She has refused to implicate Assange and WikiLeaks. Earlier this month, although President Barack Obama in 2010 commuted her 35-year sentence after she served seven years, she was jailed again for refusing to answer questions before a secret grand jury investigating Assange and WikiLeaks. While incarcerated previously, Manning endured long periods in solitary confinement and torture. She twice attempted to commit suicide in prison. She knows from painful experience the myriad ways the system can break you psychologically and physically. And yet she has steadfastly refused to give false testimony in court on behalf of the government. Her moral probity and courage are perhaps the last thin line of defense for WikiLeaks and its publisher, whose health is deteriorating in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has been holed up since 2012.
Manning—who was known as Bradley Manning in the Army—has undergone gender reassignment surgery and needs frequent medical monitoring. Judge Claude M. Hilton, however, dismissed a request by her lawyers for house arrest. Manning was granted immunity by prosecutors of the Eastern District of Virginia, and because she had immunity she was unable to invoke the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination or to have her attorney present. The judge found her in contempt of court and sent her to a federal facility in Alexandria, Va. Hilton, who has long been a handmaiden of the military and intelligence organs, has vowed to hold her there until she agrees to testify or until the grand jury is disbanded, which could mean 18 months or longer behind bars. Manning said any questioning of her by the grand jury is a violation of First, Fourth and Sixth Amendment rights. She said she will not cooperate with the grand jury.
“All of the substantive questions pertained to my disclosures of information to the public in 2010—answers I provided in extensive testimony, during my court-martial in 2013,” she said on March 7, the day before she was jailed.
“I will not comply with this, or any other grand jury,” she said later in a statement issued from jail. “Imprisoning me for my refusal to answer questions only subjects me to additional punishment for my repeatedly-stated ethical objections to the grand jury system.”
“The grand jury’s questions pertained to disclosures from nine years ago and took place six years after an in-depth computer forensics case, in which I testified for almost a full day about these events,” she went on. “I stand by my previous public testimony.”
Manning reiterated that she “will not participate in a secret process that I morally object to, particularly one that has been historically used to entrap and persecute activists for protected political speech.”
The New York Times, Britain’s The Guardian, Spain’s El País, France’s Le Monde and Germany’s Der Spiegel all published the WikiLeaks files provided by Manning. How could they not? WikiLeaks had shamed them into doing their jobs. But once they took the incendiary material from Manning and Assange, these organizations callously abandoned them. No doubt they assume that by joining the lynch mob organized against the two they will be spared. They must not read history. What is taking place is a series of incremental steps designed to strangle the press and cement into place an American version of China’s totalitarian capitalism. President Trump has often proclaimed his deep animus for news outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, referring to them as the “enemy of the people.” Any legal tools given to the administration to shut down these news outlets, or at least hollow them of content, will be used eagerly by the president.
The prosecutions of government whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, warrantless wiretapping, monitoring of the communications of Americans and the persecution of Manning and Assange are parts of an interconnected process of preventing any of us from peering at the machinery of state. The resulting secrecy is vital for totalitarian systems. The global elites, their ruling ideology of neoliberalism exposed as a con, have had enough of us examining and questioning their abuses, pillage and crimes.
“The national security state can try to reduce our activity,” Assange told me during one of our meetings at the embassy in London. “It can close the neck a little tighter. But there are three forces working against it. The first is the massive surveillance required to protect its communication, including the nature of its cryptology. In the military everyone now has an ID card with a little chip on it, so you know who is logged into what. A system this vast is prone to deterioration and breakdown. Secondly, there is widespread knowledge not only of how to leak, but how to leak and not be caught, how to even avoid suspicion that you are leaking. The military and intelligence systems collect a vast amount of information and move it around quickly. This means you can also get it out quickly. There will always be people within the system that have an agenda to defy authority. Yes, there are general deterrents, such as when the DOJ [Department of Justice] prosecutes and indicts someone. They can discourage people from engaging in this behavior. But the opposite is also true. When that behavior is successful it is an example. It encourages others. This is why they want to eliminate all who provide this encouragement.”
“The medium-term perspective is very good,” he said. “The education of young people takes place on the internet. You cannot hire anyone who is skilled in any field without them having been educated on the internet. The military, the CIA, the FBI, all have no choice but to hire from a pool of people that have been educated on the internet. This means they are hiring our moles in vast numbers. And this means that these organizations will see their capacity to control information diminish as more and more people with our values are hired.”
The long term is not so sanguine. Assange, along with three co-authors—Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn and Jérémie Zimmermann—wrote a book titled “Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet.” It warns that we are “galloping into a new transnational dystopia.” The internet has become not only a tool to educate, they write, but the mechanism to create a “Postmodern Surveillance Dystopia” that is supranational and dominated by global corporate power. This new system of global control will “merge global humanity into one giant grid of mass surveillance and mass control.”
“All communications will be surveilled, permanently recorded, permanently tracked, each individual in all their interactions permanently identified as that individual to this new Establishment, from birth to death,” Assange says in the book. “I think that can only produce a very controlling atmosphere.”
“How can a normal person be free within that system?” he asks. “[He or she] simply cannot, it’s impossible.”
It is only through encryption that we can protect ourselves, the authors argue, and only by breaking through the digital walls of secrecy erected by the power elite can we expose the abuses of power. But ultimately, they say, as the tools of the state become more sophisticated, even these mechanisms of opposition will be difficult and perhaps impossible to use.
“The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation,” Assange writes, “has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen.”
That is where we are headed. A few resist. Assange and Manning are two. Those who stand by passively as they are persecuted will be next.
Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.
Originally published in TruthDig