Nick Cohen, Assange and US Power

If there is a better response to Nick Cohen’s ill-conceived article on paranoid WikiLeaks supporters than yesterday’s New York Times Op-Ed by former US President Jimmy Carter, then I am not sure where to find it. To my mind, Cohen is correct when he notes that some elements of the defense of Julian Assange by supporters have been very troubling – none more so than direct and indirect attacks on “radical feminism” in Sweden. I myself have written on this issue, and, a result, have been accused (via Twitter) of being an anti-WikiLeaks, anti-Assange agent of US-Swedish power. I am not any of these things, but it is increasingly obvious that these types of attacks come with the territory when commenting on WikiLeaks. If Cohen had a serious point about the potentially negative impact of some elements of the Assange defense, however, then they have been lost in a problematic line of reasoning .

Problem 1: An Ill-Informed Belief in US Justice

Radical socialists don’t become President of the United States of America, so when a former Commander-in-Chief writes the following, it carries a fair amount of weight:

Recent legislation has made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or “associated forces,” a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress (the law is currently being blocked by a federal judge). This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the declaration.

In addition to American citizens’ being targeted for assassination or indefinite detention, recent laws have canceled the restraints in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to allow unprecedented violations of our rights to privacy through warrantless wiretapping and government mining of our electronic communications. Popular state laws permit detaining individuals because of their appearance, where they worship or with whom they associate.

Carter’s article also reminds us that there are currently 169 prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay who are denied the minimal right of habeas corpus. By ignoring the gross violations engaged in by the United States government, and by labeling WikiLeaks supporters conspiracy nuts, Cohen actually confirms what many Assange and WikiLeaks supporters suspect: that the mainstream media have a short-sighted vendetta against Assange because he beat them at their own game.

Problem 2: Cohen’s Piece is Ahistorical

In addition to ignoring the issues discussed by Carter – drones, Gitmo, lack of oversight on presidential power – Cohen fails to address the fact that history books on the last 50 years of domestic US and international politics are hardly reassuring reading for a person with a fear of extradition to the United States. Salvador Allende, Cuba, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, Iran-Contra, Gulf War I, Afghanistan, Gulf War II, Gitmo, Extraordinary Rendition, Water-Boarding, Bradley Manning. When you look at this laundry list, and consider the fact that within many of these events hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals have either died, been attacked or had their rights violated, then someone like Assange surely has cause to be worried for his own safety.

What makes a theory a conspiracy theory (as a pejorative term) is a perceived ludicrousness: a proposition so outlandish and technically unlikely (usually due to the involvement of multiple actors engaged in hidden activity) that the person who utters it must be divorced from reality. Can we honestly say that Assange’s fear of extradition to, and potential imprisonment in, the US falls into this category? Let me put it this way: if you had told me 12 years ago that Sweden would allow CIA agents to detain, assault and interrogate two Egyptian nationals on Swedish soil, then drug and fly them from Stockholm to Egypt on a private jet for interrogation and torture, only to have Sweden deny it, I might have called that borderline conspiracy talk. But it happened.

Problem 3: The Watergate/Journalism Argument is Very Thin

Ah, Watergate. Every time a question pops up about freedom of speech in the United States, Watergate, the Washington Post, Deep Throat, the Pentagon Papers, Woodward, Bernstein and Nixon are trotted out and put on display as evidence of the Fourth Estate at work. Well, Watergate was 40 years ago, and this is not your father’s America. In the 40 years since Watergate we have precious few examples of US mainstream media actively challenging US corporate and military power. In fact, quite the opposite. We live with (and some in) a post-9/11 America of Freedom Fries, Fox News, the Tea Party and the Patriot Act. Yes, the First Amendment is a fantastic piece of writing, but remember that in 2010 the Citizens United decision made by the US Supreme Court held that corporations have the same free speech rights as regular, human citizens. Even great political documents can be perverted.

Cohen also suggests that WikiLeaks and Assange will likely be protected under US law because WikiLeaks, “was in effect a newspaper.” That is a pretty loose legal hook to hang the hat of your life on. Whether or not WikiLeaks is classified as a newspaper or journalistic organization is far from decided. Again, some context from Sweden: one of the reasons why WikiLeaks initially used servers located in Sweden was the perceived protection offered to the organization under Sweden’s stringent freedom of speech and whistleblower protection laws. Interestingly, however, that logic was called into question when it was noted that WikiLeaks would not be classified as a journalistic organization because it did not have what is known as a “responsible publisher” (a person legally responsible for the content): a condition necessary for an organization to be considered journalistic in Sweden. In other words, lots of assumptions can be made about WikiLeaks being a news organization, but assumptions don’t hold up in court.

Problem 4: Cohen Conflates WikiLeaks Supporters

As a final point, although I have been subject to some accusations (some of which were re-tweeted to 1.5 million WikiLeaks followers on Twitter) in relation to my questioning some WikiLeaks arguments, I suspect that the number of supporters who adhere to these dogmatic lines of thought, and attack those who disagree, is relatively small, and that their voices have disproportionate strength as a result of echo-chambers like Twitter. I get the sense that many supporters of WikiLeaks are regular people who are tired of being used and lied to, and want to support an organization which has shown a willingness and backbone to challenge some big schoolyard bullies.

It takes guts to challenge the United States: just ask people who have done so and paid the price. By playing the “conspiracy theory” card in relation to extradition to the US, and dismissing legitimate fears when there is ample evidence to the contrary, Cohen throws the baby out with the bathwater. US power is real, and US justice has shown a willingness to bend to that power when needed. That isn’t conspiracy theory, that is reality.

About chrchristensen
Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

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