On November 18 2010, without any charge in place, Interpol issued a top-priority Red Alert Notice against WikiLeaks founder and editor-in-chief, Julian Assange. By contrast, less than six months later, the international police body only saw fit to issue a mere Orange Alert Notice for Muammar Qaddafi and 15 members of his family for the mass killing of Libyans. As we go to press, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, despite numerous government-directed massacres in his country, has no notices against his name.
|Julian Assange with lawyer Jennifer Robinson in January last year outside Belmarsh Magistrates Court, where he was fighting his extradition from UK to Sweden|
What makes Assange such a dangerous and undesirable person? WikiLeaks – the international online, not-for-profit organisation that publishes verified, private, secret and classified information from anonymous news sources, news leaks, and whistleblowers is what it's all about. Its website, launched in 2006 under the Sunshine Press organisation, claimed a database of more than 1.2 million documents within a year of its launch. Their revelations embarrassed governments and their corporate sponsors everywhere – but most of all the US government and its financial backers. (For more about WikiLeaks see footnotes below.)
Assange, an Australian internet activist, is generally described as WikiLeaks’s founder, editor-in-chief, and director.
WikiLeaks and Assange have Noseweek’s enthusiastic support. After all, our masthead declares that we pursue and expose “News you’re not supposed to know”. The editorial published in 1993 (nose4) is republished in the Editorial of this issue.
Almost two decades later, similarly motivated, WikiLeaks was launched on a spectacular, global scale using the skills of a host of extraordinarily talented young computer code builders – and breakers.
Noseweek regularly irritates and embarrasses government or outrages one or other major bank or law firm. Our defence is transparency and the wide public understanding and support we enjoy. But the sheer scale and depth of WikiLeaks’s exposés has the US government, the governments of its allies in its middle-eastern interventions, and the corporations who most benefit from government patronage and the spoils of war, in a state of apoplexy to the point of derangement. They have unleashed a series of sinister, secret plots to close down WikiLeaks and lock up Assange.
Noseweek caught up with 31-year-old Australian media and human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson, on a visit to South Africa last month. She was here in her capacity as the Bertha Foundation’s director of legal advocacy (in South Africa they support freedom of expression, among other causes). She was part of Assange’s initial defence team in Britain and assists with his legal matters in Australia and the US.
In May, the UK Supreme Court ruled that Sweden’s public prosecutor who authorised the application for Assange’s arrest in Britain and extradition to Sweden qualified as a “judicial authority” – as required by international treaty – thereby validating Julian Assange’s arrest warrant and extradition to Sweden. Curiously, this was not to face prosecution, as there have been no charges laid against him, but merely for “interview” by prosecutors.
Assange unsucessfully challenged the ruling on the grounds that it was made on a point of law not argued in court. He could still take his case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Noseweek met Robinson just a day after the ruling. She appeared strong, but exhausted, having been fielding calls from media around the world. She said she was desperately worried about the uncertain future for investigative journalism and the free flow of information in view of the ruling against Assange. She wasn’t however ready to give up the fight for press freedom, democracy and access to information without giving it her all.
Robinson, in 2008 at the age of 27 became one of only 30 lawyers named by the UK Attorney-General as a national Pro Bono Hero.
But on April 18 this year, at Heathrow Airport, she hit a snag at check-in for a flight to Sydney on Virgin Atlantic because – so an airline official advised her – her name was on an “inhibited list”. UK Customs and Border Control officials and the airline would only allow her to check in with the approval of the Australian High Commission in London. Odd that Robinson, an Australian citizen, was prevented from flying home without the say-so of the Australian High Commissioner. Echoes of apartheid South Africa’s “exit permit” days -- you can leave, but don't come back?
The UK officials only relented after Robinson sent out two tweets announcing her status: “Just delayed from checking in at LHR because I’m apparently ‘inhibited’ – requiring approval from Australia House @dfat to travel...” Her second tweet read: “Security guard: ‘You must have done something controversial because we have to phone the embassy.’” Australian Attorney-General Nicola Roxon was soon reported to have advised her Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to seek an explanation from the UK government. Britain denied being responsible for the demeaning “inhibited” status.
Robinson was later allowed to travel – perhaps after someone monitoring her social networking called somebody who called another and another, who instructed the security guards at Heathrow to let her through.
It transpired that “inhibited” is a term used by the US Department of Homeland Security to refer to passengers who should not be granted access to aircraft or the “sterile” areas of international airports without additional on-the-spot government approval. Welcome to the “war on terror” in which governments themselves apply the techniques of terror.
Does Assange terrorise people? Emphatically no. Does he terrify governments and their sponsoring powerful corporations? An unqualified yes – using truth and exposure of their lies. It really is as simple as that.
Ponder how the US Department of Homeland Security could surreptitiously dictate to British immigration officials and private corporations like Virgin Atlantic that a young lawyer should be declared persona non grata simply for daring to be part of Assange’s legal defence team, then you will have a fair indication of who could be pulling the strings of the Swedish authorities’ application for Assange’s arrest, detention and extradition.
Is Robinson ever fearful for her own safety? If she could turn back the clock, would she still have Julian Assange as her client? Absolutely yes.Does she have any regrets? “I have no regrets. People have asked me, ‘Why do you do it? Why do you continue to stand by him and at what cost?’ My response has always been: if people we represent have the moral courage to do what they do, then we should have the moral courage to defend them!”
She then recounted Assange’s response to a journalist’s question a few days before the extradition ruling. Asked, “Julian, given that you are just about to find out what happens at the Supreme Court, given the personal cost that you have suffered doing what you do, would you do it again?”
He answered: “We are all at our best when we stand up for ideals that we think are important to us and to other people. I have made my days count.”
Asked how far her client was willing to go in his crusade, she responded: “Having spent over 500 days technically imprisoned with an electronic ankle tag, he has continued to publish and produce a TV series. I don’t see him giving up any time soon. He will continue to fight. I think that he decided to publish knowing what might happen and he was prepared to go through this… and I think that deserves respect...
“Precedents will be set by various legal cases that confront him, whether they be financial services issues or the potential extradition to the US. These impinge upon fundamental issues of press freedom, democracy and access to information… It affects everybody, I think it affects every media [journalist]; unfortunately Julian is the one who has to bear that burden.”
The tactics employed by the financial institutions (Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, Western Union and Bank of America) to effect the financial blockade – when several US financial service providers refused to process donations for WikiLeaks – has derailed the organisation’s operations.
Robinson says: “If the blockade was due to some executive order from political leaderships, we could challenge them in courts; but try fighting banks on their Terms & Conditions.”
And that is where the US government has found their best means of fighting WikiLeaks: the financial institutions and corporations the politicans bankroll and bail out with taxpayers' money, dutifully rein in those whom the government deems undesirable as a quid pro quo.
For more insight into Assange’s alleged crimes, go back a few years to a world without WikiLeaks: February 2003, when US Secretary of Defence, four-star General Colin Powell, made his government’s case against Saddam Hussein to the world from the podium of the UN Security Council after the US called a special session.
“My second purpose today is to provide you with additional information, to share with you what the United States knows about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction as well as Iraq’s involvement in terrorism, which is also the subject of Resolution 1441 and other earlier resolutions...
“The material I will present to you comes from a variety of sources. Some are US sources. And some are those of other countries. Some of the sources are technical, such as intercepted telephone conversations and photos taken by satellites. Other sources are people who have risked their lives to let the world know what Saddam Hussein is really up to.
“...I cannot tell you everything that we know. But what I can share with you, when combined with what all of us have learned over the years, is deeply troubling...”
Powell concluded by holding up a vial of anthrax which Saddam Hussein supposedly had amongst his Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). The council was unanimous: the dictator had to be stopped.
With that, the case was made, forces were armed and bombers deployed.
The media, which should have questioned every sentence in the presentation, translated it into multiple languages and transmitted the message far and wide. The reward for some was to be “embedded” with the forces fighting the monstrous Saddam in search of the much-vaunted WMD.
What also went unnoticed was the Executive Order EO 13292, signed by President George W Bush on 23 March 2003, that amended the earlier EO 12958. This new order prescribed a uniform system for classifying, safeguarding, and declassifying national security information, including that relating to defence against transnational terrorism. But, read closely, and it becomes clear that it was basically aimed at preventing access to flawed information that the Bush administration used as its basis to drum-up support for the Iraqi invasion.
Two years on, when asked by US television journalist Barbara Walters whether he felt that his 2003 performance had tarnished his reputation, the retired general said: “Of course it will. It’s a blot. I’m the one who presented it [the lies] on behalf of the United States to the world and it will always be part of my record. It was painful. It’s still painful.”
A year later, Sunshine Press launched WikiLeaks, now synonymous with Assange (see below).
Had WikiLeaks been in operation some months before the presentation to the UN Security Council, maybe someone would have leaked the defective aspect of the intelligence report Powell relied on.
When WikiLeaks started operations, it was felt that only improprieties involving developing countries would be targeted.
In December 2008, Miranshan Ramburuth of the South African Competition Commission wrote to the group demanding the removal of its 590-page report on bank charges. (The report is now available on Noseweek’s website -- see click-through, below.) Several countries and corporations were also to have their dirty secrets published openly online. But as long as WikiLeaks remained a thorn in the flesh only of “developing” countries and their leaders (corporate and political), Assange and his team remained free.
All that changed when WikiLeaks’s operations became truly borderless. While no entity could dare call Western corporations and politicians “the axis of evil”, the subsequent release of documents by WikiLeaks left no room in the public mind to think otherwise.
Starting with the April 2010 video, Collateral Murder, showing the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people, including two Reuters’ journalists, in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad, followed by WikiLeaks’s July 2010 release of the War Diaries – the US’s battlefield log, Assange’s status was elevated to Enemy No. 1 of the (supposed) “Free World”.
WikiLeaks has threatened bottom lines and political careers in the capitals of the world, from private military and intelligence contractors to corporate media owners. The advent of WikiLeaks has ensured that the public doesn’t have to wait for the automatic declassification of records (usually 25-75 years after the events recorded) to know about the dirty business their governments have been up to.
Recent casualties of WikiLeaks are dubious United States information peddlers who for a fee have secretly fashioned reports to suit the needs not only of major corporations but, increasingly, of various US government agencies – like those responsible for creating Powell’s dishonest but emotively effective dossier.
Why is Assange fighting his extradition to Sweden? Is he simply afraid of being found guilty on charges that are yet to be filed?
A San Francisco-based information and data security specialist who wanted to remain anonymous told Noseweek: “The targeting of Julian isn’t to disable WikiLeaks, but to warn other new entrants into the field.”
Warn isn’t quite the word; terrorise maybe?
He continued: “WikiLeaks is like a multi-headed rattlesnake whose strength lies in its tail. There is no head, Julian is just the symbol. And even with his being locked up for 200 years at some undisclosed place of detention, the spirit of WikiLeaks will live on.
“The revision of the Iranian dossier by the intelligence community could be attributed to two things; the Iraqi cock-up and the real fears that the flaws would be exposed by some intelligence insider online sooner rather than later.”
The analyst went on to explain that it was hoped that the “organised disappearance” of Assange would instil sufficient fear in would-be leakers to contain “the problem”.
“He has pissed on everyone and everything, and his enemies have enough resources to fight back even without the backing of any organised state agency; the most affected being those shadowy entities that have always peddled their services to corporations and state agencies, such as the ones contained among the ‘Spy Files’. WikiLeaks has almost caused the decommissioning of such independent contractors as their ways are exposed.
“Where do you expect the young men and women who enlisted to fight these senseless wars to go after delisting? They become independent contractors. That’s all most of them can do. Mercenaries in suits.”
The US’s “dirty wars” have undoubtedly created lucrative opportunities for independent contractors like Palantir Technologies Inc (created in 2004 with an injection of $2 million from the CIA’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel, and $30m from Peter Thiel and his firm, The Founders Fund); HBGary Federal (a company whose CEO, Aaron Barr, had claimed in 2010 to be able to exploit social media to gather information about hackers); and Berico Technologies, (created by a group of military veterans).
As the global economy was settling down after the 2008-2010 sub-prime mortgage/financial crisis, and as the public was beginning to digest the cheats and subsequent bailouts offered to various institutions, WikiLeaks gave advance notice of an impending release of documents relating to Bank of America. Not knowing how much dirt would be contained in the release, the three independent contractors landed a contract to provide an overview of what they dubbed “The Wikileaks Threats”.
Palantir, HBGary and Berico were hired by Hunton & Williams, a lobbyist law firm working for Bank of America, on the recommendation of the US Justice Department, to come up with the means to contain WikiLeaks. In their presentation (that was, ironically, later to be released by WikiLeaks itself in February 2011), the three contractors stated: “As of January 2010, the WikiLeaks team consisted of five full-time employees and about 800 volunteers – all spread across the world – with their identities largely unknown.”
They said they had managed to identify a few of the volunteers and staff, including at least five journalists – among them, Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com, and lawyer Jennifer Robinson herself. Other than Assange, the contractors singled out Greenwald – whom they loosely linked to the server migration from Amazon to French OVH ISP (after Amazon stopped hosting Wikileaks), saying: “It is this level of support that needs to be disrupted.”
One suggestion was to intimidate the identified collaborators: “These are established professionals that have a liberal bent but, ultimately, most of them, if pushed, will choose professional preservation over cause, such is the mentality of most business professionals. Without support of people like Glenn [Greenwald], Wikileaks would fold.” They gave an outline of what they perceived to be Wikileaks’s strengths and weaknesses:
• Their global following and volunteer staff;
• Assange pronounces and the minions follow. Larger infrastructure is fairly pointless to attack because they have so many other points and organisations that are willing to distribute the information and help them get new hosting services.
• Financial – they are under increasing pressure because authorities are blocking their funding sources;
• Security – the need to get to the Swedish document submission server and the need to create doubt about their security and increase awareness that interaction with WikiLeaks will expose people;
• Mission – there is a fracture among the followers because of a belief that Assange is going astray from the cause and has selected his own mission of attacking the US.
The contractors concluded their assessment by noting: “Despite the publicity, WikiLeaks is not in a healthy position right now. Their weakness is causing stress in the organisation, which can be capitalised on.”
Having instilled enough fear in their client the Bank of America, it was time for the three contractors to offer their “advanced services” in combatting the multi-headed rattlesnake. Under the sub-topic “Response Tactics” the three announced: “Speed is crucial!”:
•There is no time to develop an infrastructure to support this investigation. (In other words, don’t question us, just pay us – with bailout remnants – and we will act);
•The threats demand a comprehensive analysis capability now.
But just in case the Bank of America and their legal brains at Hunton & Williams had any doubts, the team announced their prowess:
•Combating this threat requires advance subject matter expertise in cyber-security, insider threats, counter cyber-fraud, targeting analysis, and social media exploitation. Palantir Technology, HBGary Federal, and Berico Technology represent deep domain knowledge in each of these areas.
It is not clear whether the Bank of America parted with a few million dollars to enable the total collapse of WikiLeaks but... well, WikiLeaks is still publishing. With multiple internet servers spread across the world, WikiLeaks lives on.
And HBGary Federal’s CEO, Aaron Barr? He’s out on his ear. After spending months trying to persuade would-be clients that his internet security system could protect them from intruding “moral uprights” like WikiLeaks, he was to discover that the hacktivist group Anonymous needed only a few hours one Sunday preceding the screening of the 2011 Super Bowl to gain possession of his entire computer system – and make off with the secret report on WikiLeaks that he had prepared to try to win favour and contracts from US Government security and intelligence agencies at a meeting that had been scheduled for a few days later.
The credo of the cypherpunks (activists who advocate widespread use of strong cryptography as a route to social and political change): Governments and major corporations are using the internet and computer technology to constantly harvest information about our private lives: all our communications by telephone, by email, via the social media are spied upon and stored, all our credit and bank card transactions are likewise copied and stored, potentially to be used against us; our airline bookings, our online purchases, our medical history (see story about Discovery Health elsewhere in this issue) – even our movements are tracked via our cellphones. If they can know all this about us, then it’s surely time that we, too, found out all about them and what they are up to.
The cypherpunks have demonstrated that we can. If internet technology allows them all that access, well it allows everyone else that access too. That’s the new deal in the Age of Electronic Democracy.
Find it hard to believe? Then read the next article – a short extract from the recently published Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography.
WikiLeaks is an international, online, self-described not-for-profit organisation publishing submissions of private, secret, and classified media from anonymous news sources, news leaks and whistleblowers. Its website, launched in 2006 under the Sunshine Press organisation, claimed a database of more than 1.2 million documents within a year of its launch. Julian Assange an Australian Internet activist, is generally described as its founder, editor-in-chief, and director. Icelandic investigative journalist Kristinn Hrafnsson [see below] was the only other publicly known acknowledged associate of WikiLeaks as of 2011. Hrafnsson is also a member of the company Sunshine Press Production along with Assange, Ingi Ragnar Ingason and Gavin MacFadyen. [Professor MacFadyen, visiting professor in the journalism department at City University London, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London and a long-time friend and subscriber to Noseweek, is an active supporter of WikiLeaks and on occasion acts as spokesman for Assange.]
WikiLeaks has released a number of significant documents which have become front-page news items. Early releases included documentation of equipment expenditures and holdings in the Afghanistan war and corruption in Kenya. In April 2010, WikiLeaks published gunsight footage from the 12 July 2007 Baghdad airstrike in which Iraqi journalists were among those killed by an Apache helicopter, known as the Collateral Murder video. In July of the same year, WikiLeaks released Afghan War Diary, a compilation of more than 76,900 documents about the war in Afghanistan not previously available to the public. In October 2010, the group released a package of almost 400,000 documents called the Iraq War Logs in coordination with major commercial media organisations. This allowed every death in Iraq, and across the border in Iran, to be mapped. In April 2011, WikiLeaks began publishing 779 secret files relating to prisoners detained in the US government's controversial Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
Wikileaks’s role in exposing the massive fraud within Iceland's three major banks that brought the country to its knees and destroyed the pensions of an entire generation, is well documented in The Little Book of the Icelanders by Alda Sigmundsdóttir, a one-time WikiLeaks collaborator who has since become a member of Iceland’s parliament.
On July 31 2009, WikiLeaks went on line with a 209-page insider document containing PowerPoint slides used at a meeting of the loans committee of the largest of the three banks, Kaupthing. The meeting had taken place on September 25, 2008, shortly before the Big Meltdown.
The leaked document revealed how the bank made massive, high-risk loans to a select few, most notably the largest shareholders in the bank and their close associates. These loans were in many cases awarded without any collateral security. (Later it would emerge that loans to the core investors of Kaupthing and companies owned by them, totalled $2.3 bn.)
Also revealed was that large sums of money had been transferred out of the bank and that massive loan write-offs had been done in the few days preceding the collapse – evidence that the big players knew exactly what was about to go down – and had only the interests of Number One in mind.
Investigative journalist Kristinn Hrafnsson was already famous in his home country for exposing criminal activity and corruption in high places through his teams' TV programme Kompás. But in February 2009, while investigating the connection between Iceland’s Kaupthing Bank and Robert Tchenguiz, the programme was suddenly taken off air and Kristinn and his crew were sacked. He subsequently landed a job with The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, and by August 2009 was once again working on a story about Kaupthing – this time analysing the bank’s loan book which had just been published on the WikiLeaks website. But when the bank heard of it, they got a gagging order issued by the Reykjavik sheriff’s office, preventing RÚV from reporting on the loan book. The national broadcaster, while complying with the interdict, reported the gagging order on their news bulletins while displaying the WikiLeaks website address where details of the loan book could be found.
Kristinn was fired from RÚV in July 2010 and has since worked as an independent journalist, collaborating with WikiLeaks and standing in as the organisation’s spokesman as Assange was forced to retreat from the limelight due to persistent legal action. He called the blockade of WikiLeaks – instituted by various US financial institutions (including Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, Western Union and Bank ofAmerica) in Dec 2010 – a "privatisation of censorship". In 2012, he once again emerged as the WikiLeaks spokesman, this time on Swedish television to defend the organisation against a smear campaign run by the Swedish tabloid, Expressen.
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