Every investigative journalist rightly reveres Daniel Ellsberg, the former US Marine officer who exposed so many of the lies told by the US government about the Vietnam War.
By leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, Ellsberg revealed the illegal US bombing of Laos and Cambodia—and helped to end the war itself.
When Wikileaks founder Julian Assange fought his desperate battle in London’s Central Criminal Court to avoid extradition to the United States, Ellsberg tried to come to his rescue.
As well he might. Because the story of Julian Assange is an action replay of Ellsberg half a century later.
Ellsberg, like Assange, was put on trial for spying. Ellsberg, like Assange faced a lifetime in prison, only for the charges to be dismissed because of government misconduct against him.
He told the London Court that he felt an immense fellow feeling with the Wikileaks founder.
In an important statement, Ellsberg—the doyen of whistleblowers—explained that while he was serving in Vietnam, detailed knowledge of US war crimes remained confined to a tiny circle.
By contrast, he pointed out that more than 100,000 people had access to the Iraq and Afghan war logs leaked by Chelsea Manning.
This meant, said Ellsberg, “torture and assassination have been normalised.”
And it is certainly true that the Wikileaks revelations has shone a horrifying light on crimes casually committed by the US during the so called “War on Terrorism.”
Wikileaks published a video of US helicopter gunmen laughing as they shot at and killed unarmed civilians in Iraq. Fifteen individuals were killed in the attack, including a Reuters photographer and his assistant.
The US military refused to discipline the perpetrators of this grotesque crime, who remain unpunished. But the US government has thrown the book at the man who revealed their crimes.
Wikileaks revealed that the total number of civilian casualties in Iraq was far greater than previously admitted by the US government. It disclosed the abuse meted out to the inmates at Guantanamo Bay, as well as the fact that 150 innocent inmates were held for years without charge.
Clive Stafford Smith, who has represented 87 prisoners from Guantánamo Bay, paid tribute to the importance of the Wikileaks revelations in enabling him to prove that the charges against his clients had been false.
Many other revelations, though less horrifying, were almost as embarrassing for the US and its allies. I was in the Beirut ten years ago when Wikileaks revealed that the Lebanese defense minister had conspired with the United States to facilitate an Israeli invasion of his country in 2008.
Wikileaks cables revealed how, over a two and a half hour lunch with American diplomats, Elias Murr spelled out which parts of country areas that Israeli jets should hit. They also revealed that he had ordered the Lebanese army “not to get involved in any fighting and to fulfil a civil defence role.” This is just one example and thousands, and mercifully the 2008 assault never happened.
It’s not hard to imagine the fury and embarrassment within the United States defense and military establishment at disclosures like these. And it makes the US determination to prosecute and convict Assange totally rational. They have the strongest possible incentive to make an example of him in order to warn others of the consequences of doing the same.
Any story which depends on obtaining documents from US government sources will become impossibly dangerous. Any journalists concerned could find themselves subject to an extradition request.
The more serious the story, the greater the danger of extradition and prosecution.
A simple mental experiment demonstrates the damage the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States will do.
Let’s imagine that a foreign dissident was being prosecuted by Russian President Vladimir Putin on espionage charges.
Let’s further suppose that his true offense was bring to light war crimes committed by the Russian armed forces, including video footage of the slaughter of unarmed civilians and two Reuters journalists.
And that the UN special rapporteur on torture, after a long and scrupulous inspection of the evidence, had stated that this dissident displayed “all the symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture.”
Now let’s stretch credulity beyond breaking point. Let’s suppose that President Putin was pressuring the United Kingdom to extradite the dissident to Russia to face trial on charges that could condemn that dissident to spend the rest of his life in a Russian maximum security prison.
There would be outrage in Britain. Prime Minister Boris Johnson would make a statement on the floor of the House of Commons declaring that he would never bow to Russian pressure. Powerful editorials in every British paper would denounce Putin, while setting out Britain’s respect for international law.
Yet Julian Assange in virtually in every respect faces identical circumstances to the fictitious Russian dissident I described above.
With one crucial difference: namely that it’s Joe Biden’s United States rather than Vladimir Putin’s Russian which demands his extradition.
With the natural result that British Home Secretary Priti Patel has timidly given in to the US demand.
Patel is a notoriously authoritarian home secretary, but in truth I can’t believe any of her predecessors—Labour or Conservative—would have reached a different decision. This is because Britain values beyond measure her security relationship with the United States.
Yet Britain and the United States love to boast about their commitment to media freedom. Patel’s judgement shows that this claim is fraudulent.
If President Biden truly cared about media freedom he would have cancelled the extradition request months ago.
Such deep hypocrisy is a propaganda gift to Vladimir Putin. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova used Assange’s arrest three years ago to mock the double standards of the west. “The hand of ‘democracy’” she noted, “squeezes the throat of freedom.”