One of the main criticisms of Assange, calculated to reduce public sympathy, is that these cables will endanger lives. What? More than Bush, Obama, Blair and Brown? This seems hardly credible. Just one of these documents, if acted upon, could save more lives than all the dead accumulated over the last decade by just these four leaders. It is the leak about the Iranian missiles, which shows America manufacturing a threat; and highlights its aggressive designs on the country, while exposing its justification for a European missile defence system, almost certainly a first strike weapon. Will the liberals be pushed by the populist appeals; or will they stand their ground, consider these arguments, and fight for their wider principles?
The coverage is interesting. The American desire to prosecute him seems hopelessly conflated with the Swedish desire to extradite him; on separate charges. If there is evidence of sexual assault then a trial is in order, but we have to be careful. It appears that the US is unable to prosecute Assange because it doesn’t have an official secrets act; thus the struggle to find a pretext for his arrest. One can’t help but think that this legal incapacity and the Swedish allegations are related. It could be an old-fashioned character assassination; in which case the charges may never have to be proved; to create a doubt is often just enough. Public support dwindles; and extradition at a later date, but on other grounds, proceeds smoothly. But let us assume they are not related, and carry out a simple thought experiment (which may help our liberals out of a difficult position):
An Iranian scientist defects, with secret cables, which show incontrovertibly that Iran has a nuclear bomb. Almost immediately Lebanon asks for his extradition on charges of rape and molestation. What would Britain do? I think you can answer that one. The more important question is: what should it do? The rape allegations are serious and must be tested; but given the overall context, Hezbollah influential in the government, with strong ties to Iran, you would expect the British authorities to be absolutely sure there is a case to answer. It should be certain there is evidence for the charges; and confident the scientist will have a fair trial. Once those guarantees were in place, then extradition could be considered. Alternatively, the trial could take place in a “neutral” country, where any chance of bias would be reduced. Either way, the authorities would want to be certain there is no connection between the allegations and the secret cables. And whilst it was investigating these issues you would expect the scientist to be treated as a free man. As no doubt he would be; if this particular scenario were reality.
Politics is inextricably mixed up with this trial, and the role of the government, and its liberal establishment, is to separate them out. Thus the government should, by rights, be taking an active role, supported by the press, of course, in ensuring there is no political duplicity. Thus a significant part of this story should be about what the British government is doing: talking to its Swedish counterparts, negotiating with the White House; and protecting a vulnerable target… Only then should attention turn to Assange and the allegations against him.
Instead it has become simply a legal battle; today over bail conditions. It’s as if the political world doesn’t exist at all. Assange may be granted bail if the Swedish government’s appeal fails, but the amount is rather high. Again, one can help but feel that the judge has influenced by the political background – how can he help it? Could Hutton?
Britain, of course, isn’t the only country that does this kind of thing. After the death of Boris Pasternak the authorities wanted revenge, for the award of the Nobel prize for Doctor Zhivago. They got it by prosecuting his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, for currency fraud.
During the recess, Samsonov and Kosachevski talked to our family, friends and well-wishers outside the courtroom and told them there was nothing to worry about… I would get some nominal sentence for not having reported to the authorities about this money of Pasternak’s which the Italians had brought in – just as they had several times in the last few years while he was still alive.
But the mood changed as soon as the recess was over. The judge returned with a sealed envelope in his hand containing the verdict and the sentences laid down for us. When they were read out, the astonished guards at the door… passed on the news to the crowd waiting in the corridor outside: eight years’ forced labour for the mother, and three for the daughter… (A Captive of Time)
Compare this reaction to the Assange’s barristers: “visibly shocked” when he was remanded in custody; while the Guardian calls the high bail amount “unusual”. Was the Communist legal system insulated from Soviet politics? I would imagine most people believed not… And ours? Is it a well-protected fortress against political pressure; and the gunboats of American diplomacy…
The leaks themselves are fairly mundane, though very useful, as Alexander Cockburn writes. However, anyone who reads the press with a critical eye, and knows the history, will not find too many surprises in them. To return to Iran. America’s aggressive intent is well known; and even what appear to be terrorist acts against the regime, the murder of nuclear scientists, are reported; but with little comment. Imagine if there was a suspicion that the Soviet Union had taken out the staff from Los Alamos during the Cold War... If the commentators are shocked, it only confirms how conformist they are. No wonder some of them are angry: the professional facade has fallen. They are Lonesome Rhodes laughing at his audience, as the credits role in A Face in the Crowd; but the kindly producer has turned the music off; and we hear them, for the first time, quite clearly.
More telling is the reaction of establishment figures in the United States, particularly their calls for assassination. America is now the home of the new Ayatollah Khomeini, it seems. Daniel Ellsberg reminds us that Nixon was organising a ‘hit’ against him, and its discovery at Watergate was a key moment in his fall. Such behaviour simply wasn’t acceptable to the then political class. How things have changed! But it is enlightening, for it shows how far to the right the country has moved (with Britain close behind).[ii] It alerts us, more than anything else perhaps, to how extreme the ruling elite has become. Will the Liberals fight back? Are there any left?