Freedom/Privacy

Assange—Just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts

The great Wikileaks dump has been interesting in any number of ways. I’ve learned a lot. It’s true that a number of commentators have said that this is all stuff we knew before, but I’m not sure that’s the case. There’s a whole raft of detail that now confirms what many of our intuitions were, and that’s a step forward. One thing that’s of paramount interest, I think, is that thus far no one has disputed any of the facts contained in the data dump.

This is good—facts are good things. For example, we now know that it’s a fact that the British government’s slavishness to the US embarrassed even the US government, and that Prince Andrew can be an oaf, but a highly amusing one, particularly about geography, and that the Vatican was upset that the Irish government didn’t intervene to stop the investigations into priest child abuse in the Irish Catholic Church, and that the US government actively tried to undermine the Kyoto agreement at the Copenhagen Climate talks. These are all things that if we didn’t know them to be facts, we could at least have intuited them as being likely—but it’s always nice to have your intuitions confirmed. Then there are some facts we didn’t know, like the fact that the US government pressured the Vatican to take the soft US line at Copenhagen, among others. I’m a financial analyst, and I like facts. That’s what makes transparency important.

At present there are some facts that one can confidentially assert regarding Julian Assange. He’s Australian-born. He runs a website called Wikilieaks. Swedish police would like to question him in relation to two alleged sexual…well, “assaults” seems too strong a term, given everything, so let’s just leave it at encounters for the moment. Actually, whether what transpired was an “assault” is the nub of the Swedish court case that may be brought against Assange—that there were sexual encounters is a fact, but what kind they were seems to remain speculation.

A Swedish prosecutor initially refused to bring a case based on these events to trial, but then another prosecutor picked the case up. Assange turned himself in for said questioning to the British Metropolitan Police. He was then held in solitary confinement for nearly a week—and he sits there still. At present, Assange has not been charged anywhere with a single crime. Let’s repeat that—Assange has not been charged with a single crime, anywhere. That is a fact, one that colors some of the other ones. There is a warrant issued by the Swedish Police for questioning, but even the Swedish prosecutor has yet to decide whether to bring a prosecution against Assange for the charges being investigated. That, too, is a fact. This afternoon, Assange was finally granted bail, but the UK and Swedish governments inexplicably are appealing this decision, so Assange sits in jail still, and may well be there for another 48 hours. Or more, if the governments win their appeals.

There are lots of other facts as well, but those seem to be the pertinent ones. There are also lots of speculations. Sorting these out is a large process, because at present there are lots of facts we just don’t have, and we have lots of competing speculations. For example, is the US government putting pressure on credit card companies and Wikileaks’s service providers to shut Wikileaks down? Well, maybe, but it’s not a fact in hand, so we have to leave it in the speculation camp. Because we just don’t know. That news story the other day—the one about the US government getting ready to pass legislation to prosecute Assange retroactively—this might also be a fact, but again we don’t know, so at the moment it’s speculation—highly likely speculation, probably, but not yet a fact. I’m sure there are lots of people in the government, both elected and non-elected, who would like to see that happen.

So here we run into the nut of the problem. Wikilieaks is not popular, apparently, in a wide variety of US government circles. That’s speculation, of course, but various elected representatives have made very unhappy comments regarding the most recent disclosures, including many that would not surprise you one bit (Senator Joseph Lieberman, for example, who wants Assange prosecuted for treason). Some supporters that would surprise you—Representative Ron Paul, for example—and some that would not (Daniel Ellsberg) have come forward to speak in Assange’s defense, but they seem to be a minority within the US. Ditto other American political figures not in government (cue lots of people being considering a run for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, as well as Bill Clinton), and a whole lot of the hysterical right. In a country as large and as politically polarized as the US is at present, the wide variety of responses is to be expected. Even though none of the parties involved will at any point dispute the fact that there is nothing particularly untrue in what has been released. Uzbekistan is a corrupt dictatorship that the US supports anyway because it provides an important supply line to Afghanistan? Really? Is there anyone who pays attention to that part of the world that doesn’t already know this?

Ditto here in the UK, although I have to say the level of criticism has been considerably lower. And it’s difficult (although probably not impossible) to find anyone in Europe who is particularly upset about the leaks. No one likes being publicly embarrassed, of course, but everyone around here is a grown-up, and you move on. And the press here seems to be considerably more aggressive in defending Assange than does anyone in the US media. Gideon Rachman’s column in The Financial Times today is called America should give Assange a medal. It won’t, of course—that’s just speculation on my part, but I think we can probably assert it as a fact without fear of contradiction. And yet, and yet…both the Swedish and British governments seem to be going to extraordinary lengths to keep Assange behind bars. Odd, for someone who has not only never been convicted of a crime, but has yet to be charged with one.

So with all these facts and speculations going around, getting mixed up with each other, some questions emerge. Just why has the British government been holding Assange when no charges have actually been filed? And to reiterate this point, a request for Assange to be released on bail was denied by the court last week, although bail was granted today—but is still being appealed by the British and Swedish governments, who continue to argue against granting bail. That’s another question—why was bail denied for Assange, when it’s granted to murder suspects? He’s now one of the most identifiable people in the world—how on earth could he possibly be a flight risk? Is the British government still slavishly trying to do what it thinks the US government wants it to do? Has nothing been learned over the past decade? There are enough legal and political puzzles here to keep pundits busy for some time.

And what can one say about Obama’s Justice Department and that fine Attorney General, Mr. Holder? The DOJ, of course, is looking into filing charges, maybe, against Assange. And it’s going to prosecute hackers who went after Mastercard and Visa and other service providers who severed their relationships with Wikileaks. God, even the Department of Homeland Security has come charging into this—great. Another area for them to stick their pesky little noses into. This would be the same Justice Department that has yet to bring a single charge of malfeasance against anyone in the Bush administration for orchestrating an illegal invasion of Iraq (not to mention that torture thing), or to meaningfully go after anyone on Wall Street who created the worst financial crisis since the Depression. So what’s that all about?

And one or two more questions and speculations, before they become facts (or not). We’ve already seen some fitful attempts at shutting down, or at least disrupting and irritating, various businesses that have decided, for whatever reason, to terminate their relationships with Wikileaks. Is this likely to escalate into an outright cyberwar? Well, that would certainly be interesting. We’ve already seen some examples over the past couple of years of concerted attacks by governments of varying levels of sophistication against individuals and other governments, and, of course, the occasional hacker going after someone big. But we’ve never really seen organized anarchy on the scale that this could become. Yes, companies and governments deal with these threats every day, and for all I know they might already be fully up to speed in what they need to know to prevent massive penetration of defenses. But I remain a bit concerned. This is all speculation, of course.

Anyway, Assange will maybe be out soon, so I guess we can breathe a sigh of relief that the threatened vast dump of un-redacted materials will not occur—at least, for the moment. That’s assuming that a lot of the current speculation—about what the US government, in particular, may or may not do—remains that. But that also assumes that the majority of the US political class has the capacity to exercise rational thought, and there’s been no evidence for that proposition recently, so why should we expect any to emerge now? Meanwhile, there are other, more pressing legal issues to be concerned with—does Frankie Boyle’s tastelessness about Katie Price’s son deserve legal protection? I’m staying out of that one. Now, there’s someone I suppose I wouldn’t mind seeing locked up—Boyle, not Price or her son— but one should always keep a sense of proportion about these things.

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