(Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Tuesday that Edward Snowden, the former U.S. spy agency contractor, deserved the “world’s protection” for divulging details of Washington’s spy programme.
Snowden, wanted by Washington on spying charges for revealing the secret U.S. electronic surveillance programme Prism, has applied for political asylum in more than a dozen countries, in his search for safety.
The 30-year-old is in legal limbo in the transit area of Moscow’sSheremetyevo airport, unable to fly on to a hoped-for destination in Latin America because he has no legal travel documents and no Russian visa to leave the airport.
On Monday, he broke a nine-day silence since arriving in Moscow from Hong Kong, challenging Washington by saying he was free to publish more about its programmes and that he was being illegally persecuted.
That ruled out a prolonged stay in Russia, where a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said Snowden had withdrawn his request for asylum after the Russian leader said he should give up his “anti-American activity”.
But while countries lined up to deny his asylum requests, Venezuela, part of an alliance of leftist governments in Latin America, said it was time to stop berating a man who has “done something very important for humanity”.
“He deserves the world’s protection. He has not asked us for it yet. When he does we will give our answer,” Maduro told Reuters during a visit to Moscow.
He said he would consider an asylum application if Snowden made one. His request for safety in Ecuador, which has sheltered the founder of antisecrecy group WikiLeaks Julian Assange in its London embassy, has seemingly ended.
U.S. President Barack Obama, embarrassed by the affair, has made clear to a number of countries that granting him asylum would carry costs.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa was quoted in Britain’s Guardian newspaper on Monday as saying his country could not consider an asylum request unless Snowden was on Ecuadorean territory.
He said giving Snowden a temporary travel pass to fly to Moscow from Hong Kong was “a mistake on our part”.
“Are we responsible for getting him to Ecuador? It’s not logical,” he said, adding that Snowden was now Moscow’s problem.
Moscow has been unwilling to send Snowden to the United States and look weak but is just as unwilling to damage ties with Washington over a man Putin, a former KGB spy, has little sympathy with.
“Snowden is in the transit area of Sheremetyevo airport and has not crossed the Russian Federation’s border (onto Russian soil) … Russia has never extradited anyone, is not extraditing anyone and will not extradite anyone,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Tuesday.
Peskov said Snowden showed no sign of stopping releasing secret U.S. documents and added that he had “abandoned his intention (of staying in Russia)”.
Snowden has prepared requests for asylum in countries including India, China, Brazil, Ireland, Austria, Bolivia, Cuba, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Poland, Spain, Switzerland and Venezuela, WikiLeaks said on Monday.
By Tuesday, the list of rejections was growing.
Norway said he was unlikely to get asylum there, and Poland said it would not give a “positive recommendation” to any request. Finland said it could not accept his request as Finnish law required him to be in the country. France, Iceland and Italy said they had not received any formal request for asylum.
Snowden’s options are narrowing. His U.S. passport has been revoked so he has no travel documents and he does not have a valid Russian visa to leave the airport.
In a statement released by WikiLeaks on Monday, he accused the Obama administration of deception in a campaign to prevent him from finding political asylum and of “leaving me a stateless person” by revoking his U.S. passport.
“This kind of deception from a world leader is not justice, and neither is the extralegal penalty of exile,” he said.
“Without any judicial order, the administration now seeks to stop me exercising a basic right,” Snowden said. “A right that belongs to everybody. The right to seek asylum … Their purpose is to frighten, not me, but those who would come after me.”
U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre rejected Snowden’s allegation “since he is still a United States citizen and his country is willing to take him back.”
Snowden said he was being illegally persecuted in a undated letter sent to Ecuador’s Correa seen by Reuters.
“I remain free and able to publish information that serves the public interest,” Snowden, who had been a contract employee for the U.S. National Security Agency, said in the letter.
“No matter how many more days my life contains, I remain dedicated to the fight for justice in this unequal world. If any of those days ahead realise a contribution to the common good, the world will have the principles of Ecuador to thank.”
(Writing by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Jon Boyle)
Ecuador’s president reveals travel pass was granted ‘without authorisation’ and says whistleblower is now Russia’s problem.
Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa said Snowden ‘must be on Ecuadorean territory’ to make an asylum request. Photograph: Martin Mejia/AP
Ecuador is not considering Edward Snowden‘s asylum request and never intended to facilitate his flight from Hong Kong, president Rafael Correa said as the whistleblower made a personal plea to Quito for his case to be heard.
Snowden was Russia’s responsibility and would have to reach Ecuadorean territory before the country would consider any asylum request, the president said in an interview on Monday.
“Are we responsible for getting him to Ecuador? It’s not logical. The country that has to give him a safe conduct document is Russia.”
The president, speaking to the Guardian at the presidential palace in Quito, said his government did not intentionally help Snowden travel from Hong Kong to Moscow with a temporary travel pass. “It was a mistake on our part,” he added.
Asked if he thought the former NSA contractor would ever make it to Quito, he replied: “Mr Snowden’s situation is very complicated, but in this moment he is in Russian territory and these are decisions for the Russian authorities.”
Asked if he would like to meet him, he said: “Not particularly. He’s a very complicated person. Strictly speaking, Mr Snowden spied for some time.”
The comments clashed with expressions of gratitude the 30-year-old fugitive issued hours later, before Correa’s views had been published.
“I must express my deep respect for your principles and sincere thanks for your government’s action in considering my request for political asylum,” said a letter, in Spanish and attributed to Snowden.
“There are few world leaders who would risk standing for the human rights of an individual against the most powerful government on earth, and the bravery of Ecuador and its people is an example to the world.”
Snowden contrasted the silence of governments afraid of US retaliation with Ecuador’s help in his flight to Moscow on 22 June. A temporary Ecuadorean travel document substituted for his cancelled US passport.
“The decisive action of your consul in London, Fidel Narvaez, guaranteed my rights would be protected upon departing Hong Kong – I could never have risked travel without that. Now, as a result, and through the continued support of your government, I remain free and able to publish information that serves the public interest.”
The letter will boost Ecuador’s reputation with Snowden’s supporters but sat awkwardly with the president’s attempt to distance Quito from the saga. Correa said Quito respected the right of asylum and appreciated Snowden exposing the extent of US spying, but would not consider an asylum request unless he made it to an Ecuadorean embassy or the country itself – a remote possibility while he remains reportedly marooned in Sheremetyevo airport‘s transit lounge. “He must be on Ecuadorean territory,” the president said.
Correa said his government had not, and would not, give Snowden an authorised travel document to extract himself from the airport. “The right of asylum request is one thing but helping someone travel from one country to another — Ecuador has never done this. ”
He said the temporary travel document issued by his London consul on 22 June – and publicly disowned five days later — was a blunder.
“It was a mistake on our part. Look, this crisis hit us in a very vulnerable moment. Our foreign minister was touring Asia. Our deputy foreign minister was in the Czech Republic. Our US ambassador was in Italy.”
Narvaez and the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has sheltered at Ecuador’s London embassy for the past year to escape extradition, took matters into their own hands because they feared Snowden risked capture, Correa said.
“The consul, in his desperation, probably he couldn’t reach the foreign minister … and he issued a safe conduct document without validity, without authorisation, without us even knowing.”
Correa said the consul was a “cultured” man and cited the example of Ecuadorean diplomats in Czechoslovakia giving Jews visas in defiance of their foreign ministry during the second world war.
“Look, he [Assange] is in the embassy, he’s a friend of the consul, and he calls him at four in the morning to say they are going to capture Snowden. The [consul] is desperate – ‘how are we going to save the life of this man?’ – and does it.
“So I told him: OK, if you think you did the right thing, I respect your decision, but you could not give, without authorisation, that safe conduct pass. It was completely invalid, and he will have to accept the consequences.”
Narvaez would be “sanctioned”, the president said, without elaborating.
Some Ecuadorean diplomats have complained that Assange appeared to usurp Quito but the president said there was no rupture. “Mr Assange continues to enjoy our total respect and is under the protection of the Ecuadorean state.”
Correa, a standard bearer for the left in Latin America, has joined European and other Latin Americans leaders in denouncing US espionage.
However he softened his tone over the weekend and praised vice-president Joe Biden for a gracious phone call, saying he would consider Washington’s request to refuse any asylum claim from Snowden while retaining Ecuador’s sovereignty.
The pass, a copy of which was obtained Wednesday by Univision, is dated June 22 and asks authorities in other nations to allow Snowden safe passage to Ecuador as a political refugee. That’s also the date that U.S. officials revoked Snowden’s American passport, effectively halting his international travel. He is believed to be in hiding at Moscow’s airport.
In an ironic twist, Univision used metadata attached to an electronic copy of the safe pass to verify that it was composed at the work computer of Javier Mendoza, the Ecuadorian deputy consul in London (see photo above). Mendoza has acted as an intermediary for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is wanted in Sweden in connection with sexual assault allegations, but maintains that U.S. authorities are hunting him for Wikileaks’ political activities.
Metadata also showed that the Snowden pass was last edited, for 48 minutes, by the consul in London, Fidel Narvaez.
Ecuadorian Press Secretary Betty Tola did not directly address the pass’ authenticity but told Univision today that “any document in this regard is not valid and is the sole responsibility of the person who has issued [it],” suggesting that the London consulate might have acted alone in issuing it.
That does not appear to be the case, however. According to communications obtained by Univision, Narvaez wrote the pass at President Correa’s request, and the consul recounted speaking directly with the president about the “unique circumstances” of Snowden’s case.
After the pass was revealed publicly, sources tell Univision, Correa instructed his staff to deny any role in its creation. “The official position is that the Ecuadorian government has NOT authorized any pass for anybody,” those instructions read. “Any document that exists about has no validity.”
It is unclear why Correa’s government would deny a role in assisting Snowden. U.S. authorities have charged the former IT worker with espionage for his role in leaking top-secret documents about American domestic surveillance programs. While they have signaled that countries harboring Snowden could face harsh trade consequences, Ecuador has remained cavalier about the U.S. threat.
In a press conference Thursday with Tola, Ecuadorian Communications Minister Fernando Alverado said the nation didn’t want America’s trade dollars.
In fact, he said, Ecuador was willing to offer the U.S. $23 million a year “in order to provide training in human rights and help avoid attacks on individual privacy.”
Electronic metadata on the Snowden safe pass shows it originated at the computer of the Ecuadorian deputy consul in London. (UNIVISION)
Alex Gibney is one of America’s most celebrated and respected documentary film-makers. His major work about Julian Assange, We Steal Secrets: The story of WikiLeaks, has just been released, presumably to coincide with Bradley Manning’s trial for treason before an American military court.
Nothing concerning Assange is straightforward. Even before the film’s release a wild war of words broke out between WikiLeaks and Gibney. WikiLeaks accused Gibney of bias, ignorance and character assassination. To prove its point it published a detailed, annotated version of the film script, based on an audio recording. In response, Gibney has accused Assange of paranoia, a self-destructive desire for control and an inability to accept even legitimate criticism. Gibney’s powerful, accomplished and vivid film will for some time help shape opinion, especially among those members of the liberal Left on whom Assange now most relies. So in the conflict between them, it matters who is right.
Stripped of detail, most films tell a simple moral tale. Gibney’s goes like this. As a teenager, Assange is an audacious, underground computer hacker. Eventually, he is convicted and punished lightly. At this time, Assange is a humanitarian, anarchist revolutionary. He is interested in “crushing bastards”, a David determined to smite Goliath. In his 30s, he creates a whistleblower organisation, WikiLeaks, to do so. Its first really important success is the exposure of a banking scandal in Iceland.
In Iraq, a junior intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning, becomes aware of WikiLeaks. Manning is struggling with a personal crisis of gender identity. In the US intelligence environment after September 11, the “need-to-know” rule about access to classified information has been replaced by “need-to-share”. As a result, Manning is in possession of massive amounts of raw intelligence data. Some of the things he sees shock him. In his unstable state, he secretly passes hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks, perhaps because of Assange’s persuasive powers. Abandoned by Assange, Manning unburdens his tormented soul and speaks of his crime in online chats with a supposed pro-WikiLeaks hacker, Adrian Lamo. Painfully torn between loyalty to the US and loyalty to Manning, Lamo chooses the US – and fame. Manning is arrested and then treated shamefully. The film’s sympathies are with him. He is somewhat ambiguously a hero and altogether unambiguously a victim.
The film’s sympathies, we discover halfway through, are not with Assange. In publishing Manning’s material about American war crimes he is no doubt brave, perhaps crazy-brave, but he is also many other things. One accusation follows another. Assange, we are told, lives in a digital world where real human beings do not matter. In favouring the release of the unredacted Afghan war logs he is indifferent to whether the Afghan sources mentioned in them live or die. They are, after all, collaborators. The Manning leaks turn Assange into a global star. He enjoys this newfound celebrity rather too much. We see him being made up for a television appearance and admiring photographs of himself in the press. In Sweden he has sex with two women. When they go to the police with complaints about coercion or a deliberately torn condom, he claims he is the victim of a “smear campaign” or, possibly, a CIA “honey trap” operation. Assange fantasises tiresomely about secret surveillance of himself. He exaggerates or even imagines a “secret plot” to extradite him to the US on charges of espionage. This provides his excuse for fighting extradition to Sweden to face the music and then for seeking political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
In Gibney’s moral tale, Assange may deserve praise for publishing Manning’s revelations. His enemies in the US administration and on the ideological Right may have used inflammatory rhetoric about cyber-terrorism or even assassination against him. But it is his character flaws that have tarnished his achievements and destroyed his organisation. Assange believes the purity of his motives justifies his many ruthless and dishonest actions. Even worse, under his leadership WikiLeaks as an organisation has become a mirror image of those it once opposed – secretive, authoritarian, intolerant, unjust.
This conclusion, as reached in We Steal Secrets, rests on a false foundation: that Assange’s present fears about extradition to the US are groundless or grossly exaggerated. We are told in a single sentence that Assange was once investigated by the US Department of Justice on possible espionage charges, and are later reminded that after two years no charges had been filed. This misunderstanding distorts almost everything we learn from the moment Julian Assange’s troubles commence, following WikiLeaks’ publication of the Bradley Manning material. In November 2010 the US Attorney-General, Eric Holder, announced a major criminal investigation into WikiLeaks. In Virginia a grand jury was empanelled. According to a leaked secret email from a former deputy chief of counterterrorism inside the State Department’s security service, in February 2011 a sealed indictment against Assange was issued. Two years later, on 26 March 2013, the US Attorney’s office for the eastern district of Virginia confirmed that the grand jury investigation “remains ongoing”.
No one could tell from watching We Steal Secrets that, ever since the empanelling of the grand jury, Assange has had excellent reason to believe that if extradited to the United States he will be in danger of spending the remainder of his life in one of its prisons. Assange’s fears are not fanciful, as Gibney suggests, but genuine and well founded.
Diminishing Assange’s fears is problematic for another reason. Assange challenged the world’s most powerful state by publishing the material Manning sent to WikiLeaks. Since then, he has relied upon a team of legal advisers, the unconditional loyalty of his tight circle of insiders, and his own high-level political skills to avoid extradition and its consequences. Not recognising the peril that Assange faces, and the steps he has taken to resist it, systematically distorts Gibney’s analysis of his main subject – the history of WikiLeaks over the last two and a half years.
Gibney might have understood this better if Assange had been willing to be interviewed. He was not. Two stories exist about the failure of their protracted negotiation. In We Steal Secrets Gibney tells us that Assange informed him that $1 million was the going rate for an interview, leading his audience to believe that money was a principal reason for Assange’s non-participation. Gibney also tells us that Assange suggested he might co-operate if Gibney acted as a spy reporting on his interview subjects. WikiLeaks’ annotations to the script provide an alternative version of the negotiation. Assange acknowledges that in their talks he told Gibney about the £800,000 he had once been offered by the BBC. In the circumstance, this was a careless boast but not a demand for payment. In the course of their conversations, Gibney told Assange about his interviews with high-ranking US officials, like Michael Hayden, the former CIA director. Assange admits that he told Gibney of his interest in learning about their plans for his extradition and trial. This was an understandable if foolish suggestion. Yet Gibney fails to tell his audience about the main reason for Assange’s unwillingness to be interviewed. Assange was appalled at the misrepresentations of previous documentaries about him and WikiLeaks. They were not just galling but also dangerous. He and his supporters faced serious legal and political risk.
To tell the inside story of WikiLeaks without interviewing Assange or any of his loyal supporters, Gibney was forced to rely on some of the insiders who have either been dismissed from WikiLeaks, like the German Daniel Domscheit-Berg, or who have defected, like James Ball, the young Englishman. Assange is a charismatic leader of a besieged organisation. It cannot have been easy for Domscheit-Berg or Ball to part company with Assange gracefully or without guilt. For this reason, the danger of relying uncritically on such witnesses ought to have been obvious. The evidence ofWe Steal Secrets suggests that for Gibney it was not.
Take the evidence of James Ball, who describes to Gibney his reaction to being asked by Assange to sign a non-disclosure agreement. “I found this a little awkward – being asked by a transparency organisation to sign exactly the kind of document used to silence whistleblowers around the world. It seemed pretty troubling and so I refused.” It is an apparently telling judgement. There are, however, problems with it. It is an oversimplification to call WikiLeaks a transparency organisation. WikiLeaks is based on the idea of seeking to expose corruption by guaranteeing its sources not transparency but absolute anonymity. This is one reason non-disclosure agreements might be needed. Nor is it reasonable to expect transparency from a tiny organisation under threat from an almighty state. Even more obviously, as Assange has proven, Ball did in fact sign a first non-disclosure agreement, on 23 November 2010. Ball also claims, damagingly, that Assange did not distinguish between donations to WikiLeaks and to his Swedish legal defence. “No one knows now whether money going to WikiLeaks is going to Julian or elsewhere.” As WikiLeaks shows in its annotations, donors were offered a clear choice. “You can help support Julian’s defence fund and/or contribute to WikiLeaks.” Donations were audited by a firm of accountants.
Even more importantly, in the final minutes of the film, Gibney relies uncritically on the interpretative judgements of those insiders who have fallen out with Assange. It is Domscheit-Berg who argues that “WikiLeaks has become what it detests and what it actually tried to rid the world of.” And it is James Ball who identifies what is called “‘noble cause corruption’; essentially you do things which, if anyone else did [them], you would recognise aren’t OK … but because you know you’re a good guy, it’s different for you.” These statements, being partly defensive and self-justificatory, are hardly objective and authoritative.
Assange’s spectacular fallings-out have not only been with former WikiLeaks insiders. Almost as bruising were those with some of his mainstream media partners at the New York Times and the Guardian. Gibney does not pretend to explain why these explosions occurred. He allows the Australian journalist Mark Davis to record the hypocrisy and condescension of the New York Times, which first published WikiLeaks’ material and then ridiculed Assange before abandoning him to his fate. More questionably, it is one of Assange’s most implacable enemies, Nick Davies of the Guardian, the hero of the News of the World phone hacking scandal, who makes some of the film’s most damaging charges. On screen, Davies bristles with aggression towards Assange. He is the film’s most important witness regarding Assange’s supposed indifference to the fate of the Afghan sources named in the US war logs. In this dispute between Davies and Assange, the evidence is mixed. In We Steal Secrets Davies claims that Assange told him in a personal conversation that if Afghans were collaborators with the Americans they deserved to die. Assange has always denied using such words, though he uses as his defence the eyewitness testimony of a Der Spiegel journalist concerning a quite different occasion, a dinner conversation involving a second detested Guardianjournalist, David Leigh. In another instance regarding the Afghan-indifference accusation, Assange is on firmer ground. Davies tells Gibney of his “amazement” when he heard Assange tell journalists at a press conference on 25 July 2010 about his harm minimisation strategy. “Julian had no harm minimisation in place.” The WikiLeaks annotations quote from an article published in the Guardian that very morning, in part written by Davies, which outlined clearly WikiLeaks’ strategy for harm minimisation. Almost everyone agrees that Assange’s first impulse – to publish the Afghan war logs unredacted – was wrong. But it was a lesson he learnt and never consciously repeated.
There are also legitimate questions about the film’s account of the Swedish sexual allegations. Some arise from the way Gibney has edited material from contemporary interviews with Assange. In one, Assange is shown to be saying: “I have never said this is a honey trap. I have never said it’s not a honey trap.” And shortly after: “There are powerful interests that have incentives to promote these smears.” Here is a fuller version of the interview Gibney draws upon:
Assange: I have also never criticised these women. We don’t know precisely what pressures they have been under, exactly. There are powerful interests that have incentives to promote these smears. That doesn’t mean that they got in there in the very beginning and fabricated them.
Interviewer: So you’re not suggesting this was a honey trap?
Assange: I have never said that this is a honey trap.
Interviewer: You don’t believe it?
Assange: I have never said it’s not a honey trap. I’m not accusing anyone until I have proof.
The differences between the original interview and the comments seen on screen are subtle but significant. Gibney’s misleading edit underpins the scathing assessment by Davies that follows directly and which carries the film’s final interpretative weight: “What Julian did was to start the little snowball rolling down the hill, that this was some kind of conspiracy.” Davies is hardly an objective witness on this matter. Responsible for the first analysis in the British press of the leaked Swedish police report concerning the allegations, his competence and fair-mindedness were immediately challenged by Assange and his supporters. One of his most acerbic critics was Guy Rundle, in an article in this magazine. Several months after its publication, a still-enraged Davies threw a glass of wine in Rundle’s face.
Far more importantly, Gibney misleads his audience about the reason Assange has fought so fiercely to avoid extradition to Sweden. The interpretation he favours is best expressed by one of Assange’s Swedish accusers, Anna Ardin: “He has locked himself up to avoid coming to Sweden to answer a few pretty simple questions.” This is utterly unconvincing. There is direct evidence that the US is delaying action until the conclusion of the Swedish cases. Indeed, Assange’s lawyers believe that US legal authorities are compelled to wait for decisions on both the request for extradition from Britain and the hearing in Sweden of possible charges before moving on Assange. Those interested can find their detailed reasoning in the tightly argued and cogent document, ‘Extraditing Assange’. In these circumstances Assange is, to put it mildly, right to be cautious. One false move might earn him a lifetime in jail. In We Steal Secrets, Gibney breezily ignores all this. He claims rather that “members of Assange’s legal team admitted that it would be easier for the United States to extradite Assange from Britain.” At best, this is a vast oversimplification. Gibney relies here on an interview fragment from Baroness Helena Kennedy, who has since told Assange that she has been misrepresented.
The wronged party in We Steal Secrets is Bradley Manning. Once more, however, there are problems about the way Gibney presents the crucial evidence. There are only two direct sources for Manning’s state of mind at the moment of his fateful decision to pass on to WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents: his confessional chat logs with Adrian Lamo, where the emphasis is on his crisis of gender identity, and his statement before the military court at Fort Meade on 28 February this year, in which he outlines lucidly the political reasons for his disillusionment with his country’s behaviour and decision. Because Gibney relies exclusively on the confessional chat logs, his audience is led to believe that it was profound psychological breakdown rather than sincerely held political principle that best explains Manning’s motives. Although Assange and many of his supporters argue that interest in Manning’s psychic state is prurient or irrelevant to Gibney’s story, and that Manning should be seen as nothing but a principled war crimes whistleblower, with Manning, at the moment of his critical decision, the personal and the political were self-evidently and inscrutably entangled. Nonetheless it seems wrong and puzzling for Gibney to omit the best evidence we have of Manning’s political motivation. Nor can Gibney argue that Manning’s testimony came too late to be included. One small detail in the film – Manning’s claim that he approached both the Washington Post and the New York Times before approaching WikiLeaks – proves that Gibney had read Manning’s statement to the court in time.
At its conclusion, We Steal Secrets tries to drive a moral wedge between Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. James Ball suggests that Manning turned to his betrayer, Lamo, only because he was abandoned by WikiLeaks. This is simply untrue. In his statement to the court, Manning spoke about the many long and enjoyable conversations he had with his contact at WikiLeaks, whom he called “Nathaniel”. In this testimony Manning does not identify “Nathaniel”. The Lamo chat logs suggest that almost certainly he was Assange. Further to Ball, Assange’s most bitter enemy, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, offers a contrast between the situations facing Assange and Manning: “We must get away from this understanding that we see Julian as the saviour, as some noble guru, as some new hero or some new pop star or whatever that’s going to change all of it … Bradley Manning is the courageous guy. He is the one that took all the risk and, in the end, now is suffering.”
In the moral economy of We Steal Secrets, Domscheit-Berg’s words come close to serving as a final judgement. They also involve several telling distortions. Assange and Manning have been loyal to each other throughout what is their mutual crisis. The risks facing Assange are very real, and if there is one quality in him that cannot possibly be doubted, it is his quite extraordinary courage.
Shortly before this film was released, the New Yorker launched a whistleblower drop-box coded by another young electronic freedom fighter, Aaron Swartz, who earlier this year took his life rather than face trial following a grand jury indictment for illegally downloading large numbers of academic articles. And, at the time of writing, the world learnt that the American government had been secretly collecting the phone, email and text records of its citizenry, a practice that Al Gore described as “obscenely outrageous”. Julian Assange is the fearless and imaginative inventor of a political means by which individuals in the electronic age can expose the encroachment and corruption of state and corporate power. For this reason, he seems to me to deserve far more sympathy and credit than is found in Alex Gibney’s superficially impressive but ultimately myopic film.
Robert Manne appears in We Steal Secrets, having written a major profile of Julian Assange for this magazine in 2011.
Former NSA contractor Snowden remains in the transit zone of a Moscow airport. President Putin said that Snowden never crossed the Russian border and doesn’t fall under any extradition treaty. He called accusations against Russia “nonsense and rubbish.”
“It is true that Snowden has arrived to Moscow, and it really came as a surprise for us. He arrived as a transit passenger, and didn’t need a [Russian] visa, or any other documents. As a transit passenger he is entitled to buy a ticket and fly to wherever he wants,” Vladimir Putin said as he spoke to journalists in Finland.
Edward Snowden is still at the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, Putin stressed. He said that any accusations against Russia are “nonsense and rubbish,” as the former NSA contractor “has not crossed” the Russian border.
The President also pointed out that there is no extradition treaty between Russia and the US, which makes it impossible to extradite people like Snowden.
“We can only extradite any foreign citizens to such countries with which we have signed the appropriate international agreements on criminal extradition,” he explained.
Snowden “has not committed any crime” on Russian soil, Putin added. Russian security agencies“have never worked with and are not working with” the former CIA employee, he also stressed.
“Snowden is a free person. The sooner he chooses his final destination, the better it is for him and Russia,” Putin said.
He also expressed hope that the Snowden saga would not have any negative impact on Russian-American relations and that the US “will understand this.”
Putin also commented on the situation with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, fearing that he would then be extradited to the US.
“Just like Snowden, he considers himself a rights advocate and fights for sharing information. Ask yourself: should or should not people like these be extradited to be later put to jail?” the President asked.
“In any case, I would like not to deal with such issues because it is like shearing a pig: there’s lots of squealing and little fleece,” he said.
On Sunday, a US official said Washington had contacted “Western Hemisphere” nations that Mr Snowden might travel to, or through.
“The US is advising these governments that Snowden is wanted on felony charges, and as such should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel, other than is necessary to return him to the United States,” the state department official said.
Earlier, Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, who is in Vietnam, said on Twitter: “The Government of Ecuador has received an asylum request from Edward J. #Snowden.”
Senator Feinstein on CBS News: “I thought China would see this as an opportunity to improve US ties”
Ecuador is already giving political asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who has been sheltering in its London embassy for the past year.
The anti-secrecy group said Mr Snowden’s asylum request would be formally processed when he arrived in Ecuador.
Spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told the BBC he believed history would show that the former analyst had performed “a great public service”.
Extradition ‘incomplete’The US state department said Mr Snowden’s passport had been revoked, saying this was “routine and consistent with US regulations”.
However, one US official told the Associated Press that if a senior official in a country or airline ordered it, a country could overlook the lack of a passport.
Hong Kong officials said Mr Snowden had left “on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel” because the US extradition request was incomplete and there was no legal basis to restrict him from departing.
Wikileaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson told the BBC he believed the fugitive would eventually be recognised as a hero.
The US justice department said it was “disappointed” that Hong Kong did not arrest Mr Snowden and that it “disagrees” with its reasons for not doing so.
An official said that at no point during talks on Friday did Hong Kong raise issues regarding the sufficiency of the US request.
“In light of this, we find their decision to be particularly troubling,” the official said.
Mr Snowden left on Aeroflot flight SU213 and landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport shortly after 17:00 local time (13:00 GMT) on Sunday, where he was reportedly picked up by either a Venezuelan or Ecuadorean embassy car.
Reports suggest he will fly out of Russia on an early afternoon flight to the Cuban capital Havana, where he is booked on another flight to Caracas, Venezuela.
Following that route would enable him to fly on to Ecuador without risk of arrest by US authorities.
It is unclear where Mr Snowden currently is, but he is reported to have not left the airport, and the Ecuadorean ambassador was spotted at an airside hotel.
The US justice department has said it will seek co-operation from whichever country Mr Snowden arrives in.
But if Mr Snowden ends up in Ecuador, it is going to be extremely difficult for the Americans to get him, the BBC’s Paul Adams in Washington reports.
Mr Snowden had left his home in Hawaii after leaking details of his work as an NSA (National Security Agency) analyst and the extensive US surveillance programme to the UK’s Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post.
He has been charged in the US with theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence.
Each of the charges carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence. The complaint is dated 14 June – although it was made public only on Friday.
NSA chief Keith Alexander told ABC News on Sunday there had been no warning that Mr Snowden had taken the documents.
“Clearly, the system did not work as it should have,” he said.
Gen Alexander on ABC News: “He betrayed that confidence and stole some of our secrets”
Gen Alexander also said the spying agency was overhauling its operations to tighten security on contractors.
The leaks have led to revelations that the US is systematically seizing vast amounts of phone and web data under an NSA programme known as Prism.
Mr Snowden said earlier that he had decided to speak out after observing “a continuing litany of lies” from senior officials to Congress.
US officials have defended the practice of gathering telephone and internet data from private users around the world.
They say Prism cannot be used to intentionally target any Americans or anyone in the US, and that it is supervised by judges.
In early 2010, journalist and satirist Barrett Brown was working on a book on political pundits, when the hacktivist collective Anonymous caught his attention. He soon began writing about its activities and potential. In a defense of the group’s anti-censorship operations in Australia published on February 10, Brown declared, “I am now certain that this phenomenon is among the most important and under-reported social developments to have occurred in decades, and that the development in question promises to threaten the institution of the nation-state and perhaps even someday replace it as the world’s most fundamental and relevant method of human organization.”
WikiLeaks is not the one-off creation of a solitary genius, and with or without Julian Assange, it is not going away.
By then, Brown was already considered by his fans to be the Hunter S. Thompson of his generation. In point of fact he wasn’t like Hunter S. Thompson, but was more of a throwback—a sharp-witted, irreverent journalist and satirist in the mold of Ambrose Bierce or Dorothy Parker. His acid tongue was on display in his co-authored 2007 book, Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design and the Easter Bunny, in which he declared: “This will not be a polite book. Politeness is wasted on the dishonest, who will always take advantage of any well-intended concession.”
But it wasn’t Brown’s acid tongue so much as his love of minutia (and ability to organize and explain minutia) that would ultimately land him in trouble. Abandoning his book on pundits in favor of a book on Anonymous, he could not have known that delving into the territory of hackers and leaks would ultimately lead to his facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. In light of the bombshell revelations published by Glenn Greenwald and Barton Gellman about government and corporate spying, Brown’s case is a good—and underreported—reminder of the considerable risk faced by reporters who report on leaks.
In February 2011, a year after Brown penned his defense of Anonymous, and against the background of its actions during the Arab Spring, Aaron Barr, CEO of the private intelligence company HBGary, claimed to have identified the leadership of the hacktivist colletive. (In fact he only had screen names of a few members). Barr’s boasting provoked a brutal hack of HBGary by a related group called Internet Feds (it would soon change its name to “LulzSec”). Splashy enough to attract the attention of The Colbert Report, the hack defaced and destroyed servers and websites belonging to HBGary. Some 70,000 company emails were downloaded and posted online. As a final insult to injury, even the contents of Aaron Barr’s iPad were remotely wiped.
The HBGary hack may have been designed to humiliate the company, but it had the collateral effect of dropping a gold mine of information into Brown’s lap. One of the first things he discovered was a plan to neutralize Glenn Greenwald’s defense of Wikileaks by undermining them both. (“Without the support of people like Glenn, wikileaks would fold,” read one slide.) The plan called for “disinformation,” exploiting strife within the organization and fomenting external rivalries—“creating messages around actions to sabotage or discredit the opposing organization,” as well as a plan to submit fake documents and then call out the error.” Greenwald, it was argued, “if pushed,” would “choose professional preservation over cause.”
Other plans targeted social organizations and advocacy groups. Separate from the plan to target Greenwald and WikiLeaks, HBGary was part of a consortia that submitted a proposal to develop a “persona management” system for the United States Air Force, that would allow one user to control multiple online identities for commenting in social media spaces, thus giving the appearance of grassroots support or opposition to certain policies.
The data dump from the HBGary hack was so vast that no one person could sort through it alone. So Brown decided to crowdsource the effort. He created a wiki page, called it ProjectPM, and invited other investigative journalists to join in. Under Brown’s leadership, the initiative began to slowly untangle a web of connections between the US government, corporations, lobbyists, and a shadowy group of private military and information security consultants.
One connection was between Bank of America and the Chamber of Commerce. WikiLeaks had claimed to possess a large cache of documents belonging to Bank of America. Concerned about this, Bank of America approached the United States Department of Justice. The DOJ directed it to the law and lobbying firm Hunton and Williams, which does legal work for Wells Fargo and General Dynamics and also lobbies for Koch Industries, Americans for Affordable Climate Policy, Gas Processors Association, Entergy among many other firms. The DoJ recommended that Bank of America hire Hunton and Williams, explicitly suggesting Richard Wyatt as the person to work with. Wyatt, famously, was the lead attorney in the Chamber of Commerce’s lawsuit against the Yes Men.
In November 2010, Hunton and Williams organized a number of private intelligence, technology development and security contractors—HBGary, plus Palantir Technologies, Berico Technologies, and, according to Brown, a secretive corporation with the ominous name Endgame Systems—to form “Team Themis” —‘themis’ being a Greek word meaning “divine law.” Its main objective was to discredit critics of the Chamber of Commerce, like Chamber Watch using such tactics as creating a “false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information,” giving it to a progressive group opposing the Chamber, and then subsequently exposing the document as a fake to “prove that US Chamber Watch cannot be trusted with information and/or tell the truth.” In addition, the group proposed creating a “fake insider persona” to infiltrate Chamber Watch. They would “create two fake insider personas, using one as leverage to discredit the other while confirming the legitimacy of the second.” The leaked emails showed that similar disinformation campaigns were being planned against WikiLeaks and Glenn Greenwald.
It was clear to Brown that these were actions of questionable legality, but beyond that, government contractors were attempting to undermine Americans’ free speech—with the apparent blessing of the DOJ. A group of Democratic Congressmen asked for an investigation into this arrangement, to no avail.
By June 2011, the plot had thickened further. The FBI had the goods on the leader of LulzSec, one Hector Xavier Monsegur, who went under the nom de guerre Sabu. The FBI arrested him on June 7, 2011 and (according to court documents) turned him into an informant the following day. Just three days before his arrest, Sabu had been central to the formation of a new group called AntiSec, which comprised his former LulzSec crew members, as well as members as Anonymous. In early December AntiSec hacked the website of a private security company called Stratfor Global Intelligence. On Christmas Eve, it released a trove of some five million internal compnay emails. AntiSec member and Chicago activist Jeremy Hammond, has pled guilty to the attack and is currently facing ten years in prison for it.
The contents of the Stratfor leak were even more outrageous than those of the HBGary hack. They included discussion of opportunities for renditions and assassinations. For example, in one video, Statfor’s Vice President of Intelligence, Fred Burton, suggested taking advantage of the chaos in Libya to render Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who had been released from prison on compassionate grounds due to his terminal illness. Burton said that the case “was personal.” When someone pointed out in an email that such a move would almost certainly be illegal—“This man has already been tried, found guilty, sentenced…and served time”—another Stratfor employee responded that this was just an argument for a more efficient solution: “One more reason to just bugzap him with a hellfire. :-)”
(Stratfor employees also seemed to take a keen interest in Jeremy Scahill’s writings about Blackwater in The Nation, copying and circulating entire articles, with comments suggesting a principle interest was in the question of whether Blackwater was setting up a competing intelligence operation. Emails also showed grudging respect for Scahill: “Like or dislike Scahill’s position (or what comes of his work), he does an amazing job outing [Blackwater].”)
When the contents of the Stratfor leak became available, Brown decided to put ProjectPM on it. A link to the Stratfor dump appeared in an Anonymous chat channel; Brown copied it and pasted it into the private chat channel for ProjectPM, bringing the dump to the attention of the editors.
Brown began looking into Endgame Systems, an information security firm that seemed particularly concerned about staying in the shadows. “Please let HBGary know we don’t ever want to see our name in a press release,” one leaked email read. One of its products, available for a $2.5 million annual subscription, gave customers access to “zero-day exploits”—security vulnerabilities unknown to software companies—for computer systems all over the world. Business Week published a story on Endgame in 2011, reporting that “Endgame executives will bring up maps of airports, parliament buildings, and corporate offices. The executives then create a list of the computers running inside the facilities, including what software the computers run, and a menu of attacks that could work against those particular systems.” For Brown, this raised the question of whether Endgame was selling these exploits to foreign actors and whether they would be used against computer systems in the United States. Shortly thereafter, the hammer came down.
The FBI acquired a warrant for Brown’s laptop, gaining the authority to seize any information related to HBGary, Endgame Systems, Anonymous, and, most ominously, “email, email contacts, ‘chat’, instant messaging logs, photographs, and correspondence.” In other words, the FBI wanted his sources.
When the FBI went to serve Brown he was at his mother’s house. Agents returned with a warrant to search his mother’s house, retrieving his laptop. To turn up the heat on Brown, the FBI initiated charges against his mother for obstruction of justice for concealing his laptop computer in her house. (Facing criminal charges, on March 22, 2013, his mother, Karen McCutchin, pled guilty to one count of obstructing the execution of a search warrant. She faces up to twelve months in jail. Brown maintains that she did not know the laptop was in her home.)
By his own admission, the FBI’s targeting of his mother made Brown snap. In September 2012, he uploaded an incoherent YouTube video, in which he explained that he had been in treatment for an addiction to heroin, taking the medication Suboxone, but had gone off his meds and now was in withdrawal. He threatened the FBI agent that was harassing his mother, by name, warming:
“I know what’s legal, I know what’s been done to me… And if it’s legal when it’s done to me, it’s going to be legal when it’s done to FBI Agent Robert Smith—who is a criminal.”
“That’s why [FBI special agent] Robert Smith’s life is over. And when I say his life is over, I’m not saying I’m going to kill him, but I am going to ruin his life and look into his fucking kids… How do you like them apples?”
The media narrative was immediately derailed. No longer would this be a story about the secretive information-military-industrial complex; now it was the sordid tale of a crazy drug addict threatening an FBI agent and his (grown) children. Actual death threats against agents are often punishable by a few years in jail. But Brown’s actions made it easier for the FBI to sell some other pretext to put him away for life.
The Stratfor data included a number of unencrypted credit card numbers and validation codes. On this basis, the DOJ accused Brown of credit card fraud for having shared that link with the editorial board of ProjectPM. Specifically, the FBI charged him with Traffic in Stolen Authentication Features, Access Device Fraud, Aggravated Identity Theft, as well as an Obstruction of Justice charge (for being at his mother’s when the initial warrant was served) and charges stemming from his threats against the FBI agent. All told, Brown is looking at century of jail time: 105 years in federal prison if served sequentially. He has been denied bail.
Considering that the person who carried out the actual Stratfor hack had several priors and is facing a maximum of ten years, the inescapable conclusion is that the problem is not with the hack itself, but with Brown’s journalism. As Glenn Greenwald remarked in the Guardian: “it is virtually impossible to conclude that the obscenely excessive prosecution he now faces is unrelated to that journalism and his related activism.”
Today, Brown is in prison and ProjectPM is under increased scrutiny by the DOJ, even as its work has ground to a halt. In March, the DOJ served the domain hosting service CloudFlare with a subpoena for all records on the ProjectPM website, and in particular asked for the IP addresses of everyone who had accessed and contributed to ProjectPM, describing it as a “forum” through which Brown and others would “engage in, encourage, or facilitate the commission of criminal conduct online.” The message was clear: Anyone else who looks into this matter does so at their grave peril.
Some journalists are now understandably afraid to go near the Stratfor files. The broader implications of this go beyond Brown; one might think that what we are looking at is Cointelpro 2.0—an outsourced surveillance state—but in fact it’s worse. One can’t help but infer that the US Department of Justice has become just another security contractor, working alongside the HBGarys and Stratfors on behalf of corporate bidders, with no sense at all for the justness of their actions; they are working to protect corporations and private security contractors and give them license to engage in disinformation campaigns against ordinary citizens and their advocacy groups. The mere fact that the FBI’s senior cybersecurity advisor has recently moved to Hunton and Williams shows just how incestuous this relationship has become. Meanwhile the Department of Justice is also using its power and force to trample on the rights of citizens like Barrett Brown who are trying to shed light on these nefarious relationships. In order to neutralize those who question or investigate the system, laws are being reinterpreted or extended or otherwise misappropriated in ways that are laughable—or would be if the consequences weren’t so dire.
While the media and much of the world have been understandably outraged by the revelation of the NSA’s spying programs, Barrett Brown’s work was pointing to a much deeper problem. It isn’t the sort of problem that can be fixed by trying to tweak a few laws or by removing a few prosecutors. The problem is not with bad laws or bad prosecutors. What the case of Barrett Brown has exposed is that we confronting a different problem altogether. It is a systemic problem. It is the failure of the rule of law.
Journalist Michael Hastings, 33, died in a car crash yesterday. Read Greg Mitchell’s obituary here.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange took shelter in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London one year ago Wednesday, sparking a standoff with UK authorities that could leave the world-renowned whistleblower cooped up for years to come.
When Assange first made his asylum bid 365 days ago, the tense standoff that ensued seemed likely to ignite an international incident.
British authorities “warned” Ecuador that they could raid its embassy and arrest Julian Assange if he was not handed over, a move the Ecuadorian Foreign Minister charged would be a “flagrant violation” of international law.
Although the situation has significantly calmed since then, the UK’s commitment to arresting Assange remains unwavering.
Britain has vowed it will do everything in its power to block Assange’s passage to Ecuador despite being granted asylum by Quito in August 2012. Downing Street commitment to securing Assange’s extradition to Sweden, where is wanted for questioning over sex crime allegations by two women, has manifested itself in a year-long police presence outside of the embassy building in Knightsbridge, London. As of Wednesday, the Telegraph estimates that the policing the Ecuadorian Embassy has cost British taxpayers in excess of $6.6 million dollars.
Following talks between Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino and his British counterpart William Hague on Monday, both sides agreed to keep the channels of communication open, but “no breakthrough” was made on the Assange case.
Patino said he remained in good spirits despite his limited living accommodations which Assange likened to living in a space station.
The Ecuadorean government stood by its decision to grant Assange asylum, vowing there would be no changes in his circumstances.
This photo courtesy of the Ecuador Foreign Ministry shows British Foreign Minister William Hague and Ecuador Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino(L)as they hold a meeting in New York on September 27, 2012 to discuss the situation of granting asylum to Julian Assange in Ecuador. (AFP Photo / Fernanda Lemarie)
Patino met with Assange on Sunday and said that, despite his ordeal, he remains in good spirits.
“I got to tell him for the first time, face-to-face, that the government of Ecuador maintains its firm decision to protect his human rights,” Patino said. The Wikileaks founder expressed his willingness to spend the next half-decade cooped up in the basement room of a building which he described as so dim, he utilizes a lamp mimicking blue sky, set to a timer, least he work all night, the Guardian’s Esther Addley reports.
But with a steady stream of supporters providing him amenities, a personal trainer, a treadmill and high speed Internet, Assange believes five years in those conditions are vastly preferable to the alternatives.
His detractors believe he is using his notoriety to escape the Swedish justice system. Assange, in writing to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa one year ago, said he was being persecuted and could not return to his native Australia, fearing he could be extradited to “a foreign country that applies the death penalty for the crime of espionage and sedition.”
Ecuador concluded “his fears are legitimate.”
Assange claims the same imperilment been the driving force behind his decision to avoid returning to Sweden for questioning. He has previously expressed his willingness to answer queries from Swedish investigators on condition that he receives strong guarantees that he won’t be extradited the United States, where he believes he will be tried for his role in the 2010 US diplomatic cables leak – the largest such disclosure in the country’s history. Those guarantees have not been forthcoming.
Despite his willingness to remain in limbo, Assange believes the US is softening towards his plight, claiming a deal could be reached between Ecuador and the UK which would see him finally step foot outside of the embassy “within a year.”
“I think the position in the UK is softening,” he told the AFP news agency. “Of course, it will never publicly humiliate the United States by offering me safe passage in a manner that doesn’t seem to be forced.”
A balloon marking the first anniversary of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s entry to Ecuador’s embassy is tethered above the building in central London June 16, 2013. (Reuters / Chris Helgren)
The anniversary comes as the US authorities are hot on the tracks of Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee responsible for leaking details of the National Security Agency’s massive Internet surveillance program PRISM.
“Mr Snowden is as good an example of a hero as any. He has performed an extremely courageous act,” Assange said lauding him for exposing America’s “creeping mass surveillance state”.
“What we don’t want to see is him ending up the same way as Bradley Manning — detained without trial, abused in prison and now facing life imprisonment.”
While Assange is seeking to flee the UK, he believes “The British Government should be offering Mr Snowden asylum, not excluding him from their borders.”
“I am sure if you asked the people of the UK what they wanted, they would be in favor of protecting Mr Snowden. The UK doesn’t want to say no to the US under any circumstances – not in my case, and not in the case of Mr Snowden,” he continued.
If Snowden ever made his way to the single story mansion black just around the corner from Harrods department store, he might find more than one supporter.
“If he [Snowden] wants to ask asylum from the Ecuadoran government, he can do it,” Patino said from London on Monday, “and we, of course, would analyze it.”
Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is escorted out of a courthouse at Fort Meade, Md., on Wednesday after the third day of his court-martial.
FORT MEADE, Md.—The military trial ofBradley Manning is a judicial lynching. The government has effectively muzzled the defense team. The Army private first class is not permitted to argue that he had a moral and legal obligation under international law to make public the war crimes he uncovered. The documents that detail the crimes, torture and killing Manning revealed, because they are classified, have been barred from discussion in court, effectively removing the fundamental issue of war crimes from the trial. Manning is forbidden by the court to challenge the government’s unverified assertion that he harmed national security. Lead defense attorney David E. Coombs said during pretrial proceedings that the judge’s refusal to permit information on the lack of actual damage from the leaks would “eliminate a viable defense, and cut defense off at the knees.” And this is what has happened.
Manning is also barred from presenting to the court his motives for giving the websiteWikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic cables, war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, and videos. The issues of his motives and potentially harming national security can be raised only at the time of sentencing, but by then it will be too late.
The draconian trial restrictions, familiar to many Muslim Americans tried in the so-called war on terror, presage a future of show trials and blind obedience. Our email and phone records, it is now confirmed, are swept up and stored in perpetuity on government computers. Those who attempt to disclose government crimes can be easily traced and prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Whistle-blowers have no privacy and no legal protection. This is why Edward Snowden—a former CIA technical assistant who worked for a defense contractor with ties to the National Security Agency and who leaked to Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian the information about the National Security Council’s top-secret program to collect Americans’ cellphone metadata, e-mail and other personal data—has fled the United States. The First Amendment is dead. There is no legal mechanism left to challenge the crimes of the power elite. We are bound and shackled. And those individuals who dare to resist face the prospect, if they remain in the country, of joining Manning in prison, perhaps the last refuge for the honest and the brave.
Coombs opened the trial last week by pleading with the judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, for leniency based on Manning’s youth and sincerity. Coombs is permitted by Lind to present only circumstantial evidence concerning Manning’s motives or state of mind. He can argue, for example, that Manning did not know al-Qaida might see the information he leaked. Coombs is also permitted to argue, as he did last week, that Manning was selective in his leak, intending no harm to national interests. But these are minor concessions by the court to the defense. Manning’s most impassioned pleas for freedom of information, especially regarding email exchanges with the confidential government informant Adrian Lamo, as well as his right under international law to defy military orders in exposing war crimes, are barred as evidence.
Manning is unable to appeal to the Nuremberg principles, a set of guidelines created by the International Law Commission of the United Nations after World War II to determine what constitutes a war crime. The principles make political leaders, commanders and combatants responsible for war crimes, even if domestic or internal laws allow such actions. The Nuremberg principles are designed to protect those, like Manning, who expose these crimes. Orders do not, under the Nuremberg principles, offer an excuse for committing war crimes. And the Nuremberg laws would clearly condemn the pilots in the“Collateral Murder” video and their commanders and exonerate Manning. But this is an argument we will not be allowed to hear in the Manning trial.
Manning has admitted to 10 lesser offenses surrounding his leaking of classified and unclassified military and State Department files, documents and videos, including the “Collateral Murder” video, which shows a U.S. Apache attack helicopter in 2007 killing 12 civilians, including two Reuters journalists, and wounding two children on an Iraqi street. His current plea exposes him to penalties that could see him locked away for two decades. But for the government that is not enough. Military prosecutors are pursuing all 22 charges against him. These charges include aiding the enemy, wanton publication, espionage, stealing U.S. government property, exceeding authorized access and failures to obey lawful general orders—charges that can bring with them 149 years plus life.
“He knew that the video depicted a 2007 attack,” Coombs said of the “Collateral Murder” recording. “He knew that it [the attack] resulted in the death of two journalists. And because it resulted in the death of two journalists it had received worldwide attention. He knew that the organization Reuters had requested a copy of the video in FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] because it was their two journalists that were killed, and they wanted to have that copy in order to find out what had happened and to ensure that it didn’t happen again. He knew that the United States had responded to that FOIA request almost two years later indicating what they could find and, notably, not the video.
“He knew that David Finkel, an author, had written a book called ‘The Good Soldiers,’ and when he read through David Finkel’s account and he talked about this incident that’s depicted in the video, he saw that David Finkel’s account and the actual video were verbatim, that David Finkel was quoting the Apache air crew. And so at that point he knew that David Finkel had a copy of the video. And when he decided to release this information, he believed that this information showed how [little] we valued human life in Iraq. He was troubled by that. And he believed that if the American public saw it, they too would be troubled and maybe things would change.”
“He was 22 years old,” Coombs said last Monday as he stood near the bench, speaking softly to the judge at the close of his opening statement. “He was young. He was a little naive in believing that the information that he selected could actually make a difference. But he was good-intentioned in that he was selecting information that he hoped would make a difference.”
“He wasn’t selecting information because it was wanted by WikiLeaks,” Coombs concluded. “He wasn’t selecting information because of some 2009 most wanted list. He was selecting information because he believed that this information needed to be public. At the time that he released the information he was concentrating on what the American public would think about that information, not whether or not the enemy would get access to it, and he had absolutely no actual knowledge of whether the enemy would gain access to it. Young, naive, but good-intentioned.”
The moral order is inverted. The criminal class is in power. We are the prey. Manning, in a just society, would be a prosecution witness against war criminals. Those who committed these crimes should be facing prison. But we do not live in a just society.
The Afghans, the Iraqis, the Yemenis, the Pakistanis and the Somalis know what American military forces do. They do not need to read WikiLeaks. They have seen the bodies, including the bodies of their children, left behind by drone strikes and other attacks from the air. They have buried the corpses of those gunned down by coalition forces. With fury, they hear our government tell lies, accounts that are discredited by the reality they endure. Our wanton violence and hypocrisy make us hated and despised, fueling the rage of jihadists and amassing legions of new enemies against the United States. Manning, by providing a window into the truth, opened up the possibility of redemption. He offered hope for a new relationship with the Muslim world, one based on compassion and honesty, on the rule of law, rather than the cold brutality of industrial warfare. But by refusing to heed the truth that Manning laid before us, by ignoring the crimes committed daily in our name, we not only continue to swell the ranks of our enemies but put the lives of our citizens in greater and greater danger. Manning did not endanger us. He sought to thwart the peril that is daily exacerbated by our political and military elite.
Manning showed us through the documents he released that Iraqis have endured hundreds of rapes and murders, along with systematic torture by the military and police of the puppet government we installed. He let us know that none of these atrocities were investigated. He provided the data that showed us that between 2004 and 2009 there were at least 109,032 “violent deaths” in Iraq, including those of 66,081 civilians, and that coalition troops were responsible for at least 195 civilian deaths in unreported events. He allowed us to see in the video “Collateral Murder” the helicopter attack on unarmed civilians in Baghdad. It was because of Manning that we could listen to the callous banter between pilots as the Americans nonchalantly fired on civilian rescuers. Manning let us see a U.S. Army tank crush one of the wounded lying on the street after the helicopter attack. The actions of the U.S. military in this one video alone, as law professor Marjorie Cohn has pointed out, violate Article 85 of the First Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits the targeting of civilians, Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which requires that wounded be treated, and Article 17 of the First Protocol, which permits civilians to rescue and care for wounded without being harmed. We know of this war crime and many others because of Manning. And the decision to punish the soldier who reported these war crimes rather than the soldiers responsible for these crimes mocks our pretense of being a nation ruled by law.
“I believed if the public, particularly the American public, could see this, it could spark a debate on the military and our foreign policy in general as it applied to Iraq and Afghanistan,” Manning said Feb. 28 when he pleaded guilty to the lesser charges. He said he hoped the release of the information to WikiLeaks “might cause society to reconsider the need to engage in counterterrorism while ignoring the situation of the people we engaged with every day.”
But it has not. Our mechanical drones still circle the skies delivering death. Our attack jets still blast civilians. Our soldiers and Marines still pump bullets into mud-walled villages. Our artillery and missiles still raze homes. Our torturers still torture. Our politicians and generals still lie. And the man who tried to stop it all is still in prison. Trial transcripts used for this report came from the nonprofit Freedom of the Press Foundation, which, because the government refused to make transcripts publicly available, is raising money to have its own stenographer at the trial. Transcripts from the pretrial hearing came from journalist Alexa O’Brien.
Yesterday, after three years of confinement, Pfc. Bradley Manning finally went on trial in a military court at Fort Meade, Maryland. But it is less a real trial than it is a trial run, an experiment on how to make an example out of a government whistleblower, intimidate journalists’ sources, and make journalists and publishers targets.
What Manning did for his country was priceless, and for that he will pay a heavy price. Here’s a young soldier who put his future on the line so Americans had a chance to see the human and moral cost of the wars their government is waging. Manning’s information shaped the American public’s understanding of the ongoing wars and the way the press reports on these conflicts. This shift in perception is largely responsible for US troops finally coming home. Manning now faces a life sentence and the most serious charge against him carries a potential death penalty.
Government prosecutors will try to prove Manning had reason to believe his actions would aid the enemy. In his testimony earlier this year, Manning explained his political motivation, arguing that he had hoped to “spark a domestic debate” over current US wars and saying that he did so to have a “clear conscience.”
In a telling sign of just how fair of a trial Manning will get, the military judge already ruled that almost all questions and evidence the defense can raise about Manning’s intentions for acting are irrelevant to the trial. The judge has also stated that two dozen prosecution witnesses will testify behind closed doors. Many of these will be discussing the WikiLeaks documents available to all everywhere, except in the courtroom, since the government still considers them secret.
WikiLeaks and Julian Assange were threaded through the prosecutor’s opening, with speculative claims that Manning was taking direction from WikiLeaks and Manning looked for what to disclose on the WikiLeaks most wanted list. Manning’s lawyer repeated that he acted on his own and was not taking direction from WikiLeaks. The “wanted” list was actually an open Wiki list contributed to by human rights groups and others. This effort to brand Julian Assange and WikiLeaks as “conspirators” has been the government strategy from the beginning and has had its latest reincarnation when the FBI in an affidavit claimed FOX reporter James Rosen was a co-conspirator or aided and abetted his source. Sadly, that seems to be the dangerous direction the government is taking in its efforts to squelch truth-telling.
The military judge has also determined that court documents and transcripts, even of her own rulings, will continue to be unavailable to reporters and the general public. Manning’s supporters crowd-funded stenographers to make up for the lack of transcripts, but last week the court denied them press passes. Yesterday, one of the stenographers was able to get in after the Bradley Manning Support Network gave up their pass for the day. There is no guarantee any stenographers will be allowed on future dates, and the same goes for most of the 370 media organizations that have requested access, most of whom did not get it.
Center for Constitutional Rights is suing the military judge in Manning’s case in an attempt to make public the documents in the case. We cannot afford to let the government get away with these amateur-hour procedures designed to discourage press coverage of the most important state secrets trial since the Pentagon papers.
Everyone who cares about the future of this country needs to learn about this case and get involved in Manning’s defense: make his case in the court of public opinion, call on newspapers to carefully scrutinize how this trial is being handled and drive a meaningful public debate about the morality of Manning’s actions.
Truth is a condition for government accountability. Bradley Manning is facing the most severe punishment for a journalistic source in this country’s history because truth itself has become an enemy of our state. Exposing the truth about government misconduct does not make one a traitor; turning your back on truth-tellers like Manning does.