"The Ruling Class’ Revenge Against Julian Assange"
by Chris Hedges, Consortium News (May 9, 2021)
In this Scheer Post podcast, Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges talks to journalist Robert Scheer about the WikiLeaks founder’s plight as he languishes in a British prison..
“Truthteller” [Art by Mr.Fish]
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. And in this case, unquestionably; a very shrewd observer, Chris Hedges, longtime correspondent, bureau chief for the New York Times, and wrote for a lot of other publications.
But I want to get Chris on now with some urgency, because I’m really concerned about the fate of Julian Assange. I’ve turned 85; in my whole life I don’t think I’ve had, experienced a case of such splendid indifference to press freedom and the suffering of a brave journalist in this country, in the United States. He’s of course not from the U.S., which makes it even more appalling that he’s being held under terrible conditions in an English prison.
But Julian Assange contributed so much to our knowledge of what our government does. And I go through the human rights media, I get all the mailings and everything, and somehow it’s off the charts. So Chris Hedges, you’ve met Julian Assange; you visited him when he was in the embassy, taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy. So tell us something about it.
CH: Well, yes. First, I want to second the importance that WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, and the courageous whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, have served at shining a light into the inner workings of empire, which is the role of journalism. I don’t think there’s anyone that’s come close to matching the volume of material, nor the importance of that material. And that’s why, of course, Julian is being persecuted.
So he’s now spent two years in this high-security Belmarsh Prison, in appalling conditions; the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, calls what’s been done to him “torture,” psychological torture. The judge–I sat in at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court–decided not to extradite Julian to the United States based on the prison conditions in the United States and how she did not feel that that would adequately protect him from harm, and self-harm in particular; there have been suicide issues with Julian. And remember this is now 10 years, that he was first trapped for seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
So, but of course the Trump administration appealed this decision not to extradite Julian, where he faces 175 years in prison. And the judge–who could be very caustic to Julian in the court, and did not dismiss any of the charges that the U.S. has leveled against Julian–refused him bail, even though it was clear that he would now spend many, many months more in Belmarsh waiting for this appeal to be heard. And there will be a ruling; we don’t know exactly when, sometime within the month, as to whether the appeal can go forward.
You know, the decision to keep him in the high-security prison although he’s not been found guilty of any crime–the only crime he’s been found guilty of in the U.K. is jumping bail when it was clear that they were coming for him, and he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy and was given political asylum. The judge could have had home confinement, they could have given him an ankle bracelet; these precautions are probably unnecessary anyway, because he can’t leave the U.K. If he leaves the U.K. and goes to another country, the U.S. can start a new extradition proceeding.
The whole process has really been a mockery of the rule of law. Julian is not a U.S. citizen; WikiLeaks is not a U.S.-based publication. How can you charge him under the Espionage Act for giving secrets to a hostile foreign power, which is what the act is about, passed in 1917 by Woodrow Wilson? Julian’s never come before a jury. If he is extradited, it will be because of appointed judges and because of the home secretary in the U.K. And so, you know, it’s one thing if [unclear] offenses are decided by a no-jury magistrates’ court and a no-jury appeal, but this is a life-or-death case.
And to continue this railroading without him ever seeing a jury is, again, a kind of grotesque manipulation of the legal process. Because I don’t think any jury would have accepted that an admitted CIA operation, which spied on Julian and his lawyers in the embassy–and they had set up cameras even in the bathroom, where the lawyers would go to speak–and then given all of this material to the U.S., to the prosecution, would have, they would have thrown the trial out. I mean, that alone would be grounds for invalidating the trial. But the judge accepted, because the judge was handpicked, and her husband is in the private defense industry, you know, and formerly worked in the defense industry. I mean, it’s very incestuous.
So he’s being held without charge, for years on end; habeas corpus doesn’t exist; he’s being harassed within the prison; he can’t get the material that he needs, often. Just to humiliate him, they would strip search him in and out of the courtroom when he requested to sit with his lawyers rather than in a kind of glass cage. Even the U.S. prosecution didn’t object, but the judge just denied him that, so many times he couldn’t even hear the proceedings.
And you know, the whole idea that Julian is accused of breaking U.S. laws, although he’s not a U.S. citizen, and the violation on top of it with the U.S.-U.K. extradition treaty–which says quite categorically that no one should be extradited for political offenses. And what happened under Tony Blair was that this part of the treaty wasn’t written into British law when the legislation was pushed through the House of Commons in the name of the War on Terror. So you have this strange kind of legal conundrum where the treaty and the legislation are in conflict, but of course the judge sides not with the treaty, but with the British law that was passed after 9/11.
So it’s a politically motivated prosecution against, I would argue, the most important publisher of our time, hands down, without question. Was initiated by the Trump administration and facilitated by the U.K. government. You know, we have Alan Duncan, for instance, recently released diaries made clear that this was a planned, orchestrated pursuit of Julian by U.K. ministers. So, yeah, the whole failure to give him due process, and the kind of denial of political asylum–I mean, the mere fact that U.K. police under Theresa May were allowed into the Ecuadorian embassy is a violation of Ecuadorian sovereignty. Lenín Moreno, the new president, who was essentially bought off with IMF loans and everything else by the United States, stripped Julian of his Ecuadorian citizenship. Rafael Correa, the previous president, had given him citizenship.
Yeah, it’s a very–it’s disturbing on many, many levels, not just in terms of the persecution of our most important publisher, but also the way the legal norms have just been sacrificed, both in the U.K. and by Sweden and the United States, to nail Julian to a cross.
RS: You know, but I want to bring it closer to home, to my crowd or your crowd, people who claim to be liberals, people who were shocked by Donald Trump and his disrespect for the press. This is now a Joe Biden problem. And it’s of historic significance, I believe, to the liberal pretenses of the United States. Because as you point out, this is a publisher. And Daniel Ellsberg, who faced a long sentence under Richard Nixon, if that trial had gone forward, was in a much weaker position; he had actually worked for the Defense Department. The same with Chelsea Manning.
But the reality here is that there’s no difference between what Julian Assange did and what the New York Times and Washington Post did in publishing the Pentagon Papers. They revealed–they and Julian revealed evidence of international war crimes committed by the United States government. And they had an obligation, which we announced at Nuremberg, to do that; they certainly had a right, but even as world citizens they had an obligation, because the principle of Nuremberg is that if you know of war crimes, you have to reveal them.
And so it couldn’t be more profound an issue. If we look at actually what was released, the shooting of innocent civilians, the killing, shooting of journalists–it was grotesque, among many other revelations that came from [WikiLeaks]. And yet I had one journalism professor tell me, “I don’t give a rat’s ass what happens to Julian Assange.” You know, a kind of respected journalism professor at a respected university. That is not the only such comment that I’ve heard every time I’ve raised this case.
So we really have here, I would argue–I don’t know whether you agree with me–the most important case of press integrity and freedom maybe in this century, I would argue. Certainly in this century, but even going back to a good chunk of the previous century. And the stony silence about it–I don’t hear from PEN, I really don’t even hear much from any of the human rights organizations. Let’s talk about this culture of acceptance. Joe Biden’s name–it’s his attorney generals [unclear] who have taken this case further, who refuse to drop it. Why? Because Julian Assange’s revelations were embarrassing to the official Democratic Party.
CH: Right. So this is one of the first acts of the Biden administration when it came into office, was to pursue the appeal and continue to seek the extradition. And you’re right; you know, this has all been preceded by a very effective campaign of character assassination, orchestrated against Julian with the charges, which are untrue, that he committed rape; even the Swedish authorities did not charge him with rape, but that became the kind of mantra. And it all became about his personal proclivities rather than the heart of the issue, which is press freedom.
And so, yeah, and the liberal groups have–well, look. I mean, liberals are moral until there’s a cost. I mean, I see this with Israel. You know, they will decry what’s done to undocumented children on the border, because there’s no political cost. But taking on the Israel lobby–and I speak from personal experience–means you are essentially pushed out of the mainstream and demonized and attacked, as I have been, as an anti-Semite. And so there’s a cost for standing up for Julian and WikiLeaks, and the liberal organizations and liberals themselves have run for the door. That’s kind of characteristic of liberalism itself, and its hypocrisy; that a lot of it is just about moral posturing, and pumping yourself up as a kind of moral arbiter within the society. But as soon as things get difficult, you fall completely into line.
So yes, you’re right. PEN is an appalling organization, which was founded originally to deal with precisely these kinds of issues, and it’s remained completely silent. Because it doesn’t want to–it doesn’t want to confront the ruling elites and the Democratic Party establishment, which is as aggressive in going after Julian because of the leak of the John Podesta emails. John Podesta was the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and many of those emails were very embarrassing to Hillary Clinton. And as I’ve said many times, you can argue–and it definitely hurt her, how much I don’t know, but it did hurt her. I mean, she was caught lying about her ties to Wall Street; we learned that she earned $675,000 to give three speeches to Goldman Sachs. That’s a sum so large it can only be described as a bribe. We learned that she was aggressively pursuing military intervention in Libya because she thought it would burnish her credentials as a presidential candidate.
So, yeah. And that’s what a journalist should do. I mean, your job is not to be partisan. Your job is to expose the machinations of power, the crimes of power, the lies of power, whoever’s in power. And that’s precisely what Julian did. So when he was going after Bush with the Iraq War Logs, the Democrats loved him. But as soon as his journalistic integrity led him to also expose the inner workings of the Democratic Party establishment, they turned on him as vociferously as the Republicans. And I mean, journalists shouldn’t have any friends in the ruling power structures, and he doesn’t. But yes, I’ve been stunned at what an egregious assault this is on press freedom and how, as you correctly point out, the institutions that purport to care about freedom of the press have been complicit in the persecution of Julian.
RS: Yeah, and I want to push back a little bit. I don’t think this is comparable to going easy on Israel and the West Bank and so forth. Because there you’re talking about opportunism and so forth, or whatever you’re talking about. This is different. This is Democratic Party vengeance, OK? First of all, this case has nothing to do with Sweden. You don’t have to bring somebody to the United States to sit in a maximum security prison to deal with a charge that the Swedes have even not pursued. That’s a different issue, and Julian has actually said he would go back to Sweden, and that’s been investigated and so forth.
So it had nothing to do with it. And it has nothing to do with any of his behavior in England, whether he was at an embassy or what. It has to do with the total demise of any notion of Anglo-American tradition of jurisprudence. You know, the Magna Carta and everything. It has to do with these two nations–well, basically, England just doing whatever the U.S. wants. And basically saying they cannot only–we know they grab people all over the world and torture them and everything else; they can do it in daylight. You know, you make our lives politically uncomfortable, in any respect–which is what happened both with the Bush administration and the Democratic Party–and we’re going to destroy you. We’re going to kill you, we’re going to put you in a maximum security prison, we’re going to drive you crazy. That’s what’s going on here. It’s vengeance. It’s anger. They want to destroy Julian Assange, because he dared–this is the ultimate “killing the messenger.” That’s what’s really at issue here. It’s not just oh, they’re–no, they’re vengeful. They want him–that’s what, you know, “I don’t give a rat’s ass”–why don’t you? A major figure in journalism, other papers have won prizes over Julian Assange, and you don’t give a rat’s ass?
And that is the conventional position right now. That’s why I’m doing this interview now, because I am really ticked off by the deliberate disinterest in this whole affair. And we’ve got to cut to the chase. What is happening here is that the U.S. government, whether it’s the Trump or Biden government–right now it’s Biden. Joe Biden is the person keeping Julian Assange in jail. He’s the one who sent his attorney generals to keep pushing this forward, instead of dropping it. And so anyone who feels, oh, OK, Biden’s a lot better than Trump, we solved the main problem–it’s a lie. It’s a lie, and by the way, it was a lie with Barack Obama, because he brought more people, charge more people with leaking and so forth than had been done by all presidents before him under the Espionage Act.
So let’s discuss that. This is not just another case of press mealy-mouth cowardliness. This is a deliberate act of revenge to destroy somebody for being one of the great–
CH: That’s not new. I mean, you know, they did that to Árbenz, they hounded him his whole life; they ordered the execution of Che Guevara. When the empire really feels wounded, it’s relentless, I mean, until it destroys that person or group. I would say that there is a cost for groups like PEN to make any kind of stance, because they’re dependent on the Democratic donor base. And they don’t want to lose it. And essentially–I mean, we’ve seen PEN being taken over by Suzanne Nossel, who became the executive director of the PEN America center. And Nossel comes out of the Hillary Clinton State Department. Has never said a word about the suffering of the Palestinians; championed preemptive war, which under international law is illegal; never said a word as a State Department official about torture and the use of extrajudicial killings. I mean, she’s utterly unfit to lead a human rights organization, especially one with global concerns. And I resigned, not that it had any effect, but I–
RS: We should point out that both of us have been honored by PEN, before the Clintonistas took it over.
CH: Yes, and I was supposed to give a talk for PEN in New York City when Nossel was appointed, and I refused to give the talk, and I resigned from the organization. And I think that we have seen the Democratic Party establishment quite effectively corrupt, or take over in this case, institutions that are tasked with holding up the kind of liberties and press freedoms that we care about. So–and to challenge this, you know, there is a cost. I mean, Julian has been turned into a pariah, and the Democratic Party establishment, as you correctly point out, is as furious at WikiLeaks and Julian as the Republican Party. And so if you are running PEN and you are defending Julian Assange, you are going to be punished, not only in terms of your career but in terms of your funding. And that has effectively silenced–and then of course we talk about publications like the New York Times, El País, The Guardian, Der Spiegel–they all ran Julian’s stuff. But you know better than I do why they ran it. They ran it because if they didn’t run it, you know, it would have been released, and they would have been exposed as being utterly complicit to the power elite. They were forced to run it; they were shamed into running the material in the same way you shamed, when you were editor of Ramparts, the mainstream press into running material that was true. But that animus towards Julian was always there, and as soon as the material was published, they became part of the campaign to destroy Julian, who they never liked in the first place.
And so now it’s just, you’re right, there is a kind of coalescing of all of these forces now to abandon the most important publisher in my lifetime, and the one who’s done more to expose the reality of the crimes of empire than anyone else. I mean, it isn’t just the Iraq War Logs. It isn’t just the Collateral Murder video. These were volumes of material that, for instance, exposed that U.S. authorities were imprisoning hundreds of people from Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa–all of whom they knew, we know from the documents, were not guilty of terrorism offenses. It exposed this kind of new, lawless frontier where people are kidnapped and often sold to the CIA by local authorities–most of the people in Guantanamo were sold–and then held in these black sites, transported across the world on CIA black flights in hoods and diapers, and then tortured. You know, this was all Julian.
And WikiLeaks published the Guantanamo files in addition to the Iraq and Afghan War Logs, which exposed thousands of illegal killings and violations of international law. They published these 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables that revealed coups and illegal surveillance operations and, you know, rampant human rights abuses, much of it provided by Chelsea Manning. So you know, the Obama administration–and Biden was the vice president–was very hostile to the publication of the Guantanamo files. And it did not go after Julian only because his lawyers couldn’t figure out how to separate Julian Assange from the New York Times, otherwise they would have.
RS: So let me–we’re going to run out of time here, but let me just conclude this with talking a little bit about the real hero of this whole thing, is Chelsea Manning. And you know, the way they’re going to try to get Julian Assange, they’re going to say that he somehow gave her the code or helped her crack the code to be able to get documents, so he’s really not just a publisher but in fact he’s an actor here. Which of course is silly, because if you look at the history of any great investigative journalism based on leaks and sources and so forth, the publisher and the journalist were always very active. The New York Times organized the whole Pentagon Papers release, and then when they were stopped, the Washington Post stepped in, and these people were honored for all that.
But Chelsea Manning was in the position, in this case, that Daniel Ellsberg is. They were part of this military machine, and they saw things that rose to the level of war crimes, and they revealed it. And where the case now–and so what Julian Assange did, really, was what any honorable publisher should do: he published it, the material. But where the case is right now is that the government has been tormenting Chelsea Manning–first was released, and now different charges and grand jury and so forth–because basically what they want to do is get Chelsea Manning to say: Julian Assange put me up to this; he’s the really bad guy. That’s who they’re after. And it’s a horrible story of government torture and manipulation that you have this rare, exemplary citizen, Chelsea Manning, does the right thing and says our government, in our name, is committing war crimes–killing innocent children and journalists and everything–and then they want to now break her so she’ll go against Julian Assange. That’s really where the case is now, isn’t it?
CH: Yeah, that’s an important point for the government. Because that does separate Julian–first of all it’s untrue, by the way, because Manning didn’t need a password; Manning had full access to the material. But the government charges that, because if they can convince the judge that Assange offered act of assistance to Manning, then Assange becomes a co-conspirator in the theft of Pentagon data. And so yes, that differentiates Assange from the New York Times and the Guardian. And so yes, they’ve been persecuted–I mean, unfortunately Chelsea Manning, through this treatment–who has not broken; I mean, she is certainly one of the most courageous figures of her generation, and has also had several suicide attempts. But yes, that’s right, they want Chelsea Manning to essentially implicate Julian Assange as a co-conspirator, even though it’s untrue.
RS: Let me push a little further on this issue of the publisher’s role. Because if you look at–and we both know Daniel Ellsberg, and he’s certainly written a lot about this, but he’s not the only one. That anytime any publisher, any news organization, gets involved with a whistleblower story or documents that were classified or so forth, they’re going to be very actively involved. The New York Times rented hotel rooms to work on it. This happened with Edward Snowden’s leaks with major newspapers. They thoroughly investigate; they decide what they’re going to run and not run. You know, after all, Julian Assange was distributing this to other organizations; he didn’t have newsstands or anything.
And so the case against Julian Assange is a parody of any claim of press freedom. It’s basically saying you can punish a publisher for revealing the truth. There’s nothing else to be said about this. Because otherwise there’s no reason to bring Chelsea Manning to the United States. And so I just want to stir up something here, for people to ask their friends who are in the news business, or human rights concern, or Democrats–they’re so happy the Democrats are in power. Why is this Democratic president out to put Julian Assange in a maximum security prison for the rest of his life, and cause him to commit suicide? That’s the question we have. And is it any different than when under Lyndon Johnson the FBI went out to cause, to try to get Martin Luther King to commit suicide?
Just because the power is being exhibited by the gloved fist of the Democrats–you know, we have to really ask profound questions of: Who are we? And it’s not some “others.” That’s why I don’t want to blame it on, you know, thinking about Israel or something–no. This is an attempt to get vengeance for the worst practitioners of torture and killing of civilians, against a person who revealed that. And it was done by the United States, and this is a case that only matters now getting him from England to the United States. The rest of it can be dealt with by England and by Sweden and everything else. But the case really has force because the U.S. wants to destroy this publisher.
CH: Yeah, that’s right. And you know, the Democrats talk a good game, but it was that whole kill chain by that lethal bureaucracy behind Obama’s drone war was expanded. It was Obama that reinterpreted the 2002 authorization to use military force act as giving the executive branch the right to order the assassination of U.S. citizens; I’m talking about Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son in Yemen. It was the Obama administration–and Biden was part of that–that used the Espionage Act nine times to shut down and persecute whistleblowers.
So there is no difference. I mean, the hunt, the drive to extradite Julian is–I mean, not surprisingly to me–as aggressive under the Biden administration as it was under the Trump administration. You know, what has changed is the rhetoric. I mean, we’ve got that whole other issue, you know, that everybody’s salivating that Biden is somehow the new FDR, which is absurd; the facts just don’t justify, in any way, that. But the return–or that he’s the climate president, or something else. And so they are all issuing statements honoring Press Freedom Day at the very moment that they are working overtime to extradite Julian to the United States. So it’s–you know, on that, there’s no daylight between the Republicans and the Democrats on Julian and on this issue.
RS: I want to–again, you have a few more minutes, I know you have to leave. But you know, I don’t care about the rest of our president’s agenda. That’s to be discussed and so forth. Because I grew up with this. FDR was my hero in my house in the Bronx, and my out-of-work father and everyone else, OK? And as a result, I–it really was not my fault, I was just a young kid, you know, seven, eight years old–but the media ignored the roundup of the Japanese Americans, people who had nothing to do with the war, and their internment. And looked the other way. And so this idea that you want to support your president because you agree with him on what he’s going to do about health care or he’s going to do about unemployment, and you ignore fundamental human rights, press freedom, you know, questions–that’s the opening that Orwell and Huxley describe. You know, it’s always lesser evil; it’s always a better way to go.
And so giving any, any–let’s talk about, let’s end this with a little comment about journalism. Because if any group of people should know that, it should be journalists. And their job is not to help the next person get elected or help the incumbent stay in office. Their job is to search, as you did, for what, 20 years in war zones, looking at the truth of the matter. Trying to find out, you know, who’s getting killed and who’s doing the killing, and what’s going on here. And that has been lost here now. Because we have greenwashing, and we have Trumpwashing; you know, we had this, oh, horrible experience, so now we’re going to give this guy a pass.
And I want to end on that, because I think you have been the–not the only voice; I think others, like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald and others, have spoken out. But there are very few people who are really willing to call it as it is now, given their post-Trump trauma.
CH: Yeah. And it is, you know, I think it is a damnation of the press. This is the most important press trial of the 21st century. If Julian is extradited, it will be a signal that the United States can kidnap and extradite anyone, anywhere around the world, for releasing information that they find offensive; it doesn’t matter whether they’re a U.S. citizen. It also gives a signal to every regime that wants to clamp down on freedom of speech to do so with impunity. And you know, the consequences of this are catastrophic. And many of those people in the mainstream press, the New York Times and others who are remaining silent, will rue the day. Because these people have no intention of stopping with Julian Assange [emphasis added].