About 1000 people packed the Sydney Opera House on September 16 for a public forum featuring Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning’s defense lawyer David Coombs, independent US journalist Alexa O’Brien and Australian academic Robert Manne.
Titled “The War on Whistleblowers”, and moderated by Crikey’s Bernard Keane, the forum focused on the push by governments and corporations to control the internet, erode personal privacy and punish truth-tellers such as Manning and Edward Snowden. Greenwald, Assange and Coombs joined the forum via video link-up.
Greenwald praised the courage shown by Snowden, who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia after he leaked information about the US National Security Agency’s secret surveillance of internet use around the globe. The US government has charged Snowden with espionage for leaking to Greenwald and US documentary maker Laura Poitras.
Before the leaks were made public, Greenwald said he asked Snowden why he was taking a step that could easily see him spend the rest of his life in a US prison.
Greenwald said: “What he told me was that, just personally, he would not have been able to live with himself — to have it sit on his conscience — to be able to know there was this massive spying agency being built in the dark that was destroying internet freedom, eroding privacy for everyone around the world, and spend the rest of his life knowing that he did nothing to stop it, in fact that he would continue to work within it and to help perpetuate it.”
Greenwald said that under Barack Obama’s presidency the US government had escalated its war on whistleblowers to an unprecedented level. “More whistleblowers have been prosecuted under the Obama administration under the Espionage Act of 1917 than all prior presidents combined. In fact, double the number have been prosecuted ... during his presidency,” he said.
But Greenwald stressed that the Obama government’s punishment of whistleblowers was very selective. He said: “Washington has always, and continues, to run on leaks of classified information. Every single day, top Obama officials leak classified information to virtually every establishment reporter.
“The goal of those leaks, though, is to glorify the president ... or to propagandise the public to believe the policies and actions of the government are justified and warranted. These kinds of leaks, the ones that serve the establishment’s interests and promote the agenda of political leaders, are never punished ...
“These are the kinds of leaks that go on between the very people who demand that other kinds of leaks — namely ones that bring transparency to those in power, that undermine that system — be harshly punished.”
Greenwald said: “It isn’t that President Obama believes in the sanctity of classified information or the rule of law and is therefore harshly punishing those who leak classified information. He is only harshly punishing those who leak classified information when those leaks are contrary to his political interests and his policy agenda.”
Assange replied to the oft-stated argument that whistleblowers such as Manning should instead raise their concerns about government or corporate wrongdoing through so-called legitimate channels.
“How do you blow the whistle on the system itself?” he asked. “When you see so many events revealing the same problem again and again — which is a cavalier approach to human life, a cavalier approach to the suffering of people — there has to be a mechanism where people can blow a whistle on the system itself. And obviously, that cannot be within the system.”
Assange also said that because communication was so essential for civilisation, government attempts to control, restrict and commericialise information meant “civilisation itself is at stake”.
He said: “It is quite correct to say we are at a crossroads. In one direction lies a really significant lurch towards dystopia. I’m serious about that. With the stitching together of a new, transnational security apparatus, spying on all of us ... that direction is the militarisation of cyberspace ...
“Society and the internet have now merged together. The internet is the nervous system of our communication ... if, sitting in between those communications, is a military organisation, an intelligence organisation, [with] its vast sprawling mass of contractors ... that is an undemocratic institution, a network that is, slowly but surely, lifting off the rest of society that it finds itself enmeshed in.”
Assange said the other, alternative direction “lies in the development of an open, international body politic, which has certain standards and values and beliefs that it fights for ... [including] the right for all of us to, at least, communicate with each other about what it happening to the world and the society that we live in”.
Coombs said that the lack of US mainstream media coverage of Manning’s recent trial “certainly affected the case”. He said: “For us, this would have had an impact if this was something that was on the front page every day ... a lot of the stuff the government did during the court trial would have been subject to public scrutiny.”
Coombs also said: “The mainstream media really lost sight on what this case stands for. In my opinion, this case is really going to be a watershed moment for the freedom of the press because you have a prosecution that has, on more than one occasion, said it would not make a difference to whom this leak was made to. [They said] if this leak was made to the New York Times [instead of WikiLeaks], we’d still charge for aiding the enemy.
“So you have a case where a person has done nothing other than give information to a journalist and that could be charged as aiding the enemy — no other intent required.
“Really what the government is doing here is setting up an argument that is not that far removed from going after the journalist — to try to say that if a journalist takes [classified] information and publishes that, then that journalist can be charged with aiding the enemy.”
Coombs said that “during the trial I almost felt that I had Julian Assange at the table, because the government had [referenced WikiLeaks] so many times … It felt like WikiLeaks was a co-accused.
“I think what they tried to do [in Manning’s trial] was delegitimise WikiLeaks, that it’s not a legitimate news organisation.”
O’Brien was one of the few journalists that did cover Manning’s trial in depth, despite court restrictions that banned video or audio recording devices. She said the US mainstream media’s failure to cover the Manning trial showed they were “lazy and incompetent.”
She said: “Through my experience of covering this trial I’ve developed a distain for a lot of journalists. Certainly there are great journalists within those institutions, but I’m not going to make any excuses for the American press.
“They didn’t show up consistently to the largest leak trial in US history, a trial that encompasses the largest criminal investigation ever into a publisher and its source. When you have writers at the Wall Street Journal publishing op-eds confusing ‘aiding the enemy’ and ‘espionage’ [charges], how can you expect the American public to know what is going on in the courtroom?”
O’Brien said she found the media’s apparent lack of interest in the Manning trial “really disappointing, but also motivating because I think the journalists that did cover it consistently knew how important this trial was.”
She said: “I think the best word is that we were radicalised by the truth of the experience of covering it, that we worked harder and decided that we were going to do everything in our power to make sure the information got out.”
In his closing comments, Greenwald said the war on whistleblowers had far wider implications for people’s rights around the world. He said: “The effort to punish whistleblowers, to deter whistleblowers, to build this massive secrecy scheme that has no outlet for it, is really about the making sure the message of propaganda goes unchallenged ... that it is the only thing people around world are hearing.”
He also said that the future of the internet, and which interests it serves, is at stake. He acknowledged that the internet still had the potential to spread democracy, but warned: “It is also possible that the exact opposite will happen, that the internet will become the worst and most potent tool of control and oppression.
“[This] will happen if we allow virtually all forms of human interaction and thought and behaviour and communication to be transported on to it, while at the same time we allow the US government and its allies to monitor and store and control everything that is taking place ...
“I think if we lose this war that is being waged on whistleblowers and journalism and internet freedom and privacy and transparency, the outcome will be the one that I think all decent people desperately want to avoid.”