WikiLeaks released an enormous treasure-trove of classified US government documents in 2010. It included US military logs from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, over 250,000 diplomatic cables, and Collateral Murder, a video depicting the killing of 12 civilians by a US helicopter gunship in Iraq.
The source of the leaks, US Private Bradley Manning, acted on his conscience. He believed that people have a right to see the information he had been privy to as an army intelligence analyst. He was prepared to risk his life and liberty to reveal that information.
Through his exposure to thousands of classified documents, Manning became aware of the disparity between his government’s rhetoric and its actions. In Iraq, he witnessed his superiors turning a blind eye to torture, and was appalled by the “seemingly delightful bloodlust” of the US aerial weapons team in the Collateral Murder video.
Manning said he hoped the leaked documents would “spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general”. His courage will likely cost him a lifetime in prison, while his government is seeking to subject WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange to a similar fate.
When an empire is built on lies, truth is the enemy. Western governments do not want to be held accountable for their secret corruption and war crimes. Transparency poses a great danger to them.
Ruling elites depend on a democratic facade to conceal the inequalities and injustices inherent in our stratified societies. Information published by WikiLeaks can help us understand how the power exercised by our governments, in our name, ends up serving the interests of a powerful few.
With that understanding, people can demand the political and economic change that is needed to form more just and democratic societies. Transparency promotes criminal justice when it reveals individual wrongdoing, but it also promotes social justice: the sort of justice that comes from a shift in the balance of power from the 1% to a better-informed 99%.
The powerful cannot tolerate this threat to power and privilege. The US government is determined to make an example of Manning and Assange. They must be vilified, marginalised and punished severely, so those inclined to follow their path can see what will become of them if they do.
Manning has been held in pre-trial detention for three years, with nine months of that time spent in solitary confinement in a windowless cell where he was often forced to be naked.
Last year, the UN special rapporteur on torture ruled that Manning’s conditions constituted “at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”, and were a “violation of [Manning’s] right to physical and psychological integrity as well as of his presumption of innocence”.
For enduring this unlawful pre-trial punishment, Manning was granted a meagre 112 day reduction off his eventual sentence.
Manning’s trial by a military court begins on June 3. He has been prevented from defending himself on the grounds that he was acting for the public good, since a pre-trial judge ruled that he cannot submit evidence as to his motives for leaking information. He will likely be convicted of most of the 22 charges against him.
Assange and WikiLeaks have been the subject of a US criminal investigation since 2010. The investigation has been described in cables from the Australian embassy in Washington as “unprecedented in both its scale and nature”.
As of June last year, the FBI file on WikiLeaks was reported to comprise 42,135 pages, excluding grand jury testimony.
In September last year, a Pentagon spokesperson said that the very existence of WikiLeaks is regarded as an ongoing crime. This suggests the US government is not about to let up its pursuit of Assange any time soon. It is possible that a secret sealed grand jury indictment of Assange on charges of espionage or conspiracy already exists.
The US government and its allies seek to reassert their authority through the persecution of Manning and Assange, but their actions only serve to further undermine their legitimacy.
Reassuring notions of “human rights” and “civil liberties” appear to underpin our democracies, until we see how quickly they can be dispensed with to punish those who challenge the authority of the state.
US writer and activist Chris Hedges said in an interview with Democracy Now! that the attacks on Manning and Assange were part of a troubling pattern of increasing repression.
The Barack Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. It introduced the 2011 National Defence Authorisation Act, which allows for the indefinite military detention of anyone the government claims is offering “substantial support” to terrorists or “associated forces”.
The administration has refused to rule out the possibility that journalists could be subject to this provision.
It was revealed in May that the Obama administration had secretly appropriated the work, home and mobile phone records of 100 reporters and editors at the Associated Press (AP). The government has refused to explain why it carried out the raid, but it is believed to have been part of an investigation into the identity of the source of an AP story about a CIA operation in Yemen.
Hedges said these measures are “symptomatic of a reconfiguration of our society into a totalitarian security and surveillance state, one where anyone who challenges the official narrative, who digs out cases of torture, war crimes — which is, of course, what Manning and Assange presented to the American public — is going to be ruthlessly silenced”.
Australians should be no less concerned about these developments than citizens of the United States. Where the US government goes, the Australian government tends to follow, and the US is increasingly applying its laws extra-territorially.
The Australian government’s treatment of Assange demonstrates how quickly it will sacrifice the welfare of an Australian citizen, and violate its international obligations to protect journalists, in deference to a powerful ally.
Australia generally offers poor legal protections to journalists, who are increasingly finding themselves in court for refusing to reveal their sources.
In an extraordinary attack on personal privacy, the Australian government wants to force internet service providers to retain our personal data for two years, making it available to the police and the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
Laws proposed last year would also give ASIO the power to demand online passwords to access users' personal data, and the power to remotely control computers and modify the content.
If we do not fight these measures, and if we fail to stand up for Manning and Assange, we will simply be inviting more of the same. We need to set an example to those in power: we will not stand by while they strip us of our rights and freedoms, and punish anyone who dares to challenge their authority.
Crucially, though, if we hope to build enduring just and democratic societies, we need to set an example to ourselves.
In a recent interview with US philosopher and activist Cornel West, Assange revealed that he understands very well that the limits we place on ourselves are as powerful as any external constraints.
Assange told West that in his early 20s, he was asked by the Australian police to inform on friends within the Australian activist community. Assange said that he refused, not because he was worried about what others would think of him, but because he did not want to “set a precedent to himself of succumbing”.
Assange said, “there is no other way to live, but to live your own life, and to try and manifest your principles in the world”.
We might think of ourselves as freedom, justice, and peace-loving people, but it’s our actions that shape our character. To act in accordance with our deepest values in the face of great personal cost, is empowering. As Assange put it, “to be courageous emancipates our own character”.
Each time we “succumb” to injustice and oppression, we are training ourselves to succumb when we find ourselves in similar circumstances. Our capacity for courage is diminished.
If we fail to stand up for what we believe in as individuals, we cannot expect others to, and we cannot expect to live in a society which reflects our values.
Assange told West: “We must all fight to set precedents to ourselves about how our character will act in certain circumstances …
“Perhaps, for every person, their primary task is to strengthen and emancipate their own character, because how can they emancipate other people?”
If we do not act to defend Assange and Manning, we will be succumbing to a system which locks up those who expose war crimes, and lets war criminals walk free.
If we do not attempt to fulfill the potential for change which Manning and WikiLeaks have offered us, we will be succumbing to a world of inequality, injustice and permanent war.