Let Julian Assange’s freedom not be a defeat for what he started

Vijay Prashad hopes Julian Assange’s freedom gives more truth-tellers courage [photo credit: Lucie Wimetz/TNA/Getty Images]

In the lead-up to the US war on Iraq, I got an email from Julian Assange saying that he wanted to set up a secure channel for whistle-blowers.

Julian was incensed by the madness of a capitalist system willing to use war to subordinate people for the sole reason of profit. Furthermore, because of the hard-won emergence of democracy, rulers of the system now use their corporate privacy and the idea of state secrecy to prevent the masses of people from knowing the reason for the periodic crises that visit them in cycles. 

That “secure channel” Julian wrote of became Wikileaks.

The motivation was simple: to enforce the public’s right to know, which UNESCO defines as “timely access to information” that allows people to “participate in an informed way in decisions that affect them while holding governments and others accountable.”

That was, and still is, Julian Assange’s mission.

It might surprise people to know that in the early years, Wikileaks didn’t focus on Iraq and Afghanistan but on Asian countries and the former Soviet Union. And from October 2006 to 2010, the site struggled. Julian was only able to expose minor leaks, and there was great difficulty in finding funds.

But everything changed when Chelsea Manning, then based in Iraq, decided to transfer a vast trove of classified US State Department materials to Wikileaks.

We’d watched the US-led invasion kill hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, many of whom had been burnt by white phosphorus. But now Chelsea Manning had the evidence of US war crimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, and felt conscience-bound to release it. 

Manning followed the Nuremberg principles — that no soldier can hide behind the excuse of “I was just following orders”. Chelsea Manning was duty-bound to report them up the chain of command, which had ordered the war crimes, and so sent the documents to Wikileaks. 

An imperial witchhunt

Two years before Chelsea Manning even sent the materials to Wikileaks, the US military went into panic mode over Wikileaks. They’d police themselves, they scoffed. They’d be the sole arbiter of so-called global justice and morality. As such, they declared in 2008 it would expose the Wikileaks sources to “deter others” and that it would “destroy the centre of gravity” of the site. 

At the time, I had a conversation with Daniel Ellsberg, the man who released the Pentagon Papers, who told me that the textbook response of the US government is to deny the existence of any incriminating material, smear the whistleblower if it does get out into the public, and then attack the integrity of journalists and the publications that carry the material. 

This textbook assault is exactly what Wikileaks and Assange experienced after leading newspapers around the world — such as the New York Times, the Guardian, the Hindu, and others — published extracts from the Manning materials.

The US government created dissension within Wikileaks by making it hard to conduct basic commerce and maintain the website, as well as by spreading rumours about funding that turned the team against each other.

At the same time, the US government was hell-bent on punishing Manning and Assange, the two who’d become the faces of the great embarrassment inflicted on the US. After all, the materials Manning had released and Assange had published revealed actual and verified evidence of war crimes across the so-called ‘War on Terror’. 

The cables showed how the US treated its closest allies and how it ran roughshod over human rights treaties and basic decency to torture its adversaries and civilians. 

Julian Assange’s freedom is a win for whistle-blowers and a defeat for US imperial interests [photo credit: Getty Images]

Manning was arrested in May 2010, found guilty, imprisoned for seven years, and then pardoned by US President Barack Obama. But the high officials wanted Assange. He was the one they blamed. The virulent hatred of Assange was striking. I met a former CIA agent in 2016 who told me how much the intelligence community in the US hated Assange: “People had pictures of him on their wall, bullet holes through his head.”

A rape accusation in Sweden against Julian Assange led to criminal protection in the United Kingdom. Assange had said from the beginning that he was willing to talk to the Swedish prosecutor and even go to Sweden to face those charges, but he didn’t want them linked to the US government’s obsession with extraditing him. 

The US has failed to silence Julian Assange

It was clear that the US government wanted him badly. Then-Vice President Joe Biden said that Julian Assange was a “high-tech terrorist” who’d done “things that have damaged and put in jeopardy the lives and occupations of people in other parts of the world.” Biden must have meant the torturers. 

Because the UK government would not offer any guarantees that this extradition would not happen, Assange sought political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012.

This is where Julian lived – under the grace of the government of Rafael Correa (2007-2017) and international law – until he was forcibly removed and arrested by the UK police in 2019.

The reason he was removed by the Ecuadorean government of Lenin Moreno (2017-2021) was so that the new government could get a $4.2 billion IMF loan to get that loan Ecuador had to forego its legitimate claims against Chevron corporation for environmental crimes. Having been sacrificed for the IMF loan, Julian was shifted to Belmarsh prison in London and held there till the deal made with the US government in June 2024.

The most powerful document released by Wikileaks was a video of a US Apache helicopter killing civilians, including journalists, in New Baghdad City in 2007.

Almost a decade later, I walked around those streets with my friend Yusuf, an Iraqi journalist. We talked for a long time about that murder and the work of Wikileaks.

“No one believed us when we talk about the crimes of the United States in Iraq, even after the Abu Ghraib photos were released in 2004,” Yusuf told me.

“But when Wikileaks published the video of Collateral Murder, it was hard to deny the attitude of the US soldiers and the war crimes committed against ordinary Iraqis.” 

Yusuf holds one hand close to his body. He was hit in the shoulder by a US soldier’s stray bullet. Another journalist was attacked for trying to tell the truth. Yusuf cannot move that shoulder. But, when he first saw the video on the Wikileaks site, he tells me, he was ecstatic. It told the world what he already knew, what the victims of the War on Terror already knew.

I called Yusuf when I heard about Julian’s release and deal. Obviously, we felt that Julian had to make the deal to get his freedom, but we agreed that Julian had done nothing for which he had to plead guilty to the US government.

“I am glad,” said Yusuf. I am glad too. Julian Assange is free. We hope that his freedom gives more truth-tellers courage.

Vijay Prashad is the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is the editor of Letters to Palestine (2014) and his most recent book is (with Noam Chomsky), On Cuba (2024).

Follow him on X: @vijayprashad

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff, or the author’s employer.

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