COMMENT | Sweden may have dropped the charges, but Assange is no hero

By Alex Hardy

The past week has seen the Swedish authorities drop rape charges against Julian Assange, the publishing editor of Wikileaks, relating to an incident in 2010. He denies the charges, claiming the incidents were consensual, and that they were part of a wider conspiracy in order to extradite him to the United States. . The accused has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, claiming asylum since the 19th of June 2012. He has been unable to leave the building since both Britain’s Extradition Act of 2003, as well as its commitment to the European Arrest Warrant, would lead to his immediate arrest, and subsequent extradition to Sweden to face those charges. The news in the past week of his charges being dropped changes things, but only a little. Assange is still a wanted man.

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Assange outside on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, talking to the world’s media (www.abc.com)

Wikileaks: A background. Manning, Snowden & Assange.

In 2010, aided by the cable leaks of Bradley Manning, Wikileaks published a series of classified US documents. Many academics seized upon the Wikileaks revelations in the aftermath of both the Manning and Snowden leaks, hailing the ‘emancipatory potential’ of Wikileaks, and how it could lead to a new era of governmental transparency (Springer et al, 2012), and the emergence of a new “resistance” or social movement (Lindgren & Lundström, 2011). Of course, the leaking of classified documents is a federal crime, as well as being deeply embarrassing to the US Government, who has since imprisoned, and as of the past week released, Chelsea Manning after 7 years, her release an executive order of clemency by departing President Barack Obama. Manning, a former US Military intelligence officer revealed evidence of improper US conduct in Iraq in her 2010 leaks. During her imprisonment, Manning endured reported cruel and inhumane treatment as well as going through a change of gender identity.

There are also active charges against Edward Snowden under the Espionage act. Snowden is a former CIA employee and NSA subcontractor whose 2013 leaks illustrated intrusive levels of domestic surveillance. He has faced extreme public backlash, which has seen him in some parts branded as a traitor, and lives in exile in Russia. Snowden himself admits he wanted to travel to Latin America to claim asylum, and has previously been critical of the Russian President Vladimir Putin. He continues to be an outspoken critic of surveillance in Russia, a brave move when, it has been noted, he could be handed over to a hostile Trump regime at any time.

Both sets of leaks were published through Wikileaks, headed by Assange as publishing editor. Assange meanwhile, is said to be ‘under investigation’ for potential charges under the espionage act of the United States, however there are no such current charges.

In contrast to both Manning and Snowden, imprisoned and exiled respectively, Assange chose to make the Ecuadorian embassy his home, and his charges are related to his personal conduct. He continues to choose not to leave. He has not been ‘detained’. He has chosen not to face the charges against him, in spite of there being no direct evidence he would consequently be extradited to the United States. Assange continually dismisses the authority of those who question him, as observed in his reply to Swedish investigators:

  1. I have no obligation to cooperate with this abuse

(Source: Justice 4 Assange)

Yet in the next breath, Assange brandishes a UN resolution, in spite of his abundant lack of respect for the rulings of any governmental body (Unless, it would seem, they happen to agree with him).  The UK and Sweden have both refused to acknowledge the UN ruling.

The similar lack of respect might also be noted in his tweet comparing Hilary Clinton and Marine Le Pen, two women who could not be much further removed on the political spectrum. Feminism seems a strange approach for Assange to take. Even taking aside the dropped charges, Assange has been subject to claims of misogyny and questionable views on gender equality. Evidence suggests he is both eager to talk up his own hardships, and as eager to dismiss those of others. The following extracts are taken from the work of Andrew O’Hagan, who was working on an Autobiography with Assange in 2011;

“I asked him if he had a working title yet and he said, to laughter, ‘Yes. “Ban this Book: From Swedish Whores to Pentagon Bores’”

“Assange referred a number of times to the fact people were in love with him”

“Julians favourite activity was following what people – especially his ‘enemies’ – were saying about him on the internet. When I told him i’d sooner cut my balls off than Google myself, he found a high-minded reason for explaining why it was important for him to know what other people were saying” 

She turned to me…. ’He’s got such appalling, sleazy stories about women you wouldn’t believe it. I don’t want to hear all that.’

(O’Hagan, 2014: online.)

The above, among other observations, led O’Hagan to suggest Assange’s ‘Impulse towards free speech…is only permissible if it adheres to his message’ and further suggesting Assange was a ‘narcissist’ more interested in his own personal glory than any greater good, with an inability to handle criticism. Regarding the Swedish charges, none of this evidence confirms Assange is lying. His actions do however correspond to particular recurrent ways of denying and excusing sexual violence, whilst also constructing a notion of Assange as a victim of his fame (Saunders, 2015). Further adding to his self narration as victim, he is on record likening Sweden to Saudi Arabia and that he  “fell into a hornets’ nest of revolutionary feminism”. Assange’s ill judgement might be further illustrated by his condemnation of criticism aimed at far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. The former Breitbart commentator has frequently drawn ire for his controversial views on feminism. Yet Assange saw fit to once again side with a far-right figure;

What happens now?

Assange has decided to remain in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, claiming he still fears extradition to the United States. He is still subject to a UK arrest warrant due to breaking his bail conditions when he entered the Ecuadorian Embassy. Granted these are much lesser charges, but still Assange continues to refuse to face them. As for the future of Wikileaks, that remains to be seen. Given their interference in the American election (the Podesta leaks, seized upon by Republican Donald Trump to discredit Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton) and the similar interference in the French election. (Wikileaks publicised the #Macronleaks hashtag, which was utilised by a variety of accounts to push a selection of information, both real and fake, including the suggestion that Macron was a closet homosexual. They later distanced themselves from it, and did not publish such material themselves, but nevertheless wilfully populised the hashtag itself, drawing twitter users to false information in the hours before the election)

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Authors own screen capture from a Twitter search for #Macronleaks, illustrating how Wikileaks spread the hashtag in the days leading up to the election (www.twitter.com)

It is thus difficult to anymore conceive Wikileaks as a force for the common good, nor as being in any way emancipatory as some had previously hoped. In the Macron incident, they irresponsibly spread awareness to the public of a leak which had the potential to shape a democratic election, much of which was later discredited. Assange himself referred to Macron as the French Clinton, someone whom he has made no secret of his dislike for. For an organisation which proudly extols the values of transparency and clarity, such actions seem woefully inadequate. The original raison d’être of Wikileaks was to raise awareness of concerns regarding our personal privacy on the internet, as well as shedding light on governmental overreach in terms of surveillance. This was drawn fundamentally from the idea that governments should be transparent, held accountable, and to highlight when they should not be trusted. Based upon the evidence touched on in this post, there is little reason that we should trust men like Julian Assange either. He may consider himself a hero, but there are myriad reasons why we should question his motivations and perhaps think otherwise.

Alex Hardy is a Royal Leverhulme funded PhD Research Student at Royal Holloway, interested in Geopolitics and Digital Security. Having previously studied International Relations and Human Geography research at Durham and Newcastle University respectively, his research is based across the Geopolitics and Information Security departments.

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