AUSTIN, Texas — Attacks on WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, including accusations of collusion with foreign governments, are growing more commonplace in the media as Election Day approaches.
As the political establishment pushes back against WikiLeaks’ revelations of U.S. war crimes and corruption, political pundits have even threatened Assange’s life. Meanwhile, despite a total lack of evidence, the Clinton campaign continues to try to tie Assange to Russia, reviving a Cold War “red scare” narrative that the mainstream media seems all too eager to assist.
Mickey Huff, media literacy expert and director of Project Censored, told MintPress News that the media’s focus on Assange distracts from more important stories, including the actual content of the leaks released by WikiLeaks. A professor of social sciences at Diablo Valley College near San Francisco, Huff co-authors an annual report on censorship and propaganda in the media.
“I think we’re losing sight of the information these people are leaking,” he said. “It’s an ultimate distraction, a bait and switch.”
Criticism of Assange hasn’t been limited to attacks on his character, though. Political pundits, as well as some government officials and political candidates, have made serious threats against him. And treatment of Assange seems unlikely to improve under the next administration.
“He’s almost like a different version of an Osama bin Laden, a bogeyman du jour,” Huff said. “He’s someone that can be a whipping boy at almost any time if it’s necessary.”
Threats against Assange are ‘almost celebrated’
Assange has spent the last four years living on asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he took refuge in 2012 amid threats from the U.S. government.
Although wanted for questioning over a sexual assault case in Sweden, he was granted asylum because he would likely be extradited to the United States after the questioning. Once in the U.S., charges brought against him by a secretive, ongoing grand jury hearing could result in Assange facing a punishment similar to U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning or worse.
The case against Assange in Sweden weakened with time, and last month, Swedish officials finally agreed to question Assange in the embassy instead of extraditing him from the United Kingdom to Sweden.
Still, this hasn’t stemmed the rising tide of attacks against him.
Over the years, government officials, Democratic and Republican party insiders, and even journalists have been unflinching in their criticism of Assange, sometimes expressing their hostility through overt threats.
In August 2013, forecasting such a fate, Time senior correspondent Michael Grunwald tweeted: “I can’t wait to write a defense of the drone strike that takes Assange out.”
In 2010, Bob Beckel, at the time a Fox News pundit (later hired by CNN), went even further, openly calling for Assange’s assassination:
“A dead man can’t leak stuff. This guy’s a traitor, he’s treasonous, and he has broken every law of the United States. And I’m not for the death penalty, so … there’s only one way to do it: illegally shoot the son of a bitch.”
Although Beckel managed Walter Mondale’s unsuccessful 1984 campaign for president, and later served as a political consultant and lobbyist in Washington, an Aug. 10 tweet from WikiLeaks incorrectly asserted that Beckel is a Clinton campaign strategist.
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) August 10, 2016
“[We] were unable to authenticate the assertion that Bob Beckel has been employed as a Clinton strategist at any point,” Kim LaCapria reported on internet fact-checking site Snopes.
Other threats have come directly from political officials. NBC News reported in June 2013:
“Republican Rep. Peter King of New York called for Assange to be charged under the Espionage Act and asked whether WikiLeaks can be designated a terrorist organization.
Tom Flanagan, a former aide to the Canadian prime minister, has called for Assange’s assassination, while former Alaska governor [Sarah] Palin said he was an ‘anti-American operative with blood on his hands’ in a Facebook message Monday.”
NBC News also reported that Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate, said that the person who leaked the information to Assange “should be tried for treason and executed.”
Huff suggested these threats should be condemned, but instead have become commonplace. He said:
“That should be serious hyperbolic talk that draws great condemnation from our social and political institutions. However, even though there are some that decry it, it’s almost like it’s celebrated, like it’s some kind of Roman holiday, WWE WrestleMania SmackDown thing. It mirrors the presidential rhetoric from the election in a lot of ways, the hyperbolic rhetoric.”
Assange and Manning ‘exposed US war crimes’
During his interview with MintPress, Huff said it was important to reexamine the original leaks that solidified WikiLeaks’ reputation for transparency and support of whistleblowers in the process of making Assange a target of government retribution.
“Assange has been demonized relentlessly and Chelsea Manning sentenced to prison and punished amazingly in historic terms because of information leaked through WikiLeaks, through Julian Assange, that exposed U.S. war crimes,” Huff noted.
In 2010, Chelsea Manning, at the time a U.S. Army intelligence analyst stationed in Iraq, leaked thousands of classified files to WikiLeaks, including thousands of diplomatic cables which WikiLeaks released as its Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and the infamous “collateral murder” video showing the killing of two Reuters journalists by Army helicopters.
Manning was sentenced in 2013 to 35 years imprisonment. She is serving that sentence in a men’s military prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, where she’s faced frequent mistreatment as a transgender woman. After a suicide attempt in July, the Army is threatening to punish her with indefinite solitary confinement.
Huff said the treatment of Assange, Manning, and other political prisoners like Jeremy Hammond, who helped hacktivist collective Anonymous leak the emails of a corporate spy agency, and CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling, is meant as a warning to future leakers: “We’re going to punish people in the United States and around the world if they’re going to tell our secrets.”
Unfortunately, prospects for whistleblowers and their allies are unlikely to improve under the next administration, according to Jacob Appelbaum, a journalist, hacktivist, and representative of WikiLeaks. In May, during the Cannes Film Festival debut of “Risk,” Laura Poitras’ documentary about Assange, Applebaum recounted a 2010 encounter with a member of Clinton’s staff after the release of Manning’s leaks:
“I had a meeting with someone from then secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s office some time after the Cablegate. He let me know that Clinton did not like Julian or myself. I think that if Hillary Clinton were to run for president, she would continue to assert her political will and bitterness about the exposure of diplomatic cables that documented crimes.”
And while Donald Trump has said little, if anything, about Assange publicly, he has advocated for the death penalty for whistleblowers. In a 2013 call to the Fox News program “Fox & Friends,” Trump admitted that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed “things that nobody thought possible.” But he also asserted: “This guy’s a bad guy. And, you know, there is still a thing called execution.”
Assange, however, remains unflinching in his criticism of both candidates. During a July 25 appearance via video conference on Democracy Now! he compared the choice between Trump and Clinton to a choice between communicable diseases.
“Well, you’re asking me, do I prefer cholera or gonorrhea?” Assange said. “Personally, I would prefer neither.”
‘Guilt by association’ with Russia
Assange has continued to work throughout his exile in the Ecuadorean Embassy, even despite the threats against him.
Attacks against WikiLeaks have continued unabated, particularly in the wake of the July 22 release of almost 20,000 emails taken from internal Democratic National Committee servers. The emails forced out several key DNC staff, including former party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Donna Brazile, who took Wasserman Schultz’s place as the party’s interim chair, initially apologized for the content of the leaks, but later followed up her apology by calling Assange a “criminal” in an Aug. 28 interview with ABC News “This Week.”
Hillary Clinton and her campaign have set the tone for many accusations against Assange by suggesting that he collaborated with the Russians to undermine her presidential campaign, even though there is only circumstantial evidence tying the leaks to Russia.
“The reason I think WikiLeaks’ history is so important is that Assange did what The New York Times used to do, ages ago now, with the Pentagon Papers, and other situations like that,” Huff said, referring to the government report on Vietnam which Daniel Ellsberg leaked to the Times in 1971.
Today, Huff lamented, the Times is leading the way in helping the political establishment attack WikiLeaks.
Huff pointed out an Aug. 31 report from the Times, “How Russia Often Benefits
Immediately after the seemingly explosive headline, however, Times reporters Jo Becker, Steven Erlanger and Eric Schmitt admit that there are no substantial ties between Assange and Russia. The article’s subtitle reads:
“American officials say Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks probably have no direct ties to Russian intelligence services. But the agendas of WikiLeaks and the Kremlin have often dovetailed.”
“They go on to say the Russians are benefitting, even though from the beginning they admit don’t have evidence that there’s a connection,” Huff said. “It’s all a house of cards!”
“It’s guilt by association here,” Huff continued, explaining that the goal is to tarnish Assange’s reputation by tying him to a long-time U.S. enemy.
He encouraged the media to refocus on the actual content of the leaks, saying:
“Let’s get back to the data. Let’s get back to the emails. Let’s get back to the fact that these people have basically admitted that they were involved in these shenanigans.”