Volume 80, Number 29 | December 16- 22, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Photo by J.B. Nicholas
On Dec. 9, after an English court ordered Julian Assange’s detention, a “hacktivist” with the group Anonymous was at work in Brooklyn. An estimated 5,000 “hacktivists” launched Operation Payback against corporations that cut money flow to Assange’s WikiLeaks. Some call it the start of a “cyber war.”
Anarchists, Koch, everyone’s wired over WikiLeaks debate
By Mary Reinholz
After a London judge ordered him released Tuesday from his London jail cell on $314,000 bail, Julian Assange, editor in chief of the whistle-blowing WikiLeaks Web site, gave a thumbs up to his supporters in a packed courtroom and said through his lawyer he would fight to clear his “good name.”
Assange, a peripatetic, 39-year-old Australian, was at first denied bail Dec. 7 after his arrest on an Interpol warrant stemming from allegations of sexual assault by two women in Sweden, who claim his crimes include sex without a condom, a form of rape in that country. Assange claims the sex was consensual and has called the allegations “dirty tricks.” Women Against Rape, a group in the United Kingdom, has also questioned the charges. As of Wednesday, however, Assange was still in custody, as a lawyer for Sweden was challenging his release, arguing he was a flight risk.
Generally, Assange gets labeled in America as either a cyber terrorist or an idealistic freedom fighter for WikiLeaks’ release of thousands of secret documents to mainstream media. The documents — classified diplomatic cables and war logs — have left U.S. officials red-faced and instigated calls for Assange’s indictment for espionage — and even his assassination.
But Assange, while vilified by right-wing talking heads like Sarah Palin and Bill O’Reilly, has a multitude of ardent supporters, among them filmmaker Michael Moore, who offered $20,000 toward his bail, according to news reports. The WikiLeaks leader has many other donors with “with deep pockets,” said sources in New York.
Assange, chief spokesman for his amorphous international group WikiLeaks, is also the subject of conflict and suspicion among some who, upon first thought, might be assumed to be supporters, including East Village anarchists who only know him by accounts in the press.
Chris Flash, editor of The Shadow, an underground East Village newspaper, said in a phone interview that he and his staff have not published anything so far on Assange or the WikiLeaks scandal. Flash said he wondered if the four-year-old group now under such intense scrutiny is a “legitimate effort to expose government gossip and secrets or an effort by the government to create a phony entity to be perceived as a security threat so the government can shut down Web sites.”
The government and the military, Flash observed, created the Internet, “and it’s a double-edged sword,” he noted. “If they want to shut you off, they’re going to because they run it.”
In a prepared statement for The Villager, Flash also noted: “On one hand, I feel like applauding Assange and his crew for shining a light on the darker side of government intrigue. But on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if the WikiLeaks scandal isn’t really a scam with which the government can further restrict the free flow of information and Internet access in the name of ‘national security.’”
Paul Garrin, an East Village Internet pioneer and media artist, said he believes that WikiLeaks provides vital sources for journalists and a “wakeup call for governments to be more accountable.” But he considers the State Department “gossip” released by the group to be minor and even a “smokescreen” to distract people from the government’s failure to protect its own cyber sources that have been leaked as well — and WikiLeaks, he claimed, “had nothing to do with it.”
Garrin recalled a C-SPAN story he saw about “Pentagon people watching porn.” He claims they brought in a thumb drive USB and plugged it into classified computer and it spread a worm in the internal computer networks that comprise the bulk of classified information and bypassed the firewall.
“It was more than a Library of Congress worth of data,” he continued, contending that, “Bottom line, the U.S. doesn’t have any secrets anymore. They’re now out in the open — nuclear germs, any type of information. Government is using [the WikiLeaks flap] to cover this up,” he charged. He said he believes that Assange is a “scapegoat” for the government’s own incompetence.
“They’re pointing all these fingers when their own incompetence has undermined every national security secret we have,” Garrin said. “It’s out on the open market.”
Meanwhile, Assange could be indicted by a grand jury in the U.S. on espionage statutes dating back to World War I. Other statutes could be invoked, suggested U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who has admitted the Justice Department is conducing a criminal investigation.
John Penley, perennial East Village community activist, anarchist and photographer, questioned Assange’s judgment for getting involved with the two women in Sweden while he could get indicted for espionage in West Virginia.
“Assange fell for the oldest trick in the book by [involving himself] with women who possibly work for an intelligence service,” Penley said without offering substantiation about Assange’s accusers, whose lawyer has denied they were politically motivated.
That said, Penley went on to praise Assange and WikiLeaks for “kicking off something that I would compare to the biggest revolution since the Berlin Wall fell. They’ve got massive support and it’s being spread over Facebook. Assange is up for Time magazine Man of the Year and he’ll probably get a Nobel Peace Prize. Capitalism will sell you the rope to hang yourself with,” the L.E.S. “Slacktivist” added, claiming that WikiLeaks is getting donations from rich folks and various organizations.
“Quite a few groups are supporting him and Bradley Manning,” Penley went on, referring to the 23-year-old Army private and former intelligence analyst who had been stationed in Iraq. Manning is now imprisoned in a U.S. Marine Corps brig in Virginia after his May arrest in Kuwait for allegedly passing on to WikiLeaks a classified 2007 video. Called “Collateral Murder,” the video shows U.S. military helicopter gunships killing Iraqis who were said to be civilians, among them two Reuters news service reporters. Manning reportedly told an informant that he also provided WikiLeaks with secret videos of alleged civilian killings in Afghanistan, as well as 260,000 classified State Department cables.
Manning, who was charged with the unauthorized use and disclosure of U.S. classified information, could spend 52 years in a military prison if convicted.
Penley worries that the now world-famous Assange may be “overshadowing” Manning, even though Manning, who is gay, is in a “lot more trouble and could be charged with the death penalty.”
As for Assange getting indicted by a federal grand jury, Penley stated defiantly: “I say indict him. Then they’ll need to indict the other news organizations for putting out the documents, and everyone on Facebook. My personal take is that they’re not in violation of the law.”
Attorney and author Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights on Broadway in Noho, made similar points after his human rights litigation group issued a statement expressing alarm over the “multiple examples of legal overreach and irregularities in the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, especially given concerns that they are meant to clear the way for Mr. Assange to be extradited to the U.S. via Sweden.”
Ratner said prosecuting Assange for espionage posed problems for the U.S. because the government would have do “something never done before: indict a journalist who hasn’t stolen material but had it passed on to him. He’s no different from The New York Times. How do you think that would go after Julian and the other media that has printed these documents? The U.S. has a problem and they know it. We have a First Amendment. We don’t have an Official Secrets Act,” he added with some irony. “People ought to know that we’re killing people in wars.”
The U.S. would have trouble if it tried to extradite Assange, added Ratner, noting extradition “doesn’t happen overnight, especially in the U.K. Extradition could take more than two years.”
In the interim, New York Republican Congressmembger Peter King, incoming chairperson of the House Homeland Security Committee, has made it known that he will attempt to designate WikiLeaks as a terrorist organization.
Former three-term New York City Mayor Ed Koch, a once-liberal Democratic congressmember who recently had the Queensboro 59th St. Bridge named after him, told this reporter he regards Assange as an enemy combatant who should be subject to a C.I.A. assassination.
“I believe that anyone who is in possession of stolen documents, doesn’t return them when asked and publishes them, should be executed,” he said.
Koch, 86, considers Assange as “no different” than American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, “the imam in Yemen” who allegedly influenced the Fort Hood shooter and was put on a C.I.A. hit list approved by President Obama.
As for prosecuting newspapers like The New York Times and The Guardian for publishing documents first obtained by WikiLeaks, Koch said, “That question is for the courts to decide on whether the press has First Amendment rights here. I don’t believe you should be able to violate the law with impunity. The State Department says [the WikiLeaks documents] have endangered lives.”
Koch said he thought Daniel Ellsberg should have been prosecuted for leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971, even though Koch was “strenuously” against the Vietnam War at the time.
Outgoing New School president Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska senator and decorated Navy SEAL for his service in Vietnam, said he was “sympathetic to the anger toward Assange, because the initial damage was to the U.S. through his releases.” But Kerrey, who served eight years on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and was a member of the 9/11 Commission, said he didn’t think America “should overreact. If we overreact,” he said, “we damage our security and [suggest] we can’t tolerate openness.