Get out of the fucking embassy Julian

15 Aug

In the article below which I wrote shortly before the news about Chelsea Manning’s transition, Manning is referred to as “Bradley” and she is referred to as a he. Her real name is Chelsea and she is a woman. Sorry to anyone offended.

Last night (well two nights ago now but it was last night when I started writing this) I went to see “We Steal Secrets – the Story of Wikileaks” with a mate from the save our services group I’d been part of a year or so ago in Oxford. Initially I would give it 3 and a half out of 5, as while I thought it was quite good there were some problems with it, mostly to do with how its rapey figurehead Julian Assange was portrayed, I thought they were a bit too kind to him for reasons I’ll say during the rest of the piece. He wasn’t happy about his portrayal though for reasons I will describe later in the piece.

If you don’t want to see a massive spoiler for a film, most of which was written when I was either drunk or stoned then stop reading now. I am right though. I looked at it sober and I’m still right! Still, if you disagree use the comments and tell me why 😀

The movie started with the so-called “Wank Worm” which was used to attack NASA systems during the early 1990s, supposedly as a protest against nuclear war. The name stood for “Worms against Nuclear Killers” and displayed the message “your system has been wanked”. It was said to be the first incidence of hacking as a political protest and was the milieu which Julian Assange came from – he was involved with a collective of hackers in Melbourne who were linked with, among other things, creating the Wank Worm (although this was never proved). The teen hackers, not surprisingly, formed a sort of political alternative subculture which positioned itself in opposition to the state but saw themselves as a bit of an intelligent elite. In the early 1990s when he was a teenager, Julian Assange was charged with 25 counts of hacking into a Canadian company called Nortel, and was let off with a fine because of the mitigating circumstances of his disrupted childhood for what would otherwise have been a ten year jail sentence. He was involved with a group called “international subversives” and used the handle “Mendax” or “noble liar”. One of his friends describes how the computer opened up and Assange would see himself as “God Almighty”.

For the first hour or so I thought the film was very uncritical of Assange, calling him “brilliant” and so on in the first five minutes. The first part of the film appears to take Assange at his word when he says that he enjoys defending victims and “crushing bastards” although we do get a revealing insight into his character when one of his former associates says that he sees himself as one man against the world. He wanted to uncover government secrets while keeping his own close to his chest. There was a sort of amusing bit when the narrator talked about Julian “opening doors to go to places he was not meant to go”. An unfortunate use of phrasing there – I’m sure you did Julian. According to the movie Julian envisaged Wikileaks as an “intelligence agency of the people” and himself as a John Lennon revolutionary. The image of Assange as a rock star is something that is frequently mentioned in the movie, especially with his treatment of women. A rock star and he was just “picking the fruit”. Given recent revelations of how rock stars from the 1970s behaved in this country the analogy is a good one.

Something which was very interesting and which I want to come back to on this blog is the extent to which secrecy is now an “industry”. The film said that after 9/11 the US government was faced with “enemies that they didn’t understand” (but actually, they had helped create them). Since 9/11 the number of classified documents produced every year by the US government has exploded from 8 million (5 million in 1995) to 76 million in 2010(and now over 92 million). By the time you finish reading this around 2000 documents will have been classified in the name of “national security”. And that’s just in the USA. Why is capital doing this?

Around four million people in the US have access to this secret information. The US government now intercept calls and emails at a rate of over 60,000 communications per second. These are fucking staggering figures. At the same time the rate of declassification has decreased from over 100 million to around 26 million per year. This was not mentioned in the film – but what was, by a former CIA director, was that the US is producing more secrets than ever, and if the above figures are accurate, keeping them secret for longer. The same man claims that he also wanted people to know what the CIA was doing and wanted it to be transparent, but for the fact that it could harm his countrymen. You have to wonder why he became the head of the CIA in the first place if that is what he wanted!

Wikileaks first received its first major “break” during the financial crisis of 2008 when Iceland’s banks collapsed. Details of dodgy credit ratings which were completely different to reality emerged. Classified documents from Kaupthing, a huge Icelandic bank, were leaked to Wikileaks. The state broadcaster was banned from reporting on the crash and the corruption which had been a feature of that country’s banking system for years. So they instead referred people to Wikileaks and displayed the website on the screen because they were not allowed to report on the story themselves. Not surprisingly viewings for Wikileaks’ website went up exponentially. Wikileaks had previously leaked classified Kenyan government documents and is widely thought to have influenced the results of the 2007 presidential election.

But what really propelled them to international celebrity status is when in April 2010 they released a truly shocking video of Reuters journalists being shot by US troops flying an Apache helicopter. It was called “Collateral Murder” and for good reason. The transcript featured such gems as “look at them dead bastards!” and the video looked and felt like they were shooting people in a computer game, an example of how modern warfare dehumanises people. When that video was released Wikileaks became internationally notorious, and as the documentary says, the people involved including Julian Assange did not really know what they were doing. This can be shown in the fact that the cables they released frequently did not redact the names of their sources despite assurances that they were protecting their sources and had a “harm minimisation” policy in place, whereas Wikileaks was such a shonky operation that Assange actually had no such strategy. He wanted to give the impression that he was running a large international operation whereas it was actually just him and a couple of others.

This video did not report anything that was not widely known (except that Reuters had been refused access to the footage). The transcript was already in a book called “the good soldiers”. But the documentary makes the point that pictures are much more powerful than words – they help us see the actual reality of a thing. They help us understand and potentially have much more of an emotional impact. That video looked and felt like a computer game until you remember what actually happened. It’s chilling.

The next part of the film features Adrian Lamo. Adrian Lamo eventually, ended up grassing up Bradley Manning for reasons which actually seem pretty shaky. I felt that his own motivations weren’t properly explored, he claimed that he was doing so just to protect people. As shown by the fact that he was crying when he talked about it at the end of the film I felt that his reasons for grassing Manning up were ones that did not even convince himself and I think the film would have benefitted a bit more by examining what he thought he was doing a bit more because his justifications about protecting his countrymen or whatever do not sound convincing at all especially because he used to be a computer hacker himself. As it was the film dwelt on Manning’s sexuality and the fact that he was transgender a bit more than was necessary, it almost felt at times that they were trying to equate this with the fact that he had mental health problems and portray him as a freak which to my mind seemed a bit distasteful. In any case I did not think it was relevant to what happened, apart from the fact that he was bullied in the army because he was seen as weak and effeminate. However I did like the personal information about him and that combined with the details of his terrible treatment was a reminder that he was an actual person and not just somebody you hear about on the news.

I think Adrian Lamo behaved towards Manning in a very shitty way, he was somebody he reached out and trusted and Lamo turned him into the authorities, although watching the film you are left thinking that Bradley Manning should have been discharged from the army anyway because of what his supervisors and other colleagues said about him, especially since he had access to weapons and was doing things like screaming at people and on one occasion punching somebody. He was addicted to soda and also had sleep deprivation problems. All of this should have been picked up while he was working on the base but the army is never noted for looking after the mental health problems of its recruits either before or after they have left. Given the material he was looking at and the environment he was working in perhaps he was not “mental” or about to go postal or have a breakdown, I don’t think I would have been able to handle that stuff too. Perhaps he was just human.

However, Lamo asked Manning to treat his chats with him as a confession and claimed that he was a journalist and a minister, therefore giving the impression that what he said to him was confidential. Manning was becoming desperate trying to contact the New York Times and the Washington Post with these leaks – something that we never find out the outcome of in the film.

It is a reminder of the dangers of talking about “political stuff” on the internet and trusting the wrong people, something I myself have fallen foul of in the past. However assessing his mental state (he was actually placed in a discharge unit) was something the other people on the army base should have been doing and strangers on the internet should not have got involved. It was also notable that Julian Assange did not seem to do much to help him either. When he started publishing the leaks after Manning’s arrest, questions were asked as to whether continuing to publish them would not put him in greater danger. Bradley Manning said that he did not care whether he was put in jail and still wanted people to know about it etc, but was he really in a fit state to make up his mind or not about what was best?

Meanwhile smarmy twat Julian was doing public appearances in something called the “Oslo Freedom Forum” which reminds me of these guys. It all seemed a bit conspiraloonery and weird as do many things with “freedom” in the name. The Oslo Freedom forum bills itself as:

Hundreds of the world’s most influential dissidents, innovators, journalists, philanthropists, and policymakers united in the Norwegian capital for a three-day summit exploring how best to challenge authoritarianism and promote free and open societies.

Some of these people are “world leaders”. How exactly would they challenge authoritarianism then? Never mind! But funnily enough all these people are within the ruling class or at least the upper-middle class – “dissent entrepreneurs”. Bleurgh. One guy speaks for the “case for economic freedom” and runs something called “Cafe Hayek” – Hayek being a notorious right-wing economist who believed the state should get out of the market as far as possible and capital essentially should have no rules restricting its activities. Assange would follow in these footsteps later on when he stayed with his aristo mate and started advertising “Dinners with Julian“. Interesting,y one of his more recent guests at the Ecuadorian embassy was Lady Gaga!

It was somewhat hypocritical for someone who was eager to get into the elite club of the “establishment” dissidents represented by this forum, many of whom had views which would not be out of place in the Tory or Republican party, to dismiss concerns about redaction of the names in his sources with the idea that they were collaborators with coalition forces and deserve to be killed, especially since Assange himself later asked the Pentagon for advice on the documents 24 hours before releasing them! Doesn’t asking the pentagon for help count as “collaboration”?

It’s here that there was a bit in the film that I thought was a bit weak as they went on about the dangers of publishing information. The example of how to put anthrax in the water supply was given. Given that the people who are going to do this type of thing and have the resources with which to do it, usually governments, know how to do this stuff already, and given that there was no evidence that anyone was directly harmed by the publication of these leaks the simple fact of Assange’s reluctance to redact the names of his sources is enough in my opinion to have a go at him about. Certainly the film then does a good job of talking about the claims that Wikileaks had “blood on its hands” for revealing things which were usually partially in the public domain anyway like the Collateral Murder video. Wikileaks exposed the fact that civilian casualties in Afghanistan were far higher than claimed, and that the Pakistani intelligence agencies were working with both the US and the Taliban and that there was a secret American assasination squad who had been involved in atrocities. If anyone had blood on their hands it was the US state and the various forces involved in Afghanistan.

Bradley Manning’s information also helped to expose horrific detainee abuse by Iraqi authorities after prisoners of war were handed over to the Iraqis by the US – when supposedly they were not supposed to do so to a country that practices torture. Information released by Wikileaks helped to fuel growing anger against state repression and corruption worldwide.

Nonetheless as the film describes, despite Assange going on TV and claiming there was a harm reduction process, this was not accurate. The harm reduction process was non existent. There were 75 000 documents released by Wikileaks with more than 100 non redacted names in them.

The film says that shying away from a fight from the mainstream media, especially the New York Times and the Guardian who had reached an agreement with Assange to publish many of these leaks, Wikileaks was used as a scapegoat and was viciously attacked in the media to an extent that these mainstream outlets were not even though they were publishing the same stuff and had that agreement with him. But no charges have been laid on Assange by the US government. Until his rape case in 2010 he appeared and felt untouchable.

The last hour or so of the film is devoted to discussing that rape case.

The film had already discussed Julian’s cultivation of a “rock star” persona. He had thought of moving his operations to Sweden because of increased press freedom – and actually Sweden was one of the European countries that was least friendly to the US government. The film describes “peculiarities” associated with the rape case like the fact that it was dropped and then reopened – like that’s never happened before with a crime like rape, where the victim may be reluctant to press charges but then be persuaded to. One of the victims was interviewed and described receiving death and rape threats from Assange’s supporters. In fact the facts are pretty damning both of Assange and of Sweden’s legal system – Assange was actually allowed to leave Sweden while on bail, on the understanding that he’d return! Yeah, nothing could possibly go wrong there!

It is here that the film starts being a bit more critical, although I think there are still some problems with it. It describes how Julian let “private affairs” (ie the rape of the two women) get in the way of the mission of Wikileaks. I don’t think that rape is a “private affair” or that it’s just an argument between two people. It is a crime which can be utterly devastating and if he actually did it then he needs to be punished. I enjoyed the film but I think that describing it in this sort of manner, saying that Julian allowed private matters to get in the way of the organisation, he did he lot more than that, he actually admitted part of the charges and even his defence team said that he’d had sex with someone when asleep – if this is true then he is a rapist and if he really likes to court “groupies” and pick the “fruit” as the film states, then this is not private between him and the two women this concerns all of us.

Around this time his behaviour started to become increasingly erratic. He walked out on an interview when questions were asked about the rape allegations. In January 2011 he blamed his problems on a Jewish conspiracy in a conversation with Ian Hislop (this was not mentioned in the film). He started saying that people were following him. People got fired from the organisation on grounds of “disloyalty, insubordination and destabilisation in times of crisis” charges adapted from the US Espionage Act of 1917! he started demanding people pay him “one meeelion dollars” for interviews. However, the film seems to portray him as having some sort of mental breakdown, perhaps caused by stress. In fact, it may be that he was extremely narcissistic and did not like his authority challenged as suggested by this:

For Julian, this was an opportunity to spout his new favourite slogan: “Do not challenge leadership in times of crisis.”

It was almost funny. Julian Assange, chief revealer of secrets and unshakable military critic on his global peace mission, had adopted the language of the powermongers he claimed to be combating. The extremely curt, soulless language of our documents, with their absurd acronyms and code words, increasingly appealed to him.

For some time, he had begun describing people as “assets”, not unlike a businessman talking about “human resources” or a military man referring to his troops.

The film goes back to Manning. Bradley Manning is also portrayed as having a mental breakdown at the time of his arrest. He attacked one of his supervisors and described having “punched a dyke in the face” although you are left feeling that this was because he was under such extreme stress caused by his environment. The film describes how he would bring CDs in to his work and listen to Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” while processing this horrific information about detainee torture and so on – and of course, sending it to Julian. He had sent them thousands and thousands of documents. By this time I thought that he had talked to far too many people to keep cover – as well as being a natural target for bullying within the US army because of his sexuality and the fact that he was awkward and as some put it always had to be the one who disagreed with army decisions.

Bradley Manning was charged with “helping the enemy”. Was Assange really an “enemy combatant”? His treatment, being put in solitary confinement, being subjected to sleep deprivation and torture, being forced to strip naked and so on – was I believe a warning to others, ie saying “look what we can do, don’t fuck with the US army” which takes “insubordination” very seriously indeed. It does appear from what the film was saying that the US government took on Wikileaks as picking a fight with the NYT and Guardian, which had been publishing that info, would be too difficult. Towards the end of the movie it’s described as a “politically motivated act of vengeance”. I think that it was capital showing what it can do. Don’t fuck with us

The US government stopped people donating to Wikileaks online – you could still pay the KKK, who presumably did not represent such a threat to “freedoms”. The film does do a good job of showing the continuity between policy between the Obama administration and the Bush administration – Obama is and continues to be responsible for war crimes.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the film takes a few pot shots at those V masked twats demanding “free Julian Assange” – now hiding out in his aristo mate Vaughan’s manor house Ellingham Hall in the UK when he had never been arrested or held despite a warrant for arrest being issued by the Swedish authorities. “It was in the family for generations” – oh do fuck off Vaughan and make yer mate answer his charges. People became wary about donating to Wikileaks because they were never sure where the money was going. Was it going to the organisation or was it going to Julian’s sex offender defence fund? He started making people sign “non disclosure agreements” of the kind that he had been railing against from the government – giving the increasing appearance, I thought, of a cult leader.

No charges have ever been filed against Assange from the USA. It is easier to get sent to the USA from the UK, where he is currently holed up, than from Sweden. In any case he seems to have had a considerable amount of freedom – hosting a chat show on Russian state TV. There’s not really much to choose between the overseas imperialism of the Russian state or the American state, and Russia – and indeed Ecuador, has a terrible record on press freedom and human rights. But hey, they’re not “in the west”, so that’s OK, right?

The documentary claims that some of the Wikileaks cables were leaked to a “European dictator” who used it to “target dissidents”. It would have been nice to know who that dictator was and what exactly they used the cables to do because I found that part a bit confusing, and not being able to point to specific examples undermined their argument.

The two women who had accused Assange of rape received increasingly hysterical denunciations, accusations of being CIA spies, weird stalking and people following them, and their names and pictures published on websites with the words “whore” “slut” and so on. Although Julian was not responsible for the contents of these websites one of the victims claims that he was in touch with them and could have stopped it. Julian’s dodgy fundraising dinners complete with port and game shooting were stepped up.

Rafael Correa, one of the guests on Julian’s chat show, offered him asylum in Ecuador. By this time Julian Assange had pissed off almost everyone who ever worked with him, as well as the documentary maker (there’s a Channel 4 documentary which explores this very well). He is said to be one of these people who suffers from “noble cause corruption” – ie because you’re a good guy anything you do is all right because you’re doing it in the name of a noble cause. Personally I think it may being a bit charitable.

When I came out of the cinema I thought that the film had been too soft on assange and because of the “private matter” bollocks it put me off it slightly. However looking at my notes there was a huge amount of quite damning material within the documentary. The main sense I have got from writing this piece and looking at my notes again is that Wikileaks was an excellent idea but unfortunately, given the “intelligent individuals” from the hacker milieu it grew out of and their elitist philosophy which in a sense has influenced Anonymous and other groups leading them to both do stuff like release credit card details online for the lols and claim credit for things like the Arab Spring – the sense that they’re still a small “underground” group who are probably cleverer than other people. This, and the personality of Julian Assange himself, meant that the aim of becoming a “intelligence agency for the people” would fail.

I think that this is a tragedy. I think that we need an organisation like Wikileaks and I can almost understand the people who say that what happened with the rape charges must have been set up or a conspiracy because it is just such a fucking shame that the public face of exposing government secrets became linked to a paranoid, misogynist social climber who was quite happy to hang around with dictators as long as they were not “western” ones and someone moreover who is suspected of rape and refuses to answer the trial. He needs to go to the trial and answer his charges. In the mean time the work of organisations like Wikileaks need to continue and I hope that something similar can come about which has nothing to do with him.

At the start of writing this piece I thought I would give the film 3 and a half out of 5. I think I would actually give it 4. You should see this film. It is not perfect but it is definitely worth a watch for the reasons I have mentioned. And if anyone has any other recommendations please do so.

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3 Responses to “Get out of the fucking embassy Julian”

  1. buddyhell August 15, 2013 at 3:52 pm #

    I also hear Assange’s politics are a bit of a jumble. He’s one of those who claims that he’s neither right nor left, which means his default position is somewhere on the libertarian right.

  2. sometimesantisocialalwaysantifascist August 15, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

    yep – there’s no class politics there and he sees himself as part of a clique of “international subversives”

  3. sometimesantisocialalwaysantifascist February 28, 2014 at 9:56 am #

    Just realised that instead of Bradley Manning it should be Chelsea and instead of “he” it should be “she”. Sorry to anyone offended.

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