First published in ‘A Secret Australia,’ December 2020
Every act of repression offers a choice between retreat or defiance, fear or anger. In the comfortable West for as long as I’ve been alive, that word – repression – was crafted as something distant. Repression was something unleashed in Eastern Europe, or Tiananmen Square, or the back blocks of Nairobi. It was something that advanced and civilised democratic nations stood against, buttressed by the human rights instruments they had drafted after the defeat of fascism in the 1940s. Like most fairytales, this origin story has taken grains of truth and warped them into unrecognisable form. For decoding these myths of the powerful and distilling the grains of truth into something legible, our collective wellbeing depends on publishers, and journalists, and truthtellers.
More than a decade ago, a small media collective unleashed a new publishing model on a world that needed it badly. This new model kicked diametrically against the jaded recycling of institutional deceit that broadcast the United States and its allies marching into the catastrophe of Iraq. Instead of simply amplifying state-sanctioned deception, WikiLeaks inverted the surveillance panopticon and began publishing the carefully indexed source code of empire directly into the public domain. Now anyone with web browser could poke around inside the ugly, banal, cold-blooded raw materials of statecraft, diplomacy and war.
While WikiLeaks stuck to exposes like “The looting of Kenya under President Moi”, “German Intelligence report on corruption in Kosovo” and “China censorship keywords, policies & blacklists for Baidu search”, it was allowed to exist, albeit at the margins of mainstream western consciousness. But even as those early releases were proving up the strength of the model, they began tracking closer to the heart of the military-industrial complex that US President Eisenhower had warned about as long ago as 1961. Not long before the WikiLeaks team published NATO documents on the Afghanistan narrative, and the “RAND study on Intelligence Ops & Metrics in Iraq and Afghanistan,” a 2008 US Army Counterintelligence Centre report was noting that “…several foreign countries including China, Israel, North Korea, Russia, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe have denounced or blocked access to the WikiLeaks.org website.” For these repressive regimes, the actions of WikiLeaks in short-circuiting the gap between official deception and unfiltered truth was simply intolerable: the truth had to be made to disappear.
The counterintelligence report is prescient in its assumption that “…it must be presumed that Wikileaks.org has or will receive sensitive or classified DoD [Department of Defence] documents in the future,” and also that even the tightest procedures for protecting classified information “will not deter insiders from following what they believe is their obligation to expose alleged wrongdoing within DoD through inappropriate venues.”
The only reason we know this report exists is because someone leaked it, to WikiLeaks.
By 2008, “alleged wrongdoing” within DoD and the United States political class had killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people across Iraq and Afghanistan and plunged the region into a cycle of violent instability from which it is yet to recover. And so, as predicted, courageous insiders followed their obligation to expose wrongdoing. In April 2010, WikiLeaks exposed the casual horror of daily life in Iraq with the gunship footage that became known as Collateral Murder. And then, one after another, the releases that would become household names and put Julian Assange on the cover of Time Magazine: the war logs for Afghanistan and Iraq, and then the State Department Cables.
Collectively, these publications were enough to win Wikileaks the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism in 2011 here in Australia, and enormous acclaim around the world. Amplified by partnerships with the Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde and major mastheads in every timezone, suddenly the fairytale looked suspect. It was an uncompromising attempt to interpose the truth itself back into the heart of public debate.
So seismic were these publications that it’s easy to overlook the enormous gravity of the ones that came later. The global surveillance industry laid bare in the Spy Files of 2011, the only public drafts of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement in 2013, the tools and techniques of CIA cyber warfare in the ‘Vault 7’ leaks of 2017. This is what publishing is about. This is what journalism is for.
The vast fury within the US military industrial complex has a long half-life; and so now revenge is being served cold. The Army Counterintelligence report suggested smashing the trust networks at the centre of gravity of the WikiLeaks project through “identification, prosecution, termination of employment, and exposure of persons leaking the information,” in order to “damage and potentially destroy this center of gravity and deter others from taking similar actions.” And so Chelsea Manning is tried and jailed, released and jailed again, a defiant and courageous survivor of bruising institutional hostility. She joins Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, William Binney, Reality Winner and many others in the long roll-call of truth-tellers silenced and imprisoned for crimes of disclosure. Here in Australia we have our own dismal roster of individuals vaulted into an unwanted form of dark celebrity for blowing the whistle on the crimes of the powerful: Bernard Collaery and Witness K, Richard Boyle, David William McBride, Witness J. One in particular is on my mind today, as I’m watching Boris Johnson and his carnival of clowns fatally mismanage the covid-19 pandemic. Nine timezones from where I’m sitting, an Australian publisher and friend, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange sits alone and in failing health in a prison cell at HMP Belmarsh. The long and tortured legal process that led us to here has degenerated into an unworkable shit-show. In this mockery of due process, endless delay is the point: our friend is already serving jail time for charges under US espionage law that may never even be heard in an open court. The people who put him here couldn’t care less if the extradition hearings are delayed by a year and then take another five years to work through appeals courts, because every day this sadistic process drags out is another day Julian spends without sunlight, friends, family and freedom. And that’s the whole point.
In May 2020, an unpredecented alliance of more than a hundred Australian serving and former politicians, writers and publishers, human rights advocates and legal professionals wrote to Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne demanding a long-overdue intercession. Political allegiances, philosophical differences, all set aside, unified in our demand for an end to the official silence. Here they are now: our very own Australian Government, miserably complicit in the illegal invasion of Iraq and war crimes in Afghanistan, obediently playing the role of junior saboteur from cluster weapon negotiations to derailed climate conferences. At a moment when our great and powerful ally is using the British court system to crush the life out of an Australian truth-teller, we need action.
Nothing. Not even the courtesy of a dismissive reply. Just silence.
And so the WikiLeaks publications have taught us two things about how power works in the increasingly uncomfortable West. There is the raw material itself; a meticulously indexed and utterly damning archive of great power malevolence and manipulation. And then there is the reaction: how our own Government has dealt with an inconvenient publisher. It looks different to how they do it in Israel, North Korea, and Russia, but the outcome is the same. They have sought to destroy the messenger; not just as punishment, but as a warning to all the other messengers. In Julian Assange we are being invited to see ourselves, wasting away in a prison cell until the end of time, accused of short-circuiting the gap between official deception and unfiltered truth. The message is crystal clear: if they can do it to him, they’d do it to us too. There’s a word for that. Anywhere else in the world, we’d call it repression.
Repression has a singular purpose: to provoke fear and retreat. But every authoritarian since the beginning of time has known that repression has a habit of provoking anger and defiance instead. The choice is entirely on us. Fear is a natural reaction when we realise our governments will destroy us without hesitation if it serves their interest. Feeling that, understanding it in the same way that incarcerated refugees understand it, that First Nations people understand it, is what can bring us to that moment of defiance and anger. Know then, that none of us are alone in this, that the anger is shared, and widespread, and growing. Because the unfiltered truth is simply intolerable, they are seeking to make it disappear, and they are failing miserably at it. Completing the project that WikiLeaks began means taking that anger and focusing it into something with political effect: that’s the work that’s before us now.
Free Julian Assange.