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With Bradley Manning convicted, what now for Julian Assange?

Bradley Manning’s conviction for espionage marks the closing stages in the US Army private’s personal battle. Yet for Julian Assange, founder of whistleblower website WikiLeaks and Australian Senate candidate…

The natural conclusion from the conviction of Bradley Manning is that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is now firmly in the sights of US prosecutors. AAP/UPI Media

Bradley Manning’s conviction for espionage marks the closing stages in the US Army private’s personal battle. Yet for Julian Assange, founder of whistleblower website WikiLeaks and Australian Senate candidate, Manning is but a casualty in a much grander mission.

WikiLeaks seeks to end the power of governments to judge when national security decisions should be closed to public scrutiny. Yet Assange’s vision for upholding “democratic freedoms”, if pursued to its logical conclusion, will itself threaten those very principles.

Manning was acquitted of more serious and contentious charges of aiding the enemy, but convicted on 20 further counts, including espionage. These carry a maximum sentence of 136 years, although that figure will likely be far less. The conduct of the trial has an immediate significance for Assange in what it signifies about his own fate, but it is more important in what it reveals for the future of the US government’s ability to control transparency in national security.

The factual basis for Manning’s conviction strengthens the case for indicting Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act. The US government must show that he gathered, transmitted or received classified defence information, and that he did so with the intent or reason to believe that it could potentially damage national security. The prosecutor reinforced these elements by repeatedly suggesting that Assange coached Manning to provide leaked documents for the purpose of hampering US national defence.

The basis for prosecution had already been made clear in a 2010 State Department letter warning that publishing leaked documents risked lives, US military operations and foreign relations. This makes it harder for Assange to deny the requisite element of intent. Assange will evade extradition for as long as he remains in diplomatic limbo in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid sexual assault charges in Sweden. But he can be confident that there is an arguable legal case and strong political will to make him accountable for his actions in a US court.

The government’s determination behind these prosecutions, and that of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, raises the more fundamental question of what principles should guide the treatment of these men under US law. US president Barack Obama is repeatedly criticised by Assange and others for undertaking a “war on whistleblowers”, with strong and continuing civil society campaigns to free Manning. This is fundamentally a political question about what policy best promotes robust democratic government.

Assange clearly believes his own activism promotes the interests of democracy and political freedom. To this end he launched his Australian political party to achieve “accountability” rather than to govern: to serve as “an insurance against the election”. A recent Lowy Institute poll suggests he may have reason for optimism, with 58% of Australians approving of WikiLeaks. Yet Assange’s logic lays bare the threat posed to democracy when individuals usurp the prerogative of elected governments to determine both political processes and matters of national security.

The danger in the actions of Assange, Manning and Snowden is that they are each operating from within institutions established in a democratic society. However, from there, they have proceeded to make unilateral decisions about the most fundamental matters of government, without any of the obligation and democratic control that comes with legitimate political authority.

There is a real debate to be had about the proper balance between freedom of information and classified government operations. Former assistant secretary of state Philip Crowley, who resigned over his criticism of inhumane conditions of Manning’s imprisonment, nevertheless emphasised that: “finding the right balance among security, secrecy, transparency and privacy remains a work in progress".

But the assumption underlying Assange’s mission is that hard balancing acts can be avoided, and instead national governments should be stripped of the capacity to make judgements about when it is necessary to engage in covert acts in the public interest. The reality is that for citizens to enjoy the umbrella of an effective national security system the government must necessarily take some actions outside of direct public scrutiny.

The US government may have struck the wrong balance in domestic surveillance programs revealed by Snowden, but it was clear that the electorate demanded a greater sense of security in the decade following the September 11 attacks. Political freedoms necessarily exist within a security framework forged by difficult decisions about where the power of the state will most effectively empower individuals.

The answer for citizens wanting to debate that balance is to fully engage in the democratic process, not only when that involves popular campaigns to support martyrs to high ideals, but continually partaking in the hard and sometimes ugly decisions about proper limits of free expression. Assange’s statement on the Manning verdict asserted that the leaking of documents created no victim other than “the US government’s wounded pride”. But the real victim may very well become freedoms and security enjoyed by the many.

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53 Comments sorted by

    1. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to John Phillip

      I won't reacnt John. However, I'll point out that the act of 'decommunisation' in Poland and East-Germany took the form of barring from public employment all those people who had ratted their neighbours, relatives and workmates to the state secret police after they were given the opportunity to out themselves as informants and traitors.

      There may come a time when Australian citizens will take a very gimlet eyed view indeed of their fellow citizens who failed in their responsibility to fellow Australian citizens.

      BTW: take a look at this review of 'The Act of Killing' for another example of US criminality deriving from the Indonesian slaughter of its social democratic left in the 1960's:

      http://www.democracynow.org/2013/7/19/the_act_of_killing_new_film

      These are the sorts of things that the author thinks need hiding from citizens.

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    1. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      The court case does nothing of the sort, Michael. It merely shows that Manning is guilty. Julian needs to come out of his hidey hole and go to Sweden - a country in which he may well have committed a crime. To say that he is hiding because of a 'fear' of extradition to the US is convient way of avoiding responsibility for his decietful (and potentially criminal) actions. There is still no evidence that US wants him, or indeed is even capable of chargimng him with anything inregards to the Manning case. - Assange is an Australian citizen who has not committed a crime on US soil. He is in a VERY different position to Manning and Snowden. Both of them are US citizens who knowingly committed crimes in their home country.

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    2. ERIC KELLY

      retired

      In reply to John Phillip

      David Hicks was also an Australian citizen who had committed no crime on US soil.

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  1. Rene Oldenburger

    Haven't got one

    Not really surprised that the beacon of "freedom, justice and democracy" convicts people of espionage the moment it becomes clear what their government is really doing behind everyone's back.

    National security, an excuse for murder, torture, starting wars based on lies. It's what we expect from this "beacon"

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  2. John Crest

    logged in via email @live.com.au

    What now? More cowardice in the Ecuadorian embassy I suspect.

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    1. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to John Phillip

      He can't possibly be guilty of rape: he published American secrets!

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    2. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to John Phillip

      Clearly, only the guilty would willingly face justice.

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    3. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to John Crest

      All jokes aside, I dont know if Assange is guilty of a crime - just as we dont know if anyone being tried is guilty until a verdict is handed down. What Assange has done is subverted the legal processes of the UK and Sweden. He is then using this red herring (fear of US extradition/ death penalty) to maintain his 'credibility' and enhance his 'status' as the victim. I wonder how the two women in Sweden, in fact all victims of sexual abuse, feel about his strategy.

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    4. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to John Phillip

      Not a joke - it still worries me that John Philip doesn't seem to know what has happened in this case.

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    5. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Michael, it is obvious to all and sundry what has happened in this case. Man accused of crime - man detained - man fight extradition- man lose extradition - man run away and hide in embassy - man come up with story that he is scared of persecution = man abuses power and position to avoid responsibility. Let go of your fanboy fantasies about Julian, Michael and perhaps you'll see him for what he is.

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    6. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Michael, the following (wiki) account of the Norse legend of the troll might help:

      "Numerous tales about trolls are recorded, in which they are frequently described as being extremely old, very strong, but slow and dim-witted, and are at times described as man-eaters and as turning to stone upon contact with sunlight. However, trolls are also attested as looking much the same as human beings, without any particularly hideous appearance about them, but where they differ is in that they live far away from human habitation, and, unlike the rå and näck—who are attested as "solitary beings", trolls generally have "some form of social organization". Where they differ, Lindow adds, is that they are not Christian, and those that encounter them do not know them. Therefore trolls were in the end dangerous, regardless of how well they may get along with Christian society, and trolls display a habit of bergtagning ('kidnapping'; literally "mountain-taking") and overrunning a farm or estate."

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    7. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to John Phillip

      I would be happy to disagree with you on values.

      But your response just proves to me that you have no interest in facts - you are just here to disrupt by repeating the same old spin we have heard before.

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    8. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to John Phillip

      Not true - I'm informed about the view of BOTH sides.

      In a debate on any of the issues I post about here I could argue for the other side as I've heard all their arguments.

      For me the facts are important - not something to be ignored when they don't support your case.

      What's more, I've even been known to change my mind when the other side provides new facts and a rational argument.

      What saddens me most about the right is that most of their posts are just regurgitating spin and lies. Is there anyone of the right who can start a real debate?

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    9. Christopher Tyack

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Phillip

      Well they probably agree with him because they tried to withdraw the complaints years ago. They were revived only at the insistence of the Swedish prosecutor, presumably after political pressure was applied.

      Let's remember that Assange has not been charged. He is wanted in Sweden for questioning.

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    10. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Christopher Tyack

      Chris, you've made a lot of assumptions in your argument . For it to be a valid position, you have to provide evidence that "political pressure was applied". We've also got to remember that Assange exhausted his legal avenues against his extradition. He has been legally extradited. He is currently hiding from that fact.

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  3. Gracian Marando

    logged in via LinkedIn

    This is an outlandish article at best.
    The absurd assertion that the exposing of government crimes is tantamount to undermining the will of the people and as a continuation to that, democracy, is preposterous.
    Crimes were committed, this issue is being swept under the rug, however is the crux of the whole case.
    If the evidence to support the guilt of these crimes is classified information, then based on the author's rationale, any crime and extra judicial actions by a government will forever…

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    1. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to John Phillip

      Troll poop:

      "The US counter-intelligence official who led the Pentagon's review into the fallout from the WikiLeaks disclosures of state secrets told the Bradley Manning sentencing hearing on Wednesday that no instances were ever found of any individual killed by enemy forces as a result of having been named in the releases.

      Brigadier general Robert Carr, a senior counter-intelligence officer who headed the Information Review Task Force that investigated the impact of WikiLeaks disclosures on behalf of the Defense Department, told a court at Fort Meade, Maryland, that they had uncovered no specific examples of anyone who had lost his or her life in reprisals that followed the publication of the disclosures on the internet. "I don't have a specific example," he said."

      http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/31/bradley-manning-sentencing-hearing-pentagon

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    2. Gracian Marando

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to John Phillip

      Manning is merely the current case in point of the debate surrounding whistle blowers. The nature of the documents he released are relevant only so far as what they revealed. The court has the chance to set a precedent for example as to whether a reasonable person in the position of Manning is to believe that said documents were in fact evidence of criminal activity on behalf of the democratically elected government.

      Manning is merely a platform for topic of debate and a determination by the…

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    3. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Gracian Marando

      That some classified information should not be released is agreed by most.

      So, for example, if a journalist found out that Australian Special Forces were about to rescue a hostage, and surprise is essential, I think almost everyone would agree that this information should be withheld.

      But Manning and Snowdon are not releasing this type of information. So perhaps we should discuss the appropriateness or otherwise or releasing what these people did release.

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    4. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Gracian Marando

      Yes, Gracian, I do agree that in certain circumstances classified info should be released. That is what the various FOI acts (attempt) to achieve. What I object to is the theft and release of documents by someone in Manning's position. As the author points out, who is he to decide what should be released? What steps did he take to ensure that his indiscriminate theft and release of these documents did not cause direct (or indirect) harm to individuals - I am not talking about ego or image damage but real injury, suffering and death. We do need to have a serious look at FOI legislation AND the practices surrounding it. It SHOULD be an effective mechanism by which sensitive information can be accessed.

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    5. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to John Phillip

      John, I'm interested in your view of a situation where a family connection of, for example, Mamdouh Habib (back then) discovers (in his work station) classified documents that implicate US military figures in the man's illegal and secret rendition and other highly dubious actions by that government. The chain of evidence is entirely contained in the material and indicates completely illegal activity. Would you recommend an FOI application? Would you recommend going to your local member of parliament? Or would you shut up and let it happen for fear of the consequences? Just how much BigBrother should informed and engaged citizens tolerate in a world where some people have too much secret power? Since Wikileaks we can't deny any longer that governments do bad stuff that is completely unacceptable.

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  4. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    If Governments want to have secrets, then the onus is on them to take reasonable steps to protect these secrets.
    Allowing an entire database to be downloaded by a simple wget script suggests the US government had not take the very basic steps needed to secure those "secrets". In any normal commercial company that just isn't possible - without privileges.
    Having a network security so unmonitored that someone could download entire databases without being observed suggests one of two things.
    1. The US military network security is amazingly lax
    2. US military intelligence were watching what Bradley Manning was doing the entire time

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      "US military intelligence were watching what Bradley Manning was doing the entire time"

      Maybe, and the accusation of rape being carried out by Julian Assange has some very suspicious aspects to it.

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    2. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      I didn't think that there was a rape allegation made against Assange by either of the women.

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  5. Christopher Tyack

    logged in via Facebook

    Some years ago I was at a dinner with a US diplomat, among others. I asked her whether she agreed with the policies she had to defend, and she said "I cant say I always agree 110%, but nevertheless I have faith in the democratic process."

    I found it amazing to hear an educated woman speak like this; I thought everyone realised democracy died decades ago (probably with old style town hall meetings) and that, if anything, it is now a euphemism for free-market capitalism. Is it not quite clear that corporate and mass media interests co-opted "democracy" years ago? Well not, it seems, to many North Americans.

    So why should we be surprised to hear that our "democratic society" needs a state security apparatus unprecedented in human history? I mean, why not, when democracy is now a word with no content whatsoever?

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    1. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Christopher Tyack

      When the US invaded Iraq most Americans supported this.

      So the USA is a democracy.

      When the US invaded Iraq most Americans believed that Saddam had some direct involvement in 9/11.

      Me thinks this shows that the USA is no longer a true democracy.

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    2. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      :) Methinks the US was never a true democracy since its founding fathers feared the "educated rabble" enough to only allowing some access (appearance of democracy) through carefully adjusted amendments to the constitution.
      I therefore also question the US government's right to lecture others about democracy. What they do have is an expertise in plutocracy, however, which allows for plenty of protective values that are not necessarily in line with democratic values.

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    3. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Christopher Tyack

      Christopher, I think her response simply recognises the fact that we have to accept that policy may not necessarily align with our personal views.
      Your critique of democracy has some merit, although I personally think capitalism's Achilles heel is the rise of the multinational monopolistic corporation, rather than the original ideology of reward for individual effort/performance. Could you name an alternative form of government or a nation that currently has a system that you would prefer to see in operation in the US and, I presume here?

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  6. Billy Field

    logged in via Facebook

    Anyone ought see "our" Govts (& vested interests) have been setting up the infrastructure for "total control" & "A police state" akin to Nazis & old Soviet States etc and they are saying "trust us".... Isn't thats what all tyrants say?

    Seems VERY clear Assange, Manning & Snowdon et al are not about HARMING US at all...they are about REASONABLE "accountability" for VERY bad & stupid, and even the worst criminal things & profiteers ..... WAKE UP ..as such they are targeted by vested interests…

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