This week, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released a report which found that Julian Assange, one-time leader of Wikileaks and general enemy of government secrecy, has been unlawfully detained in the Ecuadorian embassy for the past three and a half years or so. The claim, along with a further statement that he should actually receive compensation for the time in question, has generated controversy and caused visible strife within the working group itself — mostly because it’s so patently ridiculous. Assange remains in the embassy purely by choice, to avoid arrest on UK soil. Let’s go through this issue carefully, because it’s a tough one. The first thing to remember is this: this really is not about surveillance, or government control over anything.
In 2010, Julian Assange was running Wikileaks with wild abandon. He was releasing classified information with very little redaction, much to the chagrin and eventually open protest of fellow Wikileaks employees and those members of the press he had selected as collaborators. His vision of total government transparency set him dramatically at odds with the establishment, both for the reasons he imagined (greed, and fear of being eaten by the mob) and those he didn’t (genuine concerns about national security and the personal safety of operatives around the world). He was on the cover of magazines, speaking on the biggest television shows, and generally being the biggest civilian side-thorn the security establishment had ever known.
And he was accused of sexual assault.
I’ll admit it: I reacted as reflexively as anybody during those early days, when the air was on fire with the possibility that any moment could see a global conspiracy unveiled, or at least major government crime. The plot twist just seemed too convenient to be believed, and even the activist groups that usually make rape their central issue were skeptical; if only through omission and lack of investigation, the whole world collectively seemed to assume that Assange’s accusers were paid operatives of the US government. As time went on, however, this admittedly common-sense view of the situation came under fire from the facts.
Firstly, if the two women whose separate grievances have so dogged Assange were indeed government agents, then these agencies were displaying far better foresight than they ever have in the past. They would have had to get to two young women who we know, despite their anonymity, were passionately involved in the Wikileaks movement, and convince them both to essentially ruin their lives to support a government that is not their own, and which they actively oppose. These young agents were planted in Sweden, which doesn’t have the most helpful legal culture in the world, and told to fabricate odd and frankly awkward stories about mid-coital sexual discussions and broken condoms, rather than about more sensational violent assaults. This narrative seems no less far-fetched than the alternative, which is that everything is exactly as it seems.
The charges initially related to Assange’s continuing refusal to submit to DNA and STD tests — that’s how this all started. He doesn’t deny the encounters took place, but has denied that he ought to have to abide by the law that requires him to submit a sample as evidence. This is a man who is known to have serially impregnated women without, it would seem, any intention of sticking around to help deal with the resulting stresses. Documentarian Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets spends some time going over Assange’s love-em-and-leave-em history, openly considering whether he has some sort of pathological fatherhood complex. Pretty rough stuff — but perhaps not unwarranted, given his odd behavior. One of the accusers told the police she believed he had broken the condom intentionally.
Assange has decried the arrest warrant, unintentionally accessing the Men’s Rights movement by attacking the use of the sexual assault label. That may or may not be the right charge for what he did, but the fact is he refused to take the tests when asked informally by his accusers, prior to their going to the cops. These women were initially trying only to force him to take the tests; an arrest warrant was only issued after it was determined that there was no legal way to force him to without laying a criminal charge. Even if the actual charge of sexual assault is the wrong one, he was unquestionably involved in the situations these women describe.
Assange was arrested in the UK and eventually bailed out, and more than a year later the UK Supreme Court ruled that Assange should be extradited to Sweden to face the accusations. This is when the Wikileaks founder took unexpected refuge in London’s Ecuadorian embassy, and he’s been holed up there ever since. If he leaves, UK authorities will arrest him and extradite him to Sweden where — he claims — he will shortly be surrendered to the United States for a secret trial over the release of state secrets.
You may have noticed that I don’t like Julian Assange. Unlike Edward Snowden, who was measured and careful in what he leaked to the public, who took care to distinguish between genuine and superficial public benefit, who actually will be disappeared into a dark court if captured by the US, Assange is a self-aggrandizing megalomaniac with no regard for the delicacy of the issues he’s addressing. Assange was callous at the prospect of his leaks endangering US-allied Afghans left in the country after American troop withdrawals. He was dismissive of the possibility that his largely unfiltered releases of diplomatic cables could set back diplomatic relations and peace processes. He was, in short, exactly the kind of quasi-anarchist boogeyman the security establishment would have you believe every leaker and whistleblower to be.
I don’t know whether he deserves to go to jail for these ethical faults, when weighted against the genuine public service he and Wikileaks have performed. I don’t know whether he deserves to go to jail for anything that did or did not happen in the bedrooms of Swedish activists. But I do know that he is not a victim for his choice, which long predates his voluntary stay in the Ecuadorian embassy, to avoid the personal and legal pleas these women have been sending him.
Listen to his responses when the charges are raised — they’re draped in a thin veil of conspiracy theory in the form of general NSA-phobia, but he then quickly pivots to the inherent idiocy of the charges. It’s not that the charges are trumped up, but that he simply feels he ought not to have to answer them, regardless of whether they’re motivated by government corruption, corporate greed, or genuine hurt and a wish for justice and validation. He shouldn’t be convicted on his character alone, but he’s the one who has made it impossible to convict him on the basis of anything else.
At the end of the day, that’s the real reason this claim that he’s being oppressed is so laughable. The UK government said that the finding is “patently ridiculous” while legal scholars around the world have expressed mostly puzzlement. They shouldn’t be too surprised though, since this UN working group has a history of getting involved in extremely complex situations, like the house arrest of former Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi and Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi. Of the five voting members of the panel, only three supported Assange — one abstained, and one wrote a strong dissent. This dissent is being widely held up as the voice of reason, which says that the decision is so legally flawed as to call the whole premise of the Working Group into question.
Julian Assange and the organization he created are related to all kinds of security issues, from rampant government surveillance to enhanced interrogation to boring old political corruption. That works in Assange’s favor, as he can rely on vague implications that the nefarious global security establishment is to blame for his personal failings, and for his seeming inability to take even mild responsibility for them. This is wrong. Nobody is to blame for Julian Assange’s current situation but Julian Assange.
I don’t know if Assange will be extradited to the US from Sweden, but if he does end up in the US, that fact alone won’t invalidate the accusations against him, nor will it make his unthinking dismissal of those allegations any less self-serving and cowardly. Can accusations of sexual assault be used to bully men into silence, and smear their reputations? Of course. Would the security world use such accusations to achieve their own ends? Oh, of course. But Julian Assange is no such hero to the anti-surveillance movement, nor the information freedom movement. Rather, he’s a man with a long history of fleeing his personal, ethical, and legal obligations.
Assange simply is not the paragon we all wanted him to be. He does not deserve our support, unquestioning or otherwise. There are plenty of heroes in this war — so let’s focus on them, and leave this self-made martyr to rot in the prison he built with his own hands, and words, and deeds.
This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.