I have followed the Assange case with an unease I could not put a name to. Here was someone adopting the pose of the persecuted whistle-blower, yet I found it hard to accept him as such – mainly because of his dubious supporters who include people like Vladimir Putin. But you cannot escape him; the case dazzles you and goes on and on. It seems to fit perfectly to the theme of Ferdinand von Schirach’s confusion essay published this summer entitled „Can you still understand it all?“
Yet even such an attitude has only a limited shelf-life if you want to remain intellectually and journalistically honest. You must at least do your best to understand. So I began to look into the case – although I realized after a while that even this decision is problematic. After all, what is the case in the Assange case?
Like a dream narrative
His organized leaking of secrets? His long history as a hacker? Everything is outshone by the images of the face – always ambiguous and therefore photogenic – and the white hair. Assange exhibits himself; he makes „being Assange“, his story and his masculinity, the subject of his book. Yet his book – Julian Assange. The Unauthorized Autobiography – again has that same character of being unresolved and screwed-up that is typical of the case: although he wrote it himself, he subsequently did not authorize it – so the status of this text remains forever unclear. It is an introspective text that is always telling the readers a little more than they really want to know.
Some passages seem like a dream narrative; for example the chapter on the family’s flight from a step-father who belonged to a Manson-like sect. They fled across the Australian outback in an old car containing all their belongings. The brother in the back with his pet cockerel; next to him Assange with his pets: a colony of bees. Whenever they took a break the animals were allowed out for some exercise; the bees would attack the cockerel with the Assange brothers in hot pursuit. Finally, the book describes a showdown; not until he has a confrontation with his mother’s second husband, a sinister man, does Assange experience himself as an adult, taking pleasure in his strength. At least the other man withdraws.
Nothing is left to the imagination
It reads like a dream. But is the source of Assange’s continuing unsettledness to be found in this Australian hippie and hacker youth? Or perhaps in Sweden after all? If you would like to read some documents on the case at issue in Sweden, the details are easy to find on the net. All the witnesses’ testimonies are available there, including Assange’s. His second reply already questions whether the transcript that is being made really will be confidential: he was sure it would be in the Expressen (Sweden’s widest-circulation daily newspaper) the next day. They assured him that the document was confidential, that only those present in the room would receive it. And the next day it was in the Expressen.
Some might gleefully note here that he of all people – the person who became famous by leaking secrets – is uneasily asking about confidentiality. But there is a difference between documents that record the actions of diplomats and governments and these transcripts answering questions about a person’s intimate, personal life. Nothing is left to the imagination. After reading it you could re-enact what happened using Playmobil figures; that’s how detailed the description is.
A Foucault’s nightmare
That is what is so odd about these papers: so many details leading to no clear conclusion, ultimately saying very little. After evaluating the transcripts, the responsible public prosecutor’s office did not bring charges for weeks. Only after Assange had left the country was he summonsed for questioning a second time, and this summons is the basis of the international arrest warrant. After a second formal questioning, the public prosecutor’s office can bring charges, and of course it is expected to do so – if it can get hold of Assange. But does the case justify all the drama?
Julian Assange’s short Swedish summer of 2010 has become one of the best-documented periods in human history. For page after page, the female witnesses describe their brief acquaintance with him; we read of walks along the shore, dogs being stroked, Canada geese. A procured laptop cable plays a role, as does a crispbread sandwich. We also read of disappointments, that Assange was more interested in his laptop than in his lady hosts and friends; one morning he apparently demands some breakfast in a harsh tone of voice. And there are accounts of sex – pages of it, a Foucault’s nightmare.
Is Assange the victim of a conspiracy?
It is like a reversible drawing: sometimes you see overtrustful women inviting a stranger into their apartment, sometimes a manipulative, molesting celebrity treating his fans like groupies. But perhaps this is completely the wrong question. There is material here for a big argument between the people concerned, perhaps also for a case at the Stockholm District Court with one person’s word pitched against another’s. But it is not the stuff of which global scandals are made, scandals occupying the time of the top echelons of four countries’ diplomatic services – plus all the media worldwide. Something has got out of sync here, and this is preventing us from getting a clear view of things.
In the film Fair Game about the illegal unmasking of CIA operative Valerie Plame by the Bush administration, which came out in 2010, there is a scene that suddenly came to mind while I was studying the Swedish case. Plame’s husband, the Bush critic Joe Wilson, played by Sean Penn, asks a student in the classroom: „How many of you know my wife’s name?“ They all raise their hands. „Who knows anything about Niger and yellowcake?“ Only a few hands go up. In an article for the New York Times, Wilson had refuted allegations made by the White House that Iraq had tried to get hold of some of this yellowcake (material for making nuclear fuel) in Niger. Whereupon the government had tried to discredit Wilson by saying his wife was, after all, a CIA agent. The media had pounced on the unmasked agent, and the photograph of Plame and Wilson eclipsed the real scandal – the lies put out by the White House. Today we should ask: who knows Julian Assange and can say what he is accused of? And then: what video did he became famous with? Who and what does it show? The more visible Assange becomes with his speeches from the balcony, the dimmer becomes the memory of what made Wikileaks so explosive. The organization has been de facto paralyzed ever since. They can no longer protect their sources; in fact they can hardly protect themselves. Is Assange is the victim of a conspiracy? There is no indication of any. And Assange was careless, too. The lord of all these secret data, the hacker who challenges the superpowers, strolls into the home of strangers, sleeps the sleep of the just there with all his phones and laptops, hardly knowing who he is dealing with.
The phenomenon of the revenant
In his book, Assange describes one of the Swedish women as slightly neurotic, the other as naive and very clinging – perhaps even in love. On the other side of the equation, the British and Swedish are going berserk: the degree of repression is disproportionate. And yet all this is not the essence of this case; this is not the reason why it is an appropriate symbol of our time. The decisive issue is that it does not go away; it is suspended in a legal limbo. There is no telling when Assange will be able to leave this embassy, his cell – which he prefers to the threat of an American twilight zone. This twilight zone really exists: to this day, no lawsuit have been filed against his imprisoned alleged informant Bradley Manning – or against the prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. There is a whole archipelago of prisoners and suspects who are being deprived of the right to public criminal proceedings.
Cases in limbo, scandals without resolution and crimes without punishment, permanent banishment to a dubious twilight zone: this is what the Assange case has in common with the unsettling, most terrible acts of our time. It is also what makes it so nightmarishly disturbing. It is the phenomenon of the revenant (one who returns after a lengthy absence or after death).
Our selective awareness
From our childhood we have internalized the principle of the rule of law and trust that guilt will be followed by punishment, that injustice will be prosecuted and innocence protected. This is a key part of our psychological immune system, so much so that we often rely on the process alone, i.e. we believe that an indictment is enough to suggest guilt: „Where there’s smoke ...“. Our minds work similarly in the opposite direction: if no punishment is imposed, it will not have been a crime.
We really should take another look at the video that made Wikileaks and Assange famous, a film taken from the cockpit of a combat helicopter. The pilot believes that the Reuters camera team are insurgents, that the camera is a weapon and the tripod a grenade launcher. The pilot fires, but several people seek cover. The helicopter flies around the block and fires again until they are all dead. That was approximately during that phase of the Iraq war in which President Bush asked his deputy national security adviser what people’s daily lives were like in Iraq. She replied: „It’s hell, Mr President.“ To this day no one has been held accountable for these deaths. No charges, and no legal action against those who sent them there.
On Sunday 2 September Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote a highly acclaimed article in the Observer to explain his late withdrawal from a panel discussion in which Tony Blair was also to participate. And he gets to the heart of our selective awareness when he states that legal proceedings should be initiated at the International Court of Justice at The Hague to examine the unjustified, illegal war of aggression against Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, as well as American and British soldiers, have been killed, wounded or maimed; there has been enormous destruction and displacement – yet the rules and procedures that have been developed in the course of painful historical processes to govern such actions were ignored.
A symptom of our guilty conscience
We know from interviews with the key players at the time that the decision to invade Iraq was taken first, and the search for reasons began later. According to Wolfowitz, the decision to highlight the danger of weapons of mass destruction was taken to mobilize greater support; but the decision had already been taken by that time. All this can be viewed for free on the net in an excellent compilation called Leading to War, which also reminds us of things we have forgotten.
Without these lies there would have been no torture in Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo, no videos or documents of war crimes, no betrayal of secrets, no Wikileaks and no Assange. This is the original crime. The drama surrounding Assange is a symptom of our guilty conscience, like a recurring nightmare. Assange points to Bradley Manning, who points to Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney and Blair. They must be charged in a court of law, all of them.