The arrest of Julian Assange reveals political complexities

All of this raises the vexing question: Is Assange a hero or a villain?

Shane Miller Montreal QC

On Thursday morning, the London Metropolitan Police Service arrested and removed WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, from the Ecuadorian Embassy. Assange had been residing in the embassy since 2012 when the Ecuadorian government granted him political asylum after he fled to Britain from Sweden to evade arrest for rape allegations. The arrest was made because of Assange’s breaching of bail conditions in 2012 and a US extradition request.

Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno opened up the opportunity to arrest him by recently withdrawing Assange’s asylum status, citing “discourteous and aggressive behaviour.” More specifically, Assange was said to have repeatedly “ violated international conventions and protocol of coexistence.” The decision is also a culmination of tensions that have festered between Assange and the Ecuadorian government over the past few years.

It’s a long time coming for the British and American governments. The London Metropolitan Police have been open about their intention to arrest Assange if he ever left the embassy. Those in Washington have sought his arrest due to his role in helping former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning “crack a password” on Department of Defense computers to download classified records, which were then sent to and released by WikiLeaks.

A naturally divisive figure, Assange’s arrest has been scorned and celebrated. Some have seen it as unjust and an inexcusable clampdown on freedom of speech and the press. Others perceive it as punishment for being a manipulative and scheming malefactor who seeks to undermine the position and security of the United States every chance he gets.

What’s interesting is that those on both sides of the political spectrum have reasons to make Assange the object of their adulation and hatred.

Two acts have solidified his notoriety. Helping Chelsea Manning with the 2010 leaks made him a messiah of the anti-war movement since he was the source of revelations about possible US war crimes in the Middle East. While WikiLeaks’ role in breaking the scandals that ultimately crushed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign made him a paladin for the Right, particularly among the Trumpian sect.

All of this raises the vexing question: Is Assange a hero or a villain?

Well, it depends on how you look at it. On the one hand, you have a brave man whose vocation is to create more government transparency through his journalism. Anyone of a reasonable mind could say that it is a noble enterprise.

On the other, you have a vindictive ideologue concealing their noxious anti-Western agenda through homiletic appeals to truth and freedom.

Given the information available, with the caveat that we’ll have to wait and see what else is found and confirmed in a fair trial, I’m very much inclined to believe the latter is truer of Julian Assange.

Perhaps I’d be more willing to support him if what he did denoted an impartial interest in investigating the execrable behaviours of all governments. Unfortunately, it does not.

When he came onto the scene, he promised that he’d hold “highly oppressive regimes” like Russia and China to account. He has reneged upon this promise as he’s done more to strengthen Russia’s position against the United States and the West than anything else.

In 2016, the New York Times chronicled the many ways in which Assange’s leaks had been advantageous for Vladimir Putin. As the article pointed out, the leaks always seemed “strategically timed” in a way that’d benefit Putin and Assange had reportedly called the Kremlin a “bulwark against Western imperialism.”

Former supporters who were enthused by Assange’s advocacy for government transparency became disillusioned as they realized his motives were malicious and focused on targeting his enemies. An executive director of a government transparency group said that WikiLeaks was “aligning themselves with whoever gives them information” to take revenge against enemies and “welcoming governments to hack into each other and disrupt each other’s democratic processes.” Investigative journalist, Andrei A. Soldatov, also claimed that Assange could be secretive himself, especially when it came to “ his dealings with one particular country, and that is Russia.”

Though portraying himself as a true champion of justice, Assange hasn’t consistently applied his criteria to the brutality of Putin. Putin has been deceptive whenever asked about the disappearance or murder of his critics. A few examples of these grisly—and undeniably political—crimes are the cases of Anna Politkovskaya and Stanislav Markelov. Politkovskaya was a prominent critic of Putin who was shot dead in 2006. And Markelov was a human rights lawyer who was shot in the head in 2009 after a news conference.

In response to Chris Wallace’s questions regarding the matter, Putin said that everyone had political rivals and referenced the killings of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to establish some strange moral equivalence between Russian and American politics.

Assange’s refusal to do something that’d seriously be heroic—and consistent with his purported aims—in exposing the vast misdeeds of this regime is indicative of him having an agenda.

Addressing questions as to why he hadn’t used his talents to cover Russian malfeasance, Assange said that criticizing Russia is “a bit boring.”

Myopically focusing on the West is a more profitable way to spend his time, I suppose. In addition to his moral inconsistency, he’s also indifferent to how he might impact people’s safety. And an ideologically binary way of thinking perverts his perspective.

Assange is tight-lipped when it comes to the depravity of groups like the Taliban, and seems to cling to the notion that violence is a consequence of the apparent provocations by the West. He has said that Afghans who were identified as informants or allies of US troops behaved like criminals. According to his former colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Assange had little concern for the lives that he had endangered. As Jonathan Foreman of Commentary puts it, they were on the wrong side and“in Assange’s worldview, the Taliban is the legitimate government of Afghanistan, resisting imperialist invaders.”

Not redacting private information is also something for which even Edward Snowden has criticized WikiLeaks.

Sure, we can debate the merits of his arrest. We can even agree that this ordeal might raise valid questions concerning protections for the press and government secrecy. And that Mr. Assange is a very complex and enigmatic man. But a morally pure crusader for the truth who deserves uncritical idolization he is not.


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