Julian Assange has been incarcerated – in one manner or another – for the past six years. His famous disclosures of classified documents and private emails have made him a hero to some and a criminal to others. The question raised by the ongoing Assange-WikiLeaks drama is this: At what point does government secrecy and espionage go from being vital to national security to being an unjust and unnecessary infringement of personal freedom and privacy?
Beyond that question lies another that, it would be hoped, belongs only on conspiracy-theory blogs: At what point does gathering intelligence on the country’s enemies become gathering intelligence on the country’s own citizens because…it might prove useful, one day?
The rape charge that has hung over Assange’s head since 2010 surfaced, once again, Wednesday when his WikiLeaks entity published records of SMS messages that suggest Assange was practically framed. Assange issued a rare public statement Wednesday, coinciding with the release of the SMS records and following a ruling in his favor by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. As published on the website of Counter Current News, Assange says, in part:
You have subjected me to six years of unlawful, politicized detention without charge in prison, under house arrest and four and a half years at [Ecuadorian Embassy in London]. You should have asked me this question six years ago. Your actions in refusing to take my statement for the last six years have been found to be unlawful by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and by the Swedish Court of Appeal. You have been found to have subjected me to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. You have denied me effective legal representation in this process. Despite this, I feel compelled to cooperate even though you are not safeguarding my rights. I refer you to my statement where all these questions were answered.
The rape allegation against Assange was made by woman with whom he had an association whilst in Sweden in 2010. The governments of both the United Kingdom and Sweden have been warned by the United Nations that they must ensure Assange’s human rights. Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012, in a move to avoid extradition to the United States. In February, the UN group found that, because Assange feels unable to leave the Embassy for fear of arrest, he is, effectively, a victim of arbitrary detention.
Assange’s 19-page statement also revealed intimate details of his association with his accuser. Elisabeth Massi Fritz, the lawyer for the woman identified as “SW” in the SMS records, responded by accusing Assange of “violating” her client in the media. “Assange seems to be desperate.” She told Sweden’s SVT, according to report in The Guardian. “As soon as he has something to say he calls the media and is conducting the investigation through the media.”
Is Assange the victim or the criminal? Certainly, he has yet to be charged with any crime. When classified government documents are published, people’s lives may, at times, be endangered; intelligence assets and practices may be exposed to the enemy. At some point, leakers and publishers of sensitive information must be held accountable – if the exposure actually damages a country’s national security or endangers lives.
Nevertheless, we should remember that all governments tend to become ever more secretive and ever more demanding that we surrender our rights and freedoms in the name of security. Who determines what information does, and does not, belong in the public domain? Who decides how a set of documents should be classified? Julian Assange may have had some nefarious agenda when he embarked on his free-speech crusade; if so, he appears not to have succeeded. Regardless, he reminds us that governments write all the rules, regarding what they can hide from the people. He also reminds us that governments cannot resist spying on their own people. Assange may, or may not, be a ‘good guy’, but lovers of freedom owe him a thank-you for those reminders.