Ignoring the Past
As Edward Snowden and Julian Assange continue to evade U.S. authorities, their leaks have introduced the world to a new age of intelligence collection. Michael Ratner, Assange’s attorney and a long-time civil liberties activist, argues that checking U.S. surveillance programs will continue to be an uphill battle.
As a constitutional rights lawyer, I’d like to believe that we’ve come a long way since the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.
But in following the recent stories of whistleblower revelations exposing the criminality of governments – including that of the United States – in the shadowy field of modern intelligence gathering, one thing has become abundantly clear: government investigative and prosecutorial agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA) haven’t grasped the elementary lesson of learning from, and therefore not repeating, the past.
Governments and their various entities are continuing a shameful tradition of misusing their powers when faced with challenges, destroying those who reveal truths and seek positive change. I’ve seen these efforts before.
Under the FBI’s Cointelpro (counterintelligence program) in the 1960s, the United States went after the black liberation movement by personally targeting and repressing individuals. It did so through murder (including the killing of Fred Hampton in Chicago) and through prosecutions (such as the bogus Panther 21 case and the failed prosecution of Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins, and that of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton), which forced black activists into exile in Algeria and Cuba.
Now, with more activism happening online, and an alarming amount of government criminality hidden behind spurious confidential classifications, the intelligence agencies – as well as the governments that back them and the secret courts that protect them – have turned to a new target: whistleblowers and journalists. And they started with my client, WikiLeaks, and its publisher, Julian Assange.
Through WikiLeaks, Assange established a secure method for obtaining information about government and corporate criminality from whistleblowers and others. He courageously published that information, which transformed our knowledge about war, corruption, and diplomacy, and he inspired a series of truth tellers – including Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond, and Edward Snowden – to step forward with similar information.
To those of us concerned by the crimes of secret governments and corporations, Assange, WikiLeaks, Manning, and others like them are heroes. To governments – particularly the government of the United States – Assange is a high-tech terrorist, WikiLeaks isn’t worthy of the name “publisher,” and Manning is a traitor.
The U.S. government, with the help of allies, led efforts to relentlessly target and silence these whistleblowers. It pursued measures to block funding for WikiLeaks while harassing and investigating its supporters, it convened a still-sitting grand jury to investigate and indict Assange, and it sentenced Manning to 35 years in prison.
Recently released documents reveal that the NSA placed Assange on a “manhunting timeline,” designating him as a target on level with members of Al Qaeda, and considered naming him a “malicious foreign actor” for publishing WikiLeaks. Legitimately fearing extradition to a harsh and conceivably torturous U.S. prison, Assange sought and won asylum. He’s spent almost two years in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, awaiting a guarantee of safe passage from the U.K. to Ecuador – which has been withheld, even though it’s required by law.
Despite these efforts to intimidate and silence those speaking out against the deepening surveillance state, Assange and WikiLeaks remain undeterred, inspiring, active, and relevant. Other whistleblowers, information activists, and journalists have continued the WikiLeaks legacy by revealing the truth at great personal sacrifice.
Jeremy Hammond engaged in the Stratfor hack and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Edward Snowden exposed the massive surveillance state the NSA created in partnership with other countries, and was criminally charged and is living in exile. Two of the American journalists who have been reporting on Snowden’s revelations – Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras – are living abroad, in Brazil and Germany, respectively. Sarah Harrison, a journalist and WikiLeaks editor who accompanied Snowden to Moscow as a legal adviser, is also living in Germany.
This is a critical moment. While governments, intelligence gatherers, and associated agencies seem bent on continuing to repress whistleblowers, this cohort of journalists dedicated to the truth – in partnership with the scores of activists who support them – will continue to strive for a world where our private lives stay private, and where governments and corporations cannot hide their misdeeds in shadows and secrecy.
As global citizens, we realize that we can’t stand by as the NSA and associated government agencies and departments repeat the past by continuing this assault on truth tellers. We must do more to protect and support whistleblowers and the publishers and journalists who make their information public.
The struggle that is occurring is not just about individual heroes: these individuals are ultimately part of a movement seeking global justice, revealing truths, and making information ours. We must prevent what occurred in the 1960s, ensuring through our activism that this movement is not destroyed.
We need to reveal, stigmatize, and deter the repression itself, as was done with Cointelpro in 1971. We need to expose secretive governments, their criminality, and their pervasive desire to be all-knowing. The repressive forces are not winning – together, we must ensure they do not. We can win this fight.