WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange is back in the news again. Not in the American media, which unsurprisingly remains obsessed with the current drama in Washington, but in the UK from where the US government is seeking his extradition to face charges over the publication of thousands of classified documents in 2010 and 2011.
The 49-year-old Australian national is accused of conspiring to hack into US military databases to acquire sensitive material classified as secret which was then published on the WikiLeaks website. This case remains controversial because it involves the principle of free speech and a free press in a democracy while protecting a government’s right to keep its classified information secure.
As a brief reminder of the background, Assange jumped bail in England in 2012 to escape an arrest warrant for extradition to Sweden to face sexual assault charges which were later dropped. He took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for seven years, claiming he was a victim of human rights abuses and would be given a life sentence in the US if extradited there. His asylum was revoked by Ecuador in 2012 and he was rearrested by British police in 2019 and has been held since then in a high-security prison.
Then - on January 4 - a UK judge blocked a US extradition request because of concerns over Assange’s mental health and the risk of suicide if he were committed to a prison in America.
The US government insists the leaks not only broke the law but also endangered lives and it has appealed the ruling. While this is being heard, the same judge has denied Assange’s request for bail on the basis there were substantial grounds to believe he might abscond.
As I pointed out in an article following Assange’s arrest in 2019, the description by WikiLeaks of its work of publishing classified information obtained from anonymous sources sounds not much different from some investigative journalism. But the US indictment, which has been made public, seems to be based on allegations that, rather than simply receiving information from others, he conspired to crack government computer codes.
So, the basic question seems to me to be whether his organisation was a bastion of transparency – because publicising facts the government does not want the public to know about helps to hold it accountable – or whether, by obtaining material illegally, it was acting irresponsibly and in a potentially dangerous manner and even putting the lives of government employees at risk.
Of course, in open democratic societies over the years there have always been cases of the media publishing what may be regarded as sensitive material and refusing to reveal its sources. Such issues have long been subject to debate in the context of Official Secrets legislation and there are conflicting views about determining what information the public has a right to know.
Investigative journalism is crucial in ensuring the health of democracies and this has been bolstered by Freedom of Information legislation in many countries. But the activities of WikiLeaks surely exceed what could be considered reasonable and acceptable behaviour. Proactively, systematically and illegally hacking into government-owned computers containing classified material is what hostile foreign intelligence organisations attempt to do. This amounts to criminal activity and should surely be considered beyond the scope of probing journalism.
There are also privacy laws and practical considerations. It would be impossible to conduct government business properly, not least with foreign countries, in a blaze of publicity. Detailed discussion of policy leading up to decision-making has to be carried out privately and in confidence. So, for example, the disclosure by WikiLeaks of the content of diplomatic cables is unacceptable. Moreover, indiscriminate leaking of official communications is likely to make governance more difficult and therefore is hardly in the public interest.
Overall, if there is concern about the actions of governments, there are established ways of legally protesting in order to persuade them to change course – from investigative journalism to the extreme of public demonstrations on the streets and, ultimately, the ballot box.
So, the fundamental question remains. Assange and his supporters say he is ‘shining a light on all the corruption in the world’ and exposing war crimes and other abuses carried out by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. But can it ever be right in a democratic society to allow a self-appointed organisation like WikiLeaks to determine what is in the public interest and thereby justify the theft and leaking of classified documents belonging to an elected government?
I happen to believe the answer to that is ‘no’ and that such action should be prevented. But the issue remains controversial and there are many who think otherwise. Moreover, the evidence suggests there are similarly many in Britain who not only consider US prison conditions can all too often be ‘dangerously inhumane’ but that Assange’s actions do not deserve the extreme sanction of life imprisonment. So they believe the judge was right to refuse the US extradition request – and they hope this decision will be upheld on appeal.
Was it all a bit too hasty?
Amid perilous times in the US, there has been so much coverage of last week’s storming of the Capitol Building in Washington, played out incessantly on TV screens, that I hesitate to add further thoughts.
Suffice it to say the violent assault by a mob of Trump supporters on the symbol of America’s democracy, leading to death and destruction, was a disgrace – and this catastrophic demonstration that soon escalated out of control and descended into mayhem has been condemned by all, including President Trump himself. One of the US’s most sacred institutions was defiled and this is now being called a dark and low point in American political history.
There can be little doubt that accusations that Trump incited the aggressive actions of his supporters are justified. My wife and I watched his televised speech to a huge gathering of them shortly before they made their way to the Capitol, and we were appalled by the inflammatory language he used which appears to have fomented the disorder and violence, even if only indirectly. This was dangerous and incendiary rhetoric and the outcome was surely not hard to predict.
Despite these terrible events, however, I cannot help wondering, probably like many others, whether some of the drama and conflict in the weeks following the November 3 presidential election might have been avoided if the courts had not rejected out of hand – which, as I understand it, is what happened – the Republicans’ accusations of fraud without, reportedly, considering the substance or the merits of their case at all.
Even allowing for the reluctance of the courts to be drawn into politics, some observers think a smarter approach would have been to have gone through the motions and heard the allegations rather than instantly dismiss them.
That is not to suggest the alleged fraud was sufficiently widespread or significant for the result of the election to be overturned. But, despite the Democrats’ continuing claims that it is unsubstantiated, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of sworn affidavits by election workers who have also given oral evidence of alleged irregularities and fraud surrounding parts of the electoral process; and many argue that, at the very least, their testimony should have been tested in court. What is more, assuming the courts, as expected, would have ruled against the allegations, Joe Biden’s legitimacy as the undisputed new President would have been thereby strengthened.
Now, because of Trump’s earlier withdrawal of “loser’s consent’”, which is a basic principle that allows democracy to function, there is a danger that people will lose confidence in the nation’s public and political institutions. If the “soon to be ex-President” had had his day in court, controversy over the election ought to have been laid to rest as his claim that he won in a landslide would have been discredited. What is now of major concern is the future unity of the nation, with some 75 million Republican supporters who voted for Trump in November still feeling that the election was stolen from him and them.
Be that as it may, the big question now is whether the former President has irretrievably sabotaged his political legacy. Most Americans will surely hope that, at this late stage with just over a week to go before Biden’s inauguration, impeachment will fail, since it will serve no purpose other than presumably trying to stop him from standing again in 2024. It will be seen as vengeful retribution on the part of Democrats who never accepted Trump’s victory in 2016 – and it will divide the country further and perhaps irrevocably.
Last week’s events are a sad ending to the Trump presidency, but many say that to an extent he brought it on himself. We may not have seen the last of him, however, for he has vowed that the ‘America First’ movement is far from over.
An exceptional man for all seasons
Although it was known that he had been in declining health for some time, it was nevertheless disturbing and saddening to hear the sudden news of the passing last week of Sir William Allen. A former Governor of the Central Bank, he was, of course, a distinguished statesman who was Minister of Finance in the 1990s in the FNM administration led by then Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham.
Those who have read Mr Ingraham’s wonderful tribute to him will be aware of the extraordinary contribution Sir William made to the nation during an exemplary career in the public service and in so many other ways. A person of enormous ability and achievement, his formidable intellect was matched by integrity of the highest order, combined with a grace, kindness and civility in his dealings with others. Moreover, his reputation spread beyond these shores.
In its 1996 supplement on The Bahamas, the Financial Times in London praised the achievement of the then FNM government under Mr Ingraham’s able leadership in restoring the country’s reputation after the difficult years of the 1980s; and it recognised the importance of good economic management and reform for which the Minister of Finance was directly responsible.
On a personal level, Bill – as his friends knew him – could not have been kinder or more approachable. Apart from official meetings, our paths crossed at lunches and dinners as well as the occasional encounter on the golf course – and on one memorable day we met by chance in the centre of Wimbledon where he was visiting his son who was studying in the UK!
It has always been evident Sir William Allen was widely admired as a wonderful person with a fine reputation. Over the years, he achieved so much and did endless good deeds in different spheres and at all levels, and he affected positively the lives of so many people.
It was a privilege to have known him. My wife and I would like to offer heartfelt sympathy and deepest condolences to his dear wife Aloma and to the rest of the family.