Tag Archive | julian assange

The inside story of U.S.’s illegal grounding of Evo Morales’ plane

In a recent interview with Democracy Now!, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange provided an inside account of the controversial grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane by the United States in July 2013.

WikiLeaks had been providing logistical support and legal advice to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in his quest to reach Latin America for political asylum in the wake of his massive disclosures of the NSA’s bulk surveillance programs, and to keep the U.S. manhunt for Snowden off-track, was using various decoys and distractions, recounted Assange.

There was an international oil conference in Moscow at the time, Assange recalled, and because several presidential jets were departing the Russian capital at around the same time, there were discussions within the WikiLeaks organization whether to utilize one of those planes in order to ferry Snowden out. In their coded language WikiLeaks referred to Bolivia in order to confuse U.S. investigators who were hunting down Snowden (and presumably tapping WikiLeaks’ phones and reading their emails to do so).

This coded language was picked up by the U.S. intelligence community and was combined with a statement that President Morales had made publicly that was generally supportive of Snowden, and as Assange describes it, they “put two and two together and made 22.” As he told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman in an interview aired Thursday:

A number of presidential jets are flying back, and we are considering one of these. And so, we then—our code language that we used deliberately swapped the presidential jet that we were considering for the Bolivian jet. And so we just spoke about Bolivia in order to distract from the actual candidate jet. And in some of our communications, we deliberately spoke about that on open lines to lawyers in the United States. And we didn’t think much more of it. We had engaged in a number of these distraction operations in the asylum maneuver from Hong Kong, for example, booking him on flights to India through Beijing and other forms of distraction, like Iceland, for example. We didn’t think this was anything more than just distracting.

But the U.S. picked up a statement, a supportive statement made in Moscow by President Evo Morales, and appears to have picked up our codeword for the actual operation, and put two and two together and made 22, and then pressured France—successfully pressured France, Portugal and Spain to close their airspace to President Evo Morales’s jet in its flight from Moscow to the Canary Islands for refueling and then back to Bolivia. And as a result, it was forced to land in Vienna. And then, once in Vienna, there was pressure to search the plane.

Although Morales refused to let the authorities board the plane, which under international law functions as a “flying embassy” with all of the rights, privileges and immunities guaranteed by the 1961 Vienna Convention, the fact that the United States forced the plane to land at all was a serious breach of diplomatic protocol and international law, for which Washington has still refused to apologize.

It also demonstrated the intense arrogance and contempt that the United States shows to Latin America in general and the subservient nature of European countries to the superpower across the pond.

At the time, a livid Evo Morales stated that “We have had enough humiliation at the hands of the Americans,” arguing that the incident revealed a “neo-colonial” attitude to his entire continent.

“It is a crime not against Evo Morales, but against the people of South America and the Caribbean. It is utter discrimination,” he said, insisting that no head of state should be treated as a “second-rate president.”

The incident also demonstrated that despite occasional grumblings from Europe about U.S. misconduct on the world stage, Europeans will always kowtow to Washington when pressured.

Although European leaders were humiliated by the United States when it was revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks that the NSA had been tapping the telephone lines and computer networks of EU offices in Brussels, New York and Washington — as well as the governments of Germany, France, Greece, Italy and others — Europe fell into line in submitting to U.S. dictates regarding Snowden’s asylum requests, and then agreed to cooperate in the illegal grounding of Morales’ plane.

Just like forcing down the Bolivian president’s plane, the U.S. spying on diplomatic missions of the EU and European nations was a violation of the Vienna Convention which states that “the official correspondence” as well as “the premises” of diplomatic missions “shall be inviolable.”

When Snowden’s leaks revealed the NSA snooping into the emails and phone conversations of European nations, European leaders feigned outrage. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, described the disclosures of massive U.S. spying in Europe as unacceptable.

Her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said, “If it is confirmed that diplomatic representations of the European Union and individual European countries have been spied upon, we will clearly say that bugging friends is unacceptable.”

The French president, François Hollande, also called the spying intolerable.

“We cannot accept this kind of behaviour between partners and allies,” Hollande said. “We ask that this stop immediately.” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that if confirmed, the activities would be “totally unacceptable.”

Yet, when push came to shove, European leaders fell over each other to do the bidding of the United States, even when they were asked to violate international law in forcing down the plane of a sitting head of state, an act that was described at the time as “an act of air piracy and state terrorism.”

As Assange explained it on Democracy Now!:

So, it’s really a quite extraordinary situation that reveals the true nature of the relationship between Western Europe and the United States and what it claims are its values of human rights and asylum and the rights to asylum and so, and respecting the rule of law, the Vienna Convention. Just a phone call from U.S. intelligence was enough to close the airspace to a booked presidential flight, which has immunity. And they got it wrong. They spent all that political capital in demanding this urgent favor to close the airspace, which was humiliating to those Western European countries, and they got it wrong.

Assange recommends that the appropriate thing to do at this point is issue apologies all around. “The U.S. should apologize to Evo Morales, to Portugal, to Spain, to France” Assange said. “Portugal, Spain and France should apologize to Evo Morales for not following the law.”

He pointed out though that while the grounding was unfortunate for President Morales, it was a good thing to see because “it revealed the arrogance and hypocrisy of the United States in pressuring Western Europe in that way. It revealed the nature of the relationship between Western Europe and the United States.”

In a practical sense, it also led directly to Russia’s decision to grant Snowden’s asylum request. After this incident, “at a legal level, in terms of asylum law, it was very clear that there could not be a fair process,” explained Assange. Further, not only was it very clear he could not receive asylum in Western Europe, but at a political level, the Russian government had to respond.

As Assange points out, Russia couldn’t react by handing him over, because it would look “weak and unprincipled.” The only other card that Russia had was to grant him asylum.

And two years later, despite one of the largest manhunts in world history, Snowden is still living in the Russian Federation under political asylum. So, not only were the U.S. actions in summer 2013 illegal and arrogant, they were ultimately counterproductive.

Advertisements

Renewed international support for Manning in wake of ‘short-sighted’ verdict

Supporters of U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley E. Manning hold signs to show support during a demonstration outside the main gate of Ft. Meade July 30, 2013 in Maryland. (AFP Photo / Alex Wong)

Supporters of U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley E. Manning hold signs to show support during a demonstration outside the main gate of Ft. Meade July 30, 2013 in Maryland. (AFP Photo / Alex Wong)

Acquitted of the most serious charge of “aiding the enemy,” U.S. political prisoner Bradley Manning has been found guilty of 20 charges in total, including theft, computer fraud and a newly conceived crime of “wanton publication.”

Manning, who provided classified information to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, including video evidence of a U.S. war crime in Baghdad, now faces the possibility of up to 136 years behind bars. The sentencing phase, which is underway, could take a month before a final penalty is decided.

As soon as Manning’s verdict was handed down last week, support for his cause and calls for leniency from Judge Col. Denise Lind in his sentencing poured in from around the world. An open letter from 17 Members of the European Parliament called for President Obama to pardon the young Army private, who spent three years in pre-trial incarceration – much of it in conditions amounting to torture in violation of international law.

“As Members of the European Parliament, who were elected to represent our constituents throughout Europe, we are writing to express our concerns about the ongoing persecution of Bradley Manning, the young U.S. soldier who released classified information revealing evidence of human rights abuses and apparent war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan,” reads the letter.

Rather than causing harm, Bradley Manning’s release to WikiLeaks of the Iraq War Logs and the Afghan War Diaries shone much needed light on those occupations, revealing, amongst other abuses, the routine killing of civilians. The bleak picture painted by these war diaries contrasts greatly with the rosy progress reports being provided to the public by military and political leaders. PFC Manning has said he felt that if the American public had access to this information, this could ‘spark a domestic debate’ on American foreign policy ‘as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan’. Far from being a traitor, Bradley Manning had the best interests of his country in mind.

The Iraqi people continue to suffer the consequences of this war, even after the withdrawal of foreign troops, with millions of homeless refugees and the resumption of sectarian violence. Meanwhile, eleven and a half years after the U.S invaded Afghanistan, that nation has yet to form a functioning democracy or to free itself from the Taliban and fundamentalist warlords.

Russian Commissioner for Human Rights Konstantin Dolgov said that the United States is applying double standards in Manning’s case “without paying attention to the observance of human rights.”

“This double standard that we see in the U.S. authorities’ assessment of approaches to this situation [around Manning] raises questions,” said Dolgov. “If you demand full observance of freedom of speech from others, in principle, you should apply this position to yourself. If the applied standard is different, this cannot help but cause complaints on the part of both other governments and human rights institutions.”

He also expressed doubts that the U.S. will take into account international human rights in determining Manning’s punishment. “I think that [Manning’s] sentence will not likely take into account the view the international human rights organizations,” Dolgov said.

Amnesty International welcomed Manning’s acquittal on the “aiding the enemy” charge, but regretted that the U.S. government continues its persecution of the whistleblower, which it said demonstrates misplaced priorities on national security.

Noting that the hundreds of thousands of documents Manning leaked included videos and dossiers that revealed human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law by U.S. troops and the CIA, Amnesty said that it undermines accountability when the U.S. government is so selective about who it chooses to investigate and prosecute.

“The government’s pursuit of the ‘aiding the enemy’ charge was a serious overreach of the law, not least because there was no credible evidence of Manning’s intent to harm the USA by releasing classified information to Wikileaks,” said Widney Brown, Senior Director of International Law and Policy at Amnesty International.

She added:

The government’s priorities are upside down. The US government has refused to investigate credible allegations of torture and other crimes under international law despite overwhelming evidence.

Yet they decided to prosecute Manning who it seems was trying to do the right thing – reveal credible evidence of unlawful behaviour by the government. You investigate and prosecute those who destroy the credibility of the government by engaging in acts such as torture which are prohibited under the US Constitution and in international law.

Any sentence imposed for the other charges must take into account information relating to Manning’s reasonable belief that he was exposing serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, Amnesty said.

Brown also noted that Manning’s overzealous prosecution – not to mention his gross mistreatment during three years of illegal pre-trial confinement – was most likely intended to provide a warning to other potential whistleblowers who might be considering exposing the rampant criminality and corruption of the U.S. government.

“It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that Manning’s trial was about sending a message: the US government will come after you, no holds barred, if you’re thinking of revealing evidence of its unlawful behavior,” Brown said.

This of course would qualify Manning as a political prisoner and/or prisoner of conscience under Amnesty International’s own definition of the term, but to this date, for some confounding reason, the human rights group has declined to designate the imprisoned whistleblower as such.

As Amnesty International has previously explained its use of the term “political prisoner,”

In AI’s usage, the term includes any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner’s acts, the acts in themselves, or the motivation of the authorities. “Political” is used by AI to refer to aspects of human relations related to “politics”: the mechanisms of society and civil order, the principles, organization, or conduct of government or public affairs, and the relation of all these to questions of language, ethnic origin, sex or religion, status or influence (among other factors). The category of political prisoners embraces the category of prisoners of conscience, the only prisoners who AI demands should be immediately and unconditionally released, as well as people who resort to criminal violence for a political motive. In AI’s use of the term, here are some examples of political prisoners:

a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime carried out for political motives, such as murder or robbery carried out to support the objectives of an opposition group;

a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime committed in a political context, such as at a demonstration by a trade union or a peasants’ organization;

a member or suspected member of an armed opposition group who has been charged with treason or “subversion”.

A definition of “political prisoner” adopted last year by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe includes the following criteria:

a. if the detention has been imposed in violation of one of the fundamental guarantees set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols (ECHR), in particular freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and information, freedom of assembly and association;

b. if the detention has been imposed for purely political reasons without connection to any offence;

c. if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of;

d. if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons; or,

e. if the detention is the result of proceedings which were clearly unfair and this appears to be connected with political motives of the authorities.” (SG/Inf(2001)34, paragraph 10).

It’s obvious that under any number of these criteria, Manning would qualify as a political prisoner, if not a prisoner of conscience. He was motivated by his conscience and out of concern over the evidence of war crimes, corruption and general wrongdoing committed by his government that he was privy to as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq. Further, the potential sentence he faces of 136 years in prison would clearly be out of proportion to the offenses for which he has been convicted.

Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir, who has been one of WikiLeaks’ most vocal defenders and has nominated Manning for a Nobel Peace Prize, noted the perverted sense of justice being displayed by the United States by prosecuting the whistleblower but not the crimes that he exposed.

“Let’s not forget,” she said, “that nobody has been held accountable for the war crimes that the whole world was able to see depicted in the video, collateral murder. No one has been held accountable for that except the whistleblower and that’s absolutely outrageous.”

“I find it very strange that even if you can actually see soldiers shooting and killing a wounded person nobody has been questioned so may be its time to figure how the U.S. legal system works so somebody could be held accountable for that,” she added.

WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange called last week’s judgment “a dangerous precedent and an example of national security extremism.”

Noting that the verdict was the first ever espionage conviction against a whistleblower, Assange said it was “a short sighted judgment that can not be tolerated and must be reversed.”

“It can never be that conveying true information to the public is ‘espionage,’” he added, further noting that the Obama administration has systematically been “chipping away democratic freedoms in the United States.”

Bradley Manning’s mother, Susan Manning – who has health problems – has said she believes she may never see him again, but urged her son to “never give up hope.”

She said: “I know I may never see you again but I know you will be free one day. I pray it is soon. I love you Bradley and I always will.”

Her sister, Sharon Staples, said that the family is now “praying for leniency” as the judge considers Manning’s punishment.

In an online campaign, nearly 3,000 Americans have volunteered to serve any sentence that Manning receives. “Bradley Manning provided information to the American people which our own government would not provide,” the pledge reads. “He did us all a favor and in turn I am willing to serve part of his sentence.”

Other campaigns in support of the political prisoner include a #ThankManning letter-writing initiative spearheaded by Amnesty4Manning, as well as rallies and vigils being held across the United States and around the world.

Bradley Manning’s ‘show trial’ set to begin as grassroots campaigns gain momentum

bradley manning hero

With Bradley Manning’s court martial trial finally set to begin next week — more than three years after his initial arrest on suspicion of being the source of the biggest leak of classified documents in U.S. history — various campaigns are gaining momentum to ensure that he receives a fair and transparent trial, and to urge the world’s leading human rights organizations to recognize Manning as a political prisoner or prisoner of conscience.

A petition at Avaaz calls on Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, in particular, to take a stand in support of this imprisoned whistleblower:

It is very important that the two biggest human rights organizations acknowledge Bradley Manning as a “Political Prisoner” and/or “Prisoner of Conscience” before his trial begins on June 3, 2013. If his actions can be misconstrued as “aiding the enemy” by the law, despite his providing the information to the public at large via “non-enemy” news sources, this sets the precedent of criminalizing of all future whistleblowers.

A blog called Amnesty for Bradley Manning, using the hashtag #Amnesty4Manning on Twitter, has also been launched with the sole purpose of pressuring Amnesty International to declare Manning a prisoner of conscience. Advocating that Amnesty International’s members and the general public call, email, tweet and send postcards to the Secretariat of Amnesty International, the #Amnesty4Manning campaign notes,

Manning has been imprisoned for over three years and was subjected to psychological torture accompanied by highly abusive treatment for nine of those months. Torture techniques included solitary confinement, humiliation, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, and stress positions of being shackled in a 6’ x 8’ cell. Through his imprisonment, Manning has exposed the dark side of the US justice system which keeps his case shrouded in secrecy. One has to question what the US government is doing behind closed doors. Why shield the public from information regarding his case?

Pointing out that Amnesty International’s own website urges members of the public to contact them with information on human rights violations, #Amnesty4Manning states, “It’s time we give them a call.” The campaign provides contact information for Amnesty International and even offers several printable postcards that can be mailed to the Secretariat in London.

bradley manning post card

Although the concept of “political prisoner” is rather ill-defined in international law, several workable definitions have been proposed over the years, including by Amnesty International. Under some of these definitions, it seems clear that Manning would qualify.

As Amnesty International has explained its use of the term “political prisoner,”

In AI’s usage, the term includes any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner’s acts, the acts in themselves, or the motivation of the authorities. “Political” is used by AI to refer to aspects of human relations related to “politics”: the mechanisms of society and civil order, the principles, organization, or conduct of government or public affairs, and the relation of all these to questions of language, ethnic origin, sex or religion, status or influence (among other factors). The category of political prisoners embraces the category of prisoners of conscience, the only prisoners who AI demands should be immediately and unconditionally released, as well as people who resort to criminal violence for a political motive. In AI’s use of the term, here are some examples of political prisoners:

  • a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime carried out for political motives, such as murder or robbery carried out to support the objectives of an opposition group;
  • a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime committed in a political context, such as at a demonstration by a trade union or a peasants’ organization;
  • a member or suspected member of an armed opposition group who has been charged with treason or “subversion”.

A definition of “political prisoner” recently adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe includes the following criteria:

a. if the detention has been imposed in violation of one of the fundamental guarantees set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols (ECHR), in particular freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and information, freedom of assembly and association;

b. if the detention has been imposed for purely political reasons without connection to any offence;

c. if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of;

d. if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons; or,

e. if the detention is the result of proceedings which were clearly unfair and this appears to be connected with political motives of the authorities.” (SG/Inf(2001)34, paragraph 10).

According to a more concise definition of the term in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, a political prisoner is “someone who is in prison because they have opposed or criticized the government of their own country.”

It’s clear that under any number of these criteria, Manning would qualify as a political prisoner, if not a prisoner of conscience. He was clearly motivated by his conscience and out of concern over the evidence of war crimes, corruption and general wrongdoing committed by his government that he was privy to as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq. Further, the potential sentence he faces of death or life in prison for the “aiding the enemy” charge that the government is pursuing would clearly be out of proportion to the offense he is accused of.

Regarding his decision to provide the documents to WikiLeaks, Manning explained before making his decision in online chat logs with his friend Adrian Lamo (who ultimately betrayed him), that his motivations were purely altruistic, concerned for example by “how the first world exploits the third,” and recognizing that the information could have a great impact on the earth’s entire population:

(12:15:11 PM) bradass87: hypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time… say, 8-9 months… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?
(12:16:38 PM) bradass87: or Guantanamo, Bagram, Bucca, Taji, VBC for that matter…
(12:17:47 PM) bradass87: things that would have an impact on 6.7 billion people
(12:21:24 PM) bradass87: say… a database of half a million events during the iraq war… from 2004 to 2009… with reports, date time groups, lat-lon locations, casualty figures… ? or 260,000 state department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world, explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective?

He further elaborated on his motives in full testimony at a pretrial hearing earlier this year, which was later leaked and posted on YouTube:

Manning said he was particularly disturbed by a 39-minute video showing Apache helicopter pilots laughing during a 2007 attack in Baghdad that killed a number of civilians and a Reuters journalist:

They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life, and referred to them as quote-unquote “dead bastards,” and congratulated each other on their ability to kill in large numbers. At one point in the video there is an individual on the ground attempting to crawl to safety. The individual is seriously wounded. Instead of calling for medical attention to the location, one of the aerial weapons team crew members verbally asks for the wounded person to pick up a weapon so that he can have a reason to engage. For me, this seemed similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.

According to his statement, after being rebuffed by his commanding officer, to whom he attempted to bring information of human rights abuses in Iraq, and after being rejected by traditional news outlets such as the Washington Post and New York Times, he ultimately decided to release a trove of classified information to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

Manning provided three important bodies of documents to WikiLeaks: the Iraq war logs, which consist of 391,000 field reports, including the notorious video of the Apache helicopter gunning down a crowd of Iraqi civilians and Reuters journalists in July 2007 (killing over a dozen of them and injuring several small children). This batch of information also included documentation of the Haditha massacre in which 24 Iraqi civilians, most of them women, children and the elderly, were systematically murdered by U.S. Marines (a crime for which the perpetrators were never punished).

Following that release by WikiLeaks, there were 90,000 Afghan war logs, providing a devastating portrayal of the deteriorating war in Afghanistan. The war logs, made public in July 2010, revealed how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents in Afghanistan and how a secret “black” unit of special forces has hunted down suspected Taliban leaders for “kill or capture” without trial. Another document of great public interest expressed suspicion that the Pakistanis were arming and funding the Afghan insurgency.

And, finally, Manning’s document release included 260,000 diplomatic cables, possibly the most controversial of his leaks, since the sheer volume called into question whether his actions demonstrated any self-restraint or caution. These leaks, however, also included some of most explosive revelations, and arguably had the most impact globally, including providing the spark for the Arab Spring.

These leaks included details on how the U.S. government had lobbied to keep down the minimum wage in Haiti so as to keep manufacturing costs low for American employers and also provided documentation of Tunisian corruption, which played a role in the revolution there.

In addition, the leaked State Department cables revealed that the United States had been routinely violating the Vienna Convention by committing espionage against UN officials. As the Guardian reported on Nov. 28, 2010, “Washington is running a secret intelligence campaign targeted at the leadership of the United Nations, including the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon and the permanent security council representatives from China, Russia, France and the UK.”

More recently, the Cablegate documents have provided the backbone for research by the U.S.-based NGO Food and Water Watch, which recently released a report based on an extensive analysis of the cables. Significantly, Food and Water Watch found that “The U.S. State Department has launched a concerted strategy to promote agricultural biotechnology, often over the opposition of the public and governments, to the near exclusion of other more sustainable, more appropriate agricultural policy alternatives.”

The report, Biotech Ambassadors: How the U.S. State Department Promotes the Seed Industry’s Global Agenda, further explains,

The State Department worked especially hard to promote the interests of Monsanto, the world’s biggest biotech seed company in 2011. Monsanto appeared in 6.1 percent of the biotech cables analyzed between 2005 and 2009 from 21 countries. The State Department exercised its diplomatic persuasion to bolster Monsanto’s image in host countries, facilitate field-testing or approval of Monsanto crops and intervene with governments to negotiate seed royalty settlements.

Taken together, the State Department cables, the Afghan war logs and the Iraq war logs have been highly embarrassing for the United States government, and have undermined the regime of secrecy that the Obama administration has so aggressively attempted to maintain.

This secrecy is now playing out in Manning’s trial itself, which has been marked by an extraordinary lack of openness. In response to the secrecy surrounding the trial, a group of prominent journalists has filed a lawsuit calling on the military judge presiding over the trial to “grant the public and press access to the government’s filings, the court’s own orders, and transcripts of the proceedings.” None of these have been made available to the public to date.

“Secret trials are commonplace in dictatorships, but have no place in this country.” said co-plaintiff Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. “The Obama administration conducts unconstitutional dragnet surveillance of journalists to uncover protected sources, and targets whistleblowers with unprecedented use of the espionage act.”

WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, who has been granted political asylum by the Ecuadorean government to protect him from persecution by the U.S., has gone so far as to call Manning’s upcoming court martial a “show trial.”

“This is a show trial,” he explained on Democracy Now. “The trial is meant to go for 14 to 16 weeks, And the prosecution, the Pentagon and possibly White House is hungry for this.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights goes to federal court in two weeks to argue the lawsuit seeking press and public access to the court-martial proceedings and documents. For the time being, the Freedom of the Press Foundation is crowd-funding donations to hire a grassroots court stenographer to record trial transcripts, as the U.S. government has so far refused to make transcripts available to the public.

A “Mass Rally for Bradley Manning” is taking place at the site of the court martial at Fort Meade, MD, on June 1 to demand a fair trial for the accused Army private. “Now is the time to get loud and show the government why you oppose the over-prosecution of this brave whistleblower,” says the Center for Constitutional Rights.

More information about the rally, including transportation options, are available at the Save Bradley Manning website. A list of solidarity actions in other cities and countries is available here.

bradley manning poster

Mounting alarm over media crackdown in the United States

free-pressAs the U.S. government’s crackdown on the press intensifies, international organizations and media freedom advocates are expressing growing alarm over what is seen as a systematic attempt to muzzle journalists and deny the public the right to unimpeded access to information.

Following last week’s news that the U.S. Justice Department had seized records for 20 telephone lines of journalists at the Associated Press, the largest and oldest news organization in the world, the reaction was intense. The AP had not been informed in advance of the prosecutors’ actions, nor did the Justice Department initiate a notice and negotiation process, leading the AP to send an angry letter to Attorney General Holder about the spying, stating in part,

There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.

That the Department undertook this unprecedented step without providing any notice to the AP, and without taking any steps to narrow the scope of its subpoenas to matters actually relevant to an ongoing investigation, is particularly troubling.

The U.S.-based NGO Freedom House issued a strongly worded statement expressing “deep concern” over the revelation of spying and called on Congress to revive a federal “shield law” that would provide journalists with a measure of protection from prosecutors’ demands for information.

“For some time we have been concerned about the administration’s over-zealous pursuit of alleged leakers and the efforts to force the testimony of journalists,” said David J. Kramer, Freedom House president. “Preserving secrecy in national security deliberations is important, but this scatter-shot intrusion into the news-gathering affairs of the Associated Press is truly disturbing. What we’re now seeing is an entirely new level of government involvement in the affairs of a free media.”

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, said she was distressed over the revelations of government surveillance of the press, and called for an investigation.

“There is simply no justification for such a broad violation of these reporters’ constitutional rights,” Mijatović said. As an official with the intergovernmental Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which counts the United States as one of its 57 member states, Mijatovic also issued a letter directly to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

“There may be occasions when, in the interest of security, a limited intrusion on reporters’ activities, judicially authorized, may be justified, but the sheer scope and breadth of this action is simply a deprivation of basic constitutional rights,” Mijatović wrote in the letter. “The action also calls into question the ability of sources to talk to reporters without fear of government eavesdropping.”

There is no indication that the State Department has responded in any way to the direct criticism from the OSCE.

Following this controversy, a new revelation emerged over the weekend that a federal agent was granted a warrant in 2010 to search the email account of Fox News correspondent James Rosen on suspicion that the reporter had violated the 1917 Espionage Act by soliciting classified information from a State Department official.

This previously undisclosed development, which the FAS Project on Government Secrecy called “a startling expansion of the Obama Administration’s war on leaks,” was first reported in the Washington Post on May 19.

The search warrant was issued in the course of an investigation into the suspected leak of classified information allegedly committed by Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a former State Department contractor, who was indicted in August 2010.

“I believe there is probable cause to conclude that the contents of the wire and electronic communications pertaining to the SUBJECT ACCOUNT are evidence, fruits and instrumentalities of criminal violations of 18 U.S.C. 793 (Unauthorized Disclosure of National Defense Information), and that there is probable cause to believe that the Reporter has committed or is committing a violation of section 793(d), as an aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator, to which the materials relate,” wrote FBI agent Reginald B. Reyes in a May 28, 2010 application for a search warrant.

As Steven Aftergood of the FAS Project on Government Secrecy explained, “the Reyes affidavit all but eliminates the traditional distinction in classified leak investigations between sources, who are bound by a non-disclosure agreement, and reporters, who are protected by the First Amendment as long as they do not commit a crime.”

The affidavit also highlights the government’s ability to monitor activity within classified networks with a fine mesh, and to correlate document downloads with external communications.

“So far, the FBI’s investigation has revealed in excess of 95 individuals, in addition to Mr. Kim, who accessed the Intelligence Report [containing the information reported by Mr. Rosen] on the date of the June 2009 article and prior to its publication. To date, however, the FBI’s investigation has not revealed any other individual, other than Mr. Kim, who both accessed the Intelligence Report and who also had contact with the Reporter on the date of publication of the June 2009 article,” the affidavit noted.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation, which has advocated on behalf of new media organizations such as WikiLeaks, drew a parallel between the ongoing campaign against Julian Assange’s right to gather and publish classified information in the public interest, and the new revelations of assaults against the Associated Press and Fox News for doing the same. “Under the law, the AP, Fox News, and WikiLeaks are no different (a fact that even the government argues),” Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation pointed out today. “If one falls, the others will not be far behind.”

The press freedom advocate lamented that many journalists and mainstream media organizations remained silent when WikiLeaks first came under attack by the Justice Department in early 2011.

“That disappointing silence left open the possibility that the Justice Department could use those same tactics against others in the future,” wrote Timm. “And unfortunately now it’s clear: virtually every move made by the Justice Department against WikiLeaks has now also been deployed on mainstream US journalists.”

Just as the intimidation of WikiLeaks has done, the case raises concerns about stifling effect of these investigations on a critical element of press freedom: the exchange of information between reporters and their sources.

“Search warrants like these have a severe chilling effect on the free flow of important information to the public,” said First Amendment lawyer Charles Tobin, who has represented the Associated Press, but not in the current case. “That’s a very dangerous road to go down.”

By chilling the flow of information as the Obama administration appears to be systematically doing in its attacks on media organizations and government leakers, the U.S. government may be violating not only the First Amendment to the Constitution, but also its international obligations.

As Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states,

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

This obligation is reiterated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the U.S.  ratified in 1992. In its general comment on the importance of this provision of the ICCPR, the Human Rights Committee of the UN noted in 2011,

A free, uncensored and unhindered press or other media is essential in any society for the ensuring of freedom of opinion and expression and the enjoyment of other Covenant rights. It constitutes one of the cornerstones of a democratic society. The Covenant embraces a right to receive information on the part of the media as a basis on which they can carry out their function. The free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens, candidates and elected representatives is essential. This implies a free press and other media able to comment on public issues without censorship or restraint and to inform public opinion. Pursuant to article 19, the public also has the right to receive information as a corollary to the specific function of any journalist to impart information.

Just last week, the U.S. government reaffirmed its commitment to these principles at the OSCE media freedom seminar in Warsaw.

“Underlying our OSCE commitments on media freedom are Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights and our obligations under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act to respect the fundamental freedom of expression,” said the State Department’s Sabeena Rajpal, representing the U.S. delegation at the seminar. “This fundamental freedom is the birthright of every human being; it is inherent in the individual and not for governments to dole out or deny as they see fit.”

“Our OSCE commitments require participating States to ensure that their laws will conform to their international legal obligations,” she added.

If the United States is serious about these commitments, it would do well to halt its attacks on press freedom. If the attacks continue, the U.S. finds itself in increasing danger of becoming a full-blown “totalitarian security surveillance state,” in the words of former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges.

Asylum for Assange compelled by U.S. human rights abuses

Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In its decision to grant political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the Ecuadorian government included a remarkable – and largely overlooked – rebuke of the U.S. justice system.

Judging that Assange’s fears of persecution by the United States are real and would be exacerbated were he to be extradited by the United Kingdom to Sweden in relation to allegations of sexual misconduct, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño Aroca said on Thursday that “there are serious indications of retaliation by the country or countries [the United States] that produced the information disclosed by Mr. Assange, retaliation that can put at risk his safety, integrity and even his life.”

While criticizing Sweden for its prosecution of Assange which has prevented him “the total exercise of the legitimate right to defense,” Ecuador’s primary concern was clearly the possibility that Sweden would hand him over to the United States.

“The judicial evidence shows clearly that, given an extradition to the United States, Mr. Assange would not have a fair trial, he could be judged by a special or military court, and it is not unlikely that he would receive a cruel and demeaning treatment and he would be condemned to a life sentence or the death penalty, which would not respect his human rights,” Ecuador stated.

The U.S.’s history of human rights violations, particularly in relation to the decade-long war on terror and its ongoing abuse of alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning, was clearly on the minds of the Ecuadorian authorities when they made the decision to grant Assange’s asylum request.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa explained his decision Friday saying,

It is not that I agree with everything that Julian Assange has done, but does he deserve the death penalty, life imprisonment, to be extradited to a third country for this? Please, what’s the balance between the crime and the punishment, the offense and the punishment? What about due process?

Before making the decision to grant Assange asylum, Ecuador had said that it would allow the extradition to Sweden on the condition that Swedish authorities give assurances they would not extradite him to the United States. Ecuador had further offered Swedish prosecutors the opportunity to question Assange over the sexual misconduct allegations inside the Ecuadorian embassy.

Since Sweden refused to guarantee that it would not extradite Assange to the U.S. and turned down the offer to meet with him in the embassy, Ecuador was left with few options and ultimately chose to protect Assange from persecution and possible human rights abuses by U.S. authorities.

As Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, pointed out,

Correa didn’t want this mess and it has been a lose-lose situation for him from the beginning. He has suffered increased tension with three countries that are diplomatically important to Ecuador – the US, UK and Sweden. The US is Ecuador’s largest trading partner and has several times threatened to cut off trade preferences that support thousands of Ecuadorian jobs.

Even facing the likelihood of diplomatic retaliation by the United States, Ecuador decided that safeguarding human rights was of paramount importance in this case.

Ecuador agreed with Assange that he will likely be prosecuted for espionage by the United States, considering unmistakable signs that the U.S. is on track to prosecute Assange for his work as a journalist. A grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, has subpoenaed Twitter feeds regarding Assange and WikiLeaks and in testimony at a pre-trial hearing of prisoner of conscience Bradley Manning, an FBI agent acknowledged that “founders, owners and managers” of WikiLeaks are being investigated.

Were Assange to be extradited to the U.S., there is reason to believe he would receive even worse treatment than Manning, with prominent political figures ranging from radio host Rush Limbaugh to Vice President Joe Biden referring to him as a terrorist, and indicating that he should be killed for what he’s done in exposing U.S. war crimes and embarrassing state secrets.

An indictment is already prepared pending his arrival on U.S. soil, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has recommended that the death penalty be sought in his potential trial. There is also concern over a prejudicial environment he would face in a U.S. trial.

As WikiLeaks lawyer Michael Ratner put it,

Assange is rightly concerned about how he will be treated if he is extradited to the US. One need only consider how the US treated Bradley Manning, the army private who allegedly leaked the cables to WikiLeaks to see why. Manning spent close to a year in pre-trial solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, and then eight months under conditions designed to pressure him into providing evidence to incriminate Assange. During this time, Manning was stripped of his clothing and made to stand nude for inspection. Thousands of people, including scores of legal scholars and the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, have condemned Manning’s treatment as inhumane, and state that it may constitute torture. There is no reason for Assange to expect he will be treated any better.

The United States, officially, is maintaining an air of neutrality in the ongoing Assange saga. “This is an issue between the Ecuadorans, the Brits, the Swedes,” said State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. “I don’t have anything particular to add.”

Nuland rejected suggestions that the United States is pushing Britain to enter the Ecuadoran Embassy to remove the WikiLeaks founder. “My information is that we have not involved ourselves in this,” she said.

Former British ambassador Craig Murray, however, reported on his website that he has “private confirmation from within the FCO,” the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that the Obama administration is exerting “immense pressure” on the British government to enter the Ecuadorian Embassy and seize Julian Assange.

Murray points out that such an action would be “beyond any argument, a blatant breach of the Vienna Convention of 1961, to which the UK is one of the original parties and which encodes the centuries – arguably millennia – of practice which have enabled diplomatic relations to function.”

“The Vienna Convention is the most subscribed single international treaty in the world,” Murray notes.

In a way, seizing Assange in violation of the Vienna Convention would bring the whole WikiLeaks Cablegate scandal full circle. One of WikiLeaks’ major revelations in 2010 when it published thousands of classified U.S. State Department cables was that the United States had been routinely violating the Vienna Convention by committing espionage against UN officials.

As the Guardian reported on Nov. 28, 2010:

Washington is running a secret intelligence campaign targeted at the leadership of the United Nations, including the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon and the permanent security council representatives from China, Russia, France and the UK.

A classified directive which appears to blur the line between diplomacy and spying was issued to US diplomats under Hillary Clinton’s name in July 2009, demanding forensic technical details about the communications systems used by top UN officials, including passwords and personal encryption keys used in private and commercial networks for official communications.

It called for detailed biometric information “on key UN officials, to include undersecretaries, heads of specialised agencies and their chief advisers, top SYG [secretary general] aides, heads of peace operations and political field missions, including force commanders” as well as intelligence on Ban’s “management and decision-making style and his influence on the secretariat”.

The UN has complained that U.S. spying on the secretary general is illegal, citing the 1946 UN Convention on privileges and immunities which states: “The premises of the United Nations shall be inviolable. The property and assets of the United Nations, wherever located and by whomsoever held, shall be immune from search, requisition, confiscation, expropriation and any other form of interference, whether by executive, administrative, judicial or legislative action”.

The 1961 Vienna Convention, which covers the UN, also states that “the official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable.”

It was partially in response to these embarrassing revelations that the United States launched an aggressive counterattack on WikiLeaks – pressuring Visa, Mastercard and Paypal to impose a financial blockade on the anti-secrecy website, detaining alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning for more than 800 days in pre-trial confinement in violation of international law, and hatching a secret indictment against Julian Assange for alleged “espionage” against the United States.

“All of the evidence that is coming out of what we know about the Grand Jury and what is coming out of the Bradley Manning proceedings – confirm that there is, as the Australian government has been reported, by our own embassy in Washington, a criminal investigation of unprecedented size and scale,” says WikiLeaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson.

But ironically the United States’ own overreaching in its reaction has led directly to the granting of asylum for Assange in Ecuador. In its outrageous mistreatment of Bradley Manning, its lack of transparency in its judicial proceedings against Assange, and in the bellicose calls for Assange’s death by prominent U.S. political figures, the United States has hastened this unprecedented situation in which an award-winning journalist is granted asylum in order to protect him from persecution by the U.S. government.

Of course, this saga is far from over, and considering how aggressively the United States has gone after WikiLeaks so far – in blatant disregard for international norms – there is no guarantee that it will respect Assange’s status of diplomatic asylum or the sovereign right of Ecuador to grant that asylum.

“The United States is not a party to the 1954 OAS Convention on Diplomatic Asylum and does not recognize the concept of diplomatic asylum as a matter of international law,” the State Department said in a statement.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, which is providing legal representation to WikiLeaks and Assange, said however that “granting asylum is a humanitarian act and the UN General Assembly has unanimously declared that it should not be construed as unfriendly by other countries.”

“The U.S., Sweden and the U.K. have adopted and reiterated this very principle many times,” CCR pointed out. “It is imperative, therefore, that no diplomatic consequences should befall Ecuador over this decision.”

%d bloggers like this: