CHAPTER 11: The Cables, Near Lochnagar, Scotland, Aug. 2010
In my recent post on the current hearings at the Old Bailey over Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States, where he would almost certainly be locked away for the rest of his life for the crime of doing journalism, I made two main criticisms of the Guardian.
ASSANGE’S 58-CHARACTER PASSWORD
A decade ago, remember, the newspaper worked closely in collaboration with Assange and Wikileaks to publish the Iraq and Afghan war diaries, which are now the grounds on which the US is basing its case to lock Assange behind bars in a super-max jail.
My first criticism was that the paper had barely bothered to cover the hearing, even though it is the most concerted attack on press freedom in living memory. That position is unconscionably irresponsible, given its own role in publishing the war diaries. But sadly it is not inexplicable. In fact, it is all too easily explained by my second criticism.
That criticism was chiefly levelled at two leading journalists at the Guardian, former investigations editor David Leigh and reporter Luke Harding, who together wrote a book in 2011 that was the earliest example of what would rapidly become a genre among a section of the liberal media elite, most especially at the Guardian, of vilifying Assange.
In my earlier post I set out Leigh and Harding’s well-known animosity towards Assange – the reason why one senior investigative journalist, Nicky Hager, told the Old Bailey courtroom the pair’s 2011 book was “not a reliable source”. That was, in part, because Assange had refused to let them write his official biography, a likely big moneymaker. The hostility had intensified and grown mutual when Assange discovered that behind his back they were writing an unauthorised biography while working alongside him.
But the bad blood extended more generally to the Guardian, which, like Leigh and Harding, repeatedly betrayed confidences and manoeuvred against Wikileaks rather the cooperating with it. Assange was particularly incensed to discover that the paper had broken the terms of its written contract with Wikileaks by secretly sharing confidential documents with outsiders, including the New York Times.
Leigh and Harding’s book now lies at the heart of the US case for Assange’s extradition to the US on so-called “espionage” charges. The charges are based on Wikileaks’ publication of leaks provided by Chelsea Manning, then an army private, that revealed systematic war crimes committed by the US military.
Inversion of truth
Lawyers for the US have mined from the Guardian book claims by Leigh that Assange was recklessly indifferent to the safety of US informants named in leaked files published by Wikileaks.
Assange’s defence team have produced a raft of renowned journalists, and others who worked with Wikileaks, to counter Leigh’s claim and argue that this is actually an inversion of the truth. Assange was meticulous about redacting names in the documents. It was they – the journalists, including Leigh – who were pressuring Assange to publish without taking full precautions.
Of course, none of these corporate journalists – only Assange – is being put on trial, revealing clearly that this is a political trial to silence Assange and disable Wikileaks.
But to bolster its feeble claim against Assange – that he was reckless about redactions – the US has hoped to demonstrate that in September 2011, long after publication of the Iraq and Afghan diaries, Wikileaks did indeed release a trove of documents – official US cables – that Assange failed to redact.
This is true. But it only harms Assange’s defence if the US can successfully play a game of misdirection – and the Guardian has been crucial to that strategy’s success. Until now the US has locked the paper into collaborating in its war on Assange and journalism – if only through its silence – by effectively blackmailing the Guardian with a dark, profoundly embarrassing secret the paper would prefer was not exposed.
In fact, the story behind the September 2011 release by Wikileaks of those unredacted documents is entirely different from the story the court and public is being told. The Guardian has conspired in keeping quiet about the real version of events for one simple reason – because it, the Guardian, was the cause of that release.
Betrayal of Assange and journalism
Things have got substantially harder for the paper during the extradition proceedings, however, as its role has come under increasing scrutiny – both inside and outside the courtroom. Now the Guardian has been flushed out, goaded into publishing a statement in response to the criticisms.
It has finally broken its silence but has done so not to clarify what happened nine years ago. Rather it has deepened the deception and steeped the paper even further in betrayal both of Assange and of press freedom.
The February 2011 Guardian book the US keeps citing contained something in addition to the highly contentious and disputed claim from Leigh that Assange had a reckless attitude to redacting names. The book also disclosed a password – one Assange had given to Leigh on strict conditions it be kept secret – to the file containing the 250,000 encrypted cables. The Guardian book let the cat out of the bag. Once it gave away Assange’s password, the Old Bailey hearings have heard, there was no going back.
Any security service in the world could now unlock the file containing the cables. And as they homed in on where the file was hidden at the end of the summer, Assange was forced into a desperate damage limitation operation. In September 2011 he published the unredacted cables so that anyone named in them would have advance warning and could go into hiding – before any hostile security services came looking for them.
Yes, Assange published the cables unredacted but he did so – was forced to do so – by the unforgivable actions of Leigh and the Guardian.
But before we examine the paper’s deceitful statement of denial, we need to interject two further points.
First, it is important to remember that claims of the damage this all caused were intentionally and grossly inflated by the US to create a pretext to vilify Assange and later to justify his extradition and jailing. In fact, there is no evidence that any informant was ever harmed as a result of Wikileaks’ publications – something that was even admitted by a US official at Manning’s trial. If someone had been hurt or killed, you can be sure that the US would be clamouring about it at the Old Bailey hearings and offering details to the media.
Second, the editor of a US website, Cryptome, pointed out this week at the hearings that he had published the unredacted cables a day before Wikileaks did. He noted that US law enforcement agencies had shown zero interest in his publication of the file and had never asked him to take it down. The lack of concern makes explicit what was always implicit: the issue was never really about the files, redacted or not; it was always about finding a way to silence Assange and disable Wikileaks.
The Guardian’s deceptions
Every time the US cites Leigh and Harding’s book, it effectively recruits the Guardian against Assange and against freedom of the press. Hanging over the paper is effectively a threat that – should it not play ball with the US campaign to lock Assange away for life – the US could either embarrass it by publicly divulging its role or target the paper for treatment similar to that suffered by Assange.
And quite astoundingly, given the stakes for Assange and for journalism, the Guardian has been playing ball – by keeping quiet. Until this week, at least.
Under pressure, the Guardian finally published on Friday a short, sketchy and highly simplistic account of the past week’s hearings, and then used it as an opportunity to respond to the growing criticism of its role in publishing the password in the Leigh and Harding book.
The Guardian’s statement in its report of the extradition hearings is not only duplicitous in the extreme but sells Assange down the river by evading responsibility for publishing the password. It thereby leaves him even more vulnerable to the US campaign to lock him up.