WikiLeaks is a rare truth-teller. Smearing Julian Assange is shameful

WikiLeaks is a rare example of a newsgathering organisation that exposes the truth. Julian Assange is by no means alone.

Last December, I stood with supporters of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange in the bitter cold outside the Ecuadorean embassy in London. Candles were lit; the faces were young and old and from all over the world. They were there to demonstrate their human solidarity with someone whose guts they admired. They were in no doubt about the importance of what Assange had revealed and achieved, and the grave dangers he now faced. Absent entirely were the lies, spite, jealousy, opportunism and pathetic animus of a few who claim the right to guard the limits of informed public debate.

These public displays of warmth for Assange are common and seldom reported. Several thousand people packed Sydney Town Hall, with hundreds spilling into the street. In New York recently, Assange was given the Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award. In the audience was Daniel Ellsberg, who risked all to leak the truth about the barbarism of the Vietnam war.

Like Jemima Khan, the investigative journalist Phillip Knightley, the acclaimed film director Ken Loach and others lost bail money in standing up for Assange. “The US is out to crush someone who has revealed its dirty secrets,” Loach wrote to me. “Extradition via Sweden is more than likely . . . is it difficult to choose whom to support?”

No, it is not difficult.

In the NS last week, Jemima Khan ended her support for an epic struggle for justice, truth and freedom with an article on Wiki­Leaks’s founder. To Khan, the Ellsbergs and Yoko Onos, the Loaches and Knightleys, and the countless people they represent, have all been duped. We are all “blinkered”. We are all mindlessly “devoted”. We are all “cultists”. In the final words of her j’accuse, she describes Assange as “an Australian L Ron Hubbard”. She must have known this would make a gratuitous headline, as indeed it did across the press in Australia.

I respect Jemima Khan for backing humanitarian causes, such as the Palestinians. She supports the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, of which I am a judge, and my own film-making. But her attack on Assange is specious and plays to a familiar gallery whose courage is tweeted from a smartphone.

Khan complains that Assange refused to appear in the film about WikiLeaks by the American director Alex Gibney, which she “executive produced”. Assange knew the film would be neither “nuanced” nor “fair” and “represent the truth”, as Khan wrote, and that its very title, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, was a gift to the fabricators of a bogus criminal indictment that could doom him to one of America’s hellholes. Having interviewed axe-grinders and turncoats, Gibney abuses Assange as paranoid. DreamWorks is also making a film about the “paranoid” Assange. Oscars all round.

The sum of Khan’s and Gibney’s attacks is that Ecuador granted him asylum without evidence. The evidence is voluminous. Assange has been declared an official “enemy” of a torturing, assassinating, rapacious state. This is clear in official files, obtained under Freedom of Information, that betray Washington’s “unprecedented” pursuit of him, together with the Australian government’s abandonment of its citizen: a legal basis for granting asylum.

Khan refers to a “long list” of Assange’s “alienated and disaffected allies”. Almost none was ever an ally. What is striking about most of these “allies” and Assange’s haters is that they exhibit the very symptoms of arrested development they attribute to a man whose resilience and good humour under extreme pressure are evident to those he trusts.

Another on the “long list” is the lawyer Mark Stephens, who charged him almost half a million pounds in fees and costs. This bill was paid from an advance on a book whose unauthorised manuscript was published by another “ally” without Assange’s knowledge or permission. When Assange moved his legal defence to Gareth Peirce, Britain’s leading human rights lawyer, he found a true ally. Khan makes no mention of the damning, irrefutable evidence that Peirce presented to the Australian government, warning how the US deliberately “synchronised” its extradition demands with pending cases and that her client faced a grave miscarriage of justice and personal danger. Peirce told the Australian consul in London in person that she had known few cases as shocking as this.

It is a red herring whether Britain or Sweden holds the greatest danger of delivering Assange to the US. The Swedes have refused all requests for guarantees that he will not be despatched under a secret arrangement with Washington; and it is the political executive in Stockholm, with its close ties to the extreme right in America, not the courts, that will make this decision.

Khan is rightly concerned about a “resolution” of the allegations of sexual misconduct in Sweden. Putting aside the tissue of falsehoods demonstrated in the evidence in this case, both women had consensual sex with Assange and neither claimed otherwise; and the Stockholm prosecutor Eva Finne all but dismissed the case.

As Katrin Axelsson and Lisa Longstaff of Women Against Rape wrote in the Guardian in August 2012, “. . . the allegations against [Assange] are a smokescreen behind which a number of governments are trying to clamp down on WikiLeaks for having audaciously revealed to the public their secret planning of wars and occupations with their attendant rape, murder and destruction . . .

“The authorities care so little about violence against women that they manipulate rape allegations at will . . . [Assange] has made it clear he is available for questioning by the Swedish authorities, in Britain or via Skype. Why are they refusing this essential step to their investigation? What are they afraid of?”

Editor's note: The full title of the film about Wikileaks "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks" has now been included in this article.

Julian Assange. Photo: Zed Nelson/INSTITUTE

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The anti-chemical weapons technology that could help rebuild Syria

A new compact chemical agent clean-up system offers hope to formerly deadly conflict zones.

The US “Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency” (Darpa) is an elite organisation tasked with developing secretive military technologies. True to form, its logo is oddly reminiscent of a supervillain’s – imposing and stark. Some of its projects, too, are futuristic weapons with darkly amusingly self-aware names, such as Mahem - a kind of self-forging molten metal spear that can penetrate armour. But not all of Darpa’s programmes add to the chaos of conflict. They have recently developed prototypes of a self-contained treatment system to neutralise chemical weapons and “scrub” the chemical-tainted earth clean.

 

Recently it has been impossible to avoid seeing the effects of chemical weapons. Clips of Syrian children simultaneously suffocating and crying uncontrollably as a result of the nerve gas sarin have become disturbingly ubiquitous, even despite chemical agents in warfare being banned. Less well-known, however, is the fact that chemical weapons are so toxic that the ground that they touch becomes unsafe.

The default methods for dealing with conventional munitions are usually open incineration or controlled detonation, also used for some chemical weapons – but the method, as well as the facility where neutralisation can occur, depends on the kind of chemical that has been weaponised. There are four types of chemical agent, which can be liquidised or in gas form. Each has a unique persistence (length of time it can remain dangerously concentrated in a given environment), and target: attacking the nervous system, the respiratory system, the blood, or cell tissues.

An ex-US Navy analyst once divulged to me that one of the reasons why chemical weapons are used in Syria is because they trigger an immediate halt to any plans for ground troops to be deployed in the affected area. Without knowledge of which agent was used, there is the risk that personnel do not have the relevant personal protective equipment, and they cannot be sent in unprepared. At the moment, troops are given masks and skin decontamination lotion kits, but scientists are also developing systems to protect soldiers against chemical attacks. The most hopeful potential is a caged “bioscavenger” – small enough to circulate (undetected by the immune system) throughout the bloodstream to counter the poisonous impact of certain chemical agents.

However, for civilians in the warzone, the effects are much longer lasting. Even after the agents have mostly dissipated in the air, and become dilute enough to breathe in, the ground retains some toxic qualities from the weapon’s decomposition. Darpa’s new machine – the “Agnostic Compact Demilitarization of Chemical Agents” (ACDC) – is significant because it is “agnostic”, i.e. unspecific to one kind of chemical weapon. The self-sufficient neutralisation units can also be used to safely dispose of bulk stockpiles of chemical agents alone and with any kind of contaminated soil. There are two distinct systems, a “dry pollution control process” that is suitable for arid soil, and a “wet” one that uses a slightly different procedure.

Darrel Johnston, senior programme manager for ACDC’s developer – Southwest Research Institute’s chemistry and chemical engineering division – said that “it is in [the US’s] national interest to have a field operable unit that can safely dispose of chemical warfare agents and other dangerous chemicals on the front lines in a timely manner."

The ACDC works similarly to a catalytic converter in a car, which makes polluting gases less toxic - it neutralises residual salts and acidic gases. Initial indoors tests demonstrated a probable 99.99 per cent success rate of eliminating all harmful by-products of chemical weapons usage. The resultant non-hazardous compounds can be left in the ground, without posing a risk to the environment or anyone’s health. This is a much “greener” course of action than conventional destruction techniques, which are typically very complex and require several stages due to inefficient treatment of waste.

Two of the most significant aspects of ACDC are its portability, as it is compact enough to fit into a shipping container, and its low cost. Doug Weir, manager of the Toxic Remnants of War Project, told me that there are many legacy cases, such as the WWII mustard shells abandoned on the Pacific Islands, “where infrastructure is limited and where the scale of the problem doesn't justify the price tag of a formal facility - where a mobile system would be really valuable”.

There are already attempts to neutralise the after effects of chemical weapons in Syria, but up until now, each weapon has required a different kind of method, which makes the process expensive and wasteful. According to Weir, regarding the logistical and security nightmare of processing roughly 1,300 tonnes of Syrian chemical weapons, the priority is likely to have been removing the weapons from the conflict zone “at all costs”. However, “there were a number of environmental groups who raised concerns about waste disposal from the [at-sea] process”. This is because each of the numerous methods used (one per chemical compound) yielded risky by-products that later had to be broken down further. Overall, the process has cost in the hundreds of millions of US dollars and generated 5.7 million litres of waste. In contrast, Darpa hopes that ACDC will cost just 1 per cent of the Syrian mission.

Although this all sounds optimistic, Gwyn Winfield, Editorial Director of CBRNe World, reminded me that “any system that attempts demilitarisation needs, by its nature, to be in a permissive environment”, meaning that Syria would have to be stable enough for ACDC’s arms control work to be meaningful.

Similarly, Dr. Michelle Bentley, author of Syria and the Chemical Weapons Taboo: Exploiting the Forbidden, told me that “this technology will not challenge the political problems behind chemical weapons use”. In particular, Assad has proven unwilling to part from his chemical stockpiles. She added that “we can’t just think about what we do about chemical weapons – we have to think more about how we do it”.

At the moment, the constraints on outside forces are such that the UN allowed the Syrian army to accompany inspectors to all of Assad’s chemical production and storage facilities, even those in rebel-held territory. The resulting tensions made it clear that – rather than technology being the limiting factor – the biggest task would be mitigating the political pitfalls of disarmament in such a polarised country. It is impossible to tell when Syrian air will be safe for civilians to breathe, or its soil will stop being too toxic to grow food.

However, those who have been forced from their homes by the noxious attacks may take some comfort in the knowledge that once the lab testing stages are over, Darpa plans to use ACDC in the field. If successful, ACDC will be rolled out as part of standard US military vehicles so that any chemical agent (combined with any kind of soil) could be neutralised, and former conflict zones might become slightly safer and healthier.

For now, at least ACDC can offer the hope of a clean start.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

0800 7318496