Jeremy Harding reviews The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story of the Suspect Behind the Largest Security Breach in US History by Chase Madar: What was troubling Julian Assange when he made a dash for friendly extra-territorial space? His detractors argue that it’s the usual story, to do with his propensity to see himself as the centre of the universe, and the target of an improbable plot to lock him up in the US and throw away the key. That last honour has already been bestowed on Bradley Manning. In the leaker, surely, the Americans have their man: why bother with his celebrity publisher? Outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in Hans Crescent, round the back of Harrods, a thin but emblematic presence is maintained by his supporters. While I was there earlier this month a French woman was squatting on the pavement, hunched over a placard, shading in the letters of a message that she later tied to one of the crowd barriers. It read, very roughly: Thank you, Assange, for giving us a history of the vanquished. She was thinking of something by Brecht, she said, or possibly Walter Benjamin. An older, more eccentric figure assured me that Assange had sneaked away from the embassy the week before through a tunnel under Harrods: the store’s security guards had just let her in on the secret. A third insisted there was only one way out of Hans Crescent for the man who’d already left by al-Fayed’s drains: first Rafael Correa’s government grants asylum, then Assange is set on a rapid path to Ecuadorian citizenship and finally awarded a minor consular position, which gets him from the steps of the embassy to a boarding gate at Heathrow under diplomatic immunity.
On a recent visit to Queensland – Assange’s home state – the US ambassador in Australia said the US could have him extradited as easily from Britain as from Sweden, only they weren’t bothered. Bob Carr, the Australian foreign minister, is equally relaxed: the reluctance of the US to extract Assange from the UK, he’s said, is proof of its dying enthusiasm for the chase. Carr can always be relied on to stick to the script, but the idea that the US could get Assange from the UK as easily as Sweden has to be tested not simply against the views of Assange’s lawyers and helpmates, but those of John Bellinger, for example, a former legal counsel for the State Department, who told AP television news in 2010 that bringing charges against Assange while he was still in the UK would put a loyal ally on the spot by generating a rival extradition request. Better for the US to sit it out: ‘We could potentially wait to see if he is prosecuted in Sweden and then … ask the Swedes to extradite him here.’ Assange’s people add that, unlike the British, the Swedes have an extradition treaty with the US which allows for ‘temporary surrender’ of suspects wanted for serious crimes, even if they are also charged in Sweden. This arrangement ought to be called the ‘Panama track’, after a 2008 diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in Panama City to Washington – courtesy of WikiLeaks – which sets out the advantages clearly:
Under this procedure, the suspect is ‘lent’ to the US for prosecution on the condition that they will be returned for prosecution in Panama at the end of their sentence. This procedure is much faster than a formal extradition, and has proven so successful, that [the Drug Enforcement Administration] sometimes designs operations to bring suspects to Panama so they can be arrested in Panama and turned over to US authorities quickly.
In Assange’s favour is the suggestion that any charge against him would also have to apply to Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times, as WikiLeaks’ US partner for the Afghan and Iraq war logs and the outlet for its diplomatic cables. As Chase Madar explains in The Passion of Bradley Manning, none of the material that Manning allegedly leaked is top secret. Out of roughly 250,000 diplomatic cables, for instance, 15,000 to 16,000 are ‘secret’ and fewer than half are classified. As classified files go, they pale by comparison with the papers Daniel Ellsberg leaked in the thick of the Vietnam War. Finally, there is a view in the administration that the leaks have not compromised national security. (The documents that make this case – one originating from the White House – are themselves classified, and Manning’s lawyer has already subpoenaed some of them.)
Even so there are reasons for Assange to be cautious. Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a written statement for the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this month that he had indeed ‘caused serious harm to US national security and he should be prosecuted accordingly.’ That might mean little in an election year, but what of the alarming trove of email traffic at Stratfor, the private security and ‘global intelligence’ firm in Texas, which was obtained by the hacktivist collective Anonymous and released by WikiLeaks six months ago? Among the 5.5 million messages, several relate to Assange and one of them, from Fred Burton, the company’s ‘vice president for counter-terrorism and corporate security’, says simply: ‘Not for Pub – We have a sealed indictment on Assange. Pls protect.’ True or false, this is not the kind of assertion Assange can afford to take lightly.
An overriding cause for concern is the statistical picture, summarised by Madar, of prosecutions under Obama: in the last four years, six people, including Manning, have been charged under the Espionage Act (1917) for disclosures of classified information. ‘Although candidate Obama campaigned as the whistleblower’s loyal friend and protector,’ Madar writes, ‘he has presided over more leaks prosecutions under the act – a use that the statute’s authors never intended – than all his predecessors combined.’ Assange is not on the US government payroll, unlike the others, but he remains unfinished business for the US, waiting in the Ecuadorian Embassy, listening to the machinery whirring around him as Foreign Office staff board flights for Quito and the Ecuadorian government checks every safety mechanism, keen to avoid any misunderstandings with the British. Meanwhile the high-level Syrian emails now being released by WikiLeaks are proof that Assange isn’t twiddling his thumbs. Western surveillance technology companies and defence contractors will feature prominently in the 2.4 million documents in prospect. In the first release the focus is on the Italian defence company Finmeccanica and its sales of mobile communications equipment to the government in Damascus, the last as recent as February.
Bradley Manning, by contrast, is out of the game. His exemplary punishment is required by the fact that he was a soldier working in intelligence. Assange may be a crusader but he was not enlisted for his country, or anyone’s, when he posted nearly half a million ‘significant action’ logs from Afghanistan and Iraq and a quarter of a million diplomatic cables on WikiLeaks, all of them sourced by a thoughtful soldier in Iraq. Manning, who has spent two years in detention, first at the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia and now in Fort Leavenworth, is charged under the Espionage Act and also with ‘aiding the enemy’. [Continue reading…]