Obama and Wikileaks

Tuesday 11 January 2011

It was more or less confirmed on Saturday that a secret grand jury has been assembled in America to consider espionage charges against Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange. Last month a subpoena was issued to Twitter by a court in the state of Virginia, under section 2703(d) of the Patriot Act, demanding the website hand over account details of individuals associated with the organisation. The court, it appears, is attempting to establish evidence that Assange colluded with the young man allegedly responsible for leaking thousands of classified U.S. government files, Bradley Manning.

The U.S. could not successfully prosecute Assange merely as the publisher of the documents (though some members of congress want to amend legislation so they can do so in the future). But if they can prove Assange – or others involved with Wikileaks – conspired with Manning to obtain and release them, then lawyers believe the prosecution could have a case.

The most striking thing about the U.S. attempt to prosecute Assange is the intense fervor with which the Obama administration is scheming to bring him down. They are exerting a serious, time consuming, money draining campaign to castigate him – and some of his colleagues – by any possible means. Only three years ago Obama was elected under the banner of ‘change’. Yet here he is, mobilising George W. Bush’s Patriot Act in an attempt to imprison a man who is merely practicing principles Obama has himself repeatedly preached.

At a speech delivered in September of last year, for instance, Obama puffed out his chest and said with great conviction:

The arc of human progress has been shaped by individuals with the freedom to assemble; by organizations outside of government that insisted upon democratic change; and by free media that held the powerful accountable.

[...] experience shows us that history is on the side of liberty – that the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies, and open governments. To put it simply: democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for our citizens.

[...] Open society supports open government, but cannot substitute for it. There is no right more fundamental than the ability to choose your leaders and determine your destiny. Make no mistake: the ultimate success of democracy in the world won’t come because the United States dictates it; it will come because individual citizens demand a say in how they are governed.

The speech was a good one, full of fist-pumping, high-minded talk about the ‘free internet’, ‘open government’, 'liberty' and ‘democracy’. As it reached its conclusion, Obama gained a rapturous applause. Yet again he had illustrated his wonderful and emotive oratory skills.

But when the emotion of the moment subsided, when calm resumed, his words remained mere words. The uncomfortable truth is that three years since his election as the saviour of America, in many ways Obama has only talked the talk – he has not walked the walk.

If the president claims to be a true advocate of open government, liberty and democracy, then serious questions must be asked of his integrity. 23-year-old Bradley Manning has been in solitary confinement in a Virginia prison for five months without so much as a preliminary hearing, a secret grand jury appears to be meticulously gathering evidence in an attempt to prosecute Julian Assange . . . while it has now come to the stage that American journalists are hesitant to support Wikileaks for fear of a government reprimand. All of this has taken place on Obama’s watch. Certainly a strange picture of ‘liberty’.

With his Wikileaks response, Obama has proven himself – although not as the redeemer of the American Dream, or as a great proponent of ‘change’. Instead he has proven that power has eroded his values, and that he has allowed himself to become a victim of an American political system that appears to be both diseased and contagious. As Commander and Chief it may be unrealistic to expect Obama to have embraced the actions of Wikileaks with open arms; however, this does not mean the only option for him was to bring down the iron fist.

If only, somehow, Obama could be made to live up to all his grand rhetoric – rhetoric that made people around the world believe he really was different. Like on January 20th 2009, at the rousing conclusion of his inauguration speech in Washington, when he took a moment to look out towards the future. “Let it be said by our children's children,” he said, “that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter”.

Now almost two years to the day since that historic speech, Obama has both turned back and faltered. At this particular juncture, history will remember him as the man who had ideals – but then let them slip. Perhaps we are naive to have expected anything else . . . As the Obama administration’s handling of the Wikileaks saga has in recent months illustrated, ‘change we can believe in’ was just a slogan, after all.

This article appeared originally at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ryan-gallagher/secret-grand-jury-against-assange-is-not-change-we-can-believe-in