As a constitutional rights lawyer, I’d like to believe that we’ve come a long way since the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.
However, in following the recent stories of whistleblower revelations exposing the criminality of governments – including that of the United States – in the shadowy field of modern intelligence gathering, one thing has become abundantly clear to me: Government investigative and prosecutorial agencies such as the National Security Agency haven’t grasped the elementary lesson of learning from, and therefore not repeating, the errors of the past.
Governments and their various entities are continuing a shameful tradition of misusing their powers when faced with challenges, and in that way destroying those who reveal truths and seek positive change. I’ve seen these efforts before.
Under the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s so-called counterintelligence program, or Cointelpro, in the 1960s, the United States went after the black liberation movement by personally targeting and repressing individuals. It did so through murder (including the killing of Fred Hampton in Chicago) and through prosecutions (such as the bogus Panther 21 case and the failed prosecution of Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins, and that of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton). These actions forced black activists to go into exile in such places as Algeria and Cuba.
Now, with more activism happening online, and an alarming amount of government criminality hidden behind spurious confidential classifications, the intelligence agencies – as well as the governments that back them and the secret courts that protect them – have turned to a new target, namely whistleblowers and journalists. And they started with my client, WikiLeaks, and its publisher, Julian Assange.
Through WikiLeaks, Assange established a secure method for obtaining information about government and corporate criminality from whistleblowers and other individuals. He courageously published that information, which transformed our knowledge about war, corruption, and diplomacy, and he inspired a number of truth tellers – including Chelsea Manning, formerly Pvt. Bradley Manning, as well as Jeremy Hammond and Edward Snowden – to step forward with similar information.
To those of us who are concerned by the crimes of secret governments and corporations, Assange, WikiLeaks, Manning and others like them are heroes. To governments – particularly the government of the United States – Assange is a high-tech terrorist, WikiLeaks isn’t worthy of the name “publisher” and Manning is a traitor.
The U.S. government, with the help of allies, led efforts to relentlessly target and silence these whistleblowers. It pursued measures to block funding for WikiLeaks while harassing and investigating its supporters. It convened a still-sitting grand jury to investigate and indict Julian Assange, and it sentenced Manning to 35 years in prison.
Recently released documents reveal that the National Security Agency placed Assange on a “manhunting timeline,” designating him as a target on level with members of Al-Qaeda and considered naming him a “malicious foreign actor” for publishing the documents or videos acquired by WikiLeaks. Legitimately fearing extradition to a harsh and conceivably torturous U.S. prison, Assange sought and won asylum. He’s spent almost two years in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, awaiting a guarantee of safe passage from the United Kingdom to Ecuador. This request has been withheld, even though it is required by law.
Despite these efforts to intimidate and silence those speaking out against the deepening surveillance state, Assange and WikiLeaks remain undeterred, inspiring, active and relevant. Other whistleblowers, information activists and journalists have continued the WikiLeaks legacy by revealing the truth at great personal sacrifice.
Jeremy Hammond engaged in the Stratfor hack and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Edward Snowden exposed the massive surveillance state the National Security Agency created in partnership with other countries and was criminally charged and is living in exile. Two of the American journalists who have been reporting on Snowden’s revelations – Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras – are living abroad, in Brazil and Germany, respectively. Sarah Harrison, a journalist and WikiLeaks editor who accompanied Snowden on his trip to Moscow as a legal adviser, is also living in Germany.
This is a critical moment. While governments, intelligence gatherers and associated agencies seem bent on continuing to repress whistleblowers, this cohort of journalists dedicated to the truth – acting in partnership with the scores of activists who support them – will continue to strive for a world where our private lives stay private, and where governments and corporations cannot hide their misdeeds in shadows and secrecy.
As global citizens, we realize that we can’t stand by as the National Security Agency and associated government agencies and departments repeat the past by continuing this assault on truth tellers. We must do more to protect and support whistleblowers and the publishers and journalists who ensure that the information they reveal is made public.
The struggle that is occurring is not just about individual heroes: These individuals are ultimately part of a movement seeking global justice, revealing truths and making information ours. We must prevent what occurred in the 1960s, ensuring through our activism that this movement is not destroyed.
We need to reveal, stigmatize and deter the repression itself, as was done with Cointelpro in 1971. We need to expose secretive governments, their criminality and their pervasive desire to be all-knowing. The repressive forces are not winning – together, we must ensure they do not. This is a fight that we can win.
Michael Ratner is president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights and, with the center, he is the U.S. attorney for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).