Why Psychologists with Social Responsibility Need to Support Freedom of Julian Assange

Supporters hold signs outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2013. (Photo: Xavier Granja Cedeño/Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores via flickr/cc)

Note: This document is created to clarify some of misconceptions surrounding WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s plight for freedom. This is addressed for Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR), a non-profit organization based in Chicago that works to advance peace and social justice through the ethical use of psychological knowledge, research, and practice. With this, I aim to address concerns and answer questions that PsySR members raised in considering whether to issue a statement of support for Assange.

Introduction

It is clear that the US government’s prosecution of journalist Julian Assange, his organization WikiLeaks and whistleblower Chelsea Manning, poses danger to press freedom and principles of democracy. Here I would like to also make a point as to how our government’s attack on these truth-tellers directly threatens what Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR) as an organization stands for.

Although he is not a psychologist, I consider Julian Assange as one of my colleagues, who engages in liberation psychology founded by the psychologist and Jesuit priest Ignacio Martín-Baró. I see a parallel between Martín-Baró’s and Assange’s lives. In fact, I further say Assange can be seen as our contemporary Martín-Baró.

Martín-Baró observed how people live “burdened by the lie of a prevailing discourse that denies, ignores, or disguises essential aspects of reality” and are made to conform to “a fictional common sense that nurtures the structures of exploitation and conformist attitudes”. With this understanding, he initiated the practice of “the de-ideologization of everyday experience” to “retrieve the original experience of the oppressed and return it to them as objective data”. Because of his fierce commitment to the emancipation of ordinary people and challenging the government’s official narrative, he was murdered by the US-backed El Salvadorian Army.

To me, this is exactly what Julian Assange through his work with WikiLeaks has done. By publishing information that has been concealed from the public, Assange and WikiLeaks associates made it possible for ordinary people to reclaim their history. For this, just like Martín-Baró, he has met political retaliation by the US government.

If we were living at the time that Martín-Baró lived, I am certain that many of us who practice liberation psychology will find courage to stand up against the state terror inflicted upon him. Our government, who took Martín-Baró’s life, is now trying to repeat the same atrocity by going after Assange. We should not let this happen to one of us and we must oppose Assange’s extradition to the US.

Dr. Lissa Johnson, a clinical psychologist, in a 5-part series of articles analyzed the psychological machinations behind the smearing of Assange. She revealed how corporate media and governments use psychological knowledge to control and manipulate public perception. Psychologists should stand up against this abuse of psychology and actively work to dismantle this distortion and bring justice to Assange, who has become a victim of this state’s coordinated psychological attack.

With this said, I will provide facts regarding Assange’s situation and address concerns that some PsySR members raised point by point.

Basic facts about his situation

1). A criminal investigation into WikiLeaks started in 2010 in relation to disclosures made by WikiLeaks in partnership with other major newspapers, revealing the evidence of US war crimes. In November 2018, The Washington Post reported that the US Justice Department, in what appeared to be an error of cut and paste in their court filing, inadvertently disclosed that criminal charges against Assange exist under seal.

This risk of his extradition to the US has been the reason why Assange sought and was granted asylum by Ecuador in 2012.

2). Assange has been unlawfully held by the UK government without charge since December 7, 2010, first in prison, then under house arrest and now as a political refugee living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

In December 2015, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Assange was being “arbitrarily deprived of his freedom and demanded that he be released and compensated”. Yet the UK government’s refusal to comply with the UN finding has allowed this unlawful detention to continue.

3). Assange has been illegally gagged from doing journalism (and expression of his political opinion, even to speak about his own situation) by the President of Ecuador, Lenín Moreno, who bowed down to the demands of Washington in exchange for an International Monetary Fund bail-out. March 28, 2019 marked a year of his isolation.

4). He has been deprived of sunlight, a space for exercise, fresh air and adequate medical care. Human Rights Watch general counsel Dinah PoKempner described his current living conditions as being similar to solitary confinement. A journalist who recently visited Assange reported that the embassy has turned into a prison by proxy. He is under constant surveillance and was forced to submit to a full-body search to see his visitors.

Issues regarding Assange’s preliminary investigation in Sweden

In a nutshell, the preliminary investigation of Assange’s alleged sexual misconduct in Sweden that turned into a years-long legal battle had characteristics fitting a type of CIA operation known as a “honeypot”. This is a tactic used to trap individuals who challenge the structure of power by use of sexual seduction. It is an essential part of character assassination and it is carried out with mainstream media’s coordinated efforts.

The purpose of this is to discredit and ruin the reputation of targeted individuals. In the case of Assange, the US government tried to divert public attention from its own war crimes and corruption that WikiLeaks’ publication of documents exposed. The established media effectively demonized him, by painting him as a “rapist” and falsely claiming he was trying to avoid facing justice in Sweden.

Here are some of the key facts:

1). The allegations of his sexual misconduct involving two women in Stockholm in the summer of 2010 emerged after WikiLeaks published documents concerning wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is known that in 2008, US intelligence had a plan to destroy WikiLeaks, viewing the website as an information security threat to the US Army. Ten days before the allegations emerged in Sweden US President Barack Obama called for the ISAF allies fighting alongside the United States in Afghanistan (which would include Sweden) to find a reason to file criminal charges against Assange and prevent his travel.

2). Assange has never been charged, anywhere, in relation to his alleged sexual misconduct in Sweden. This is often portrayed as a case, but there has never been a case. It was always only a preliminary investigation.

3). Information has emerged showing that both women involved have explicitly denied the official accusations of rape. One indicated that the police made up the charges and she felt she had been railroaded by them.

4). The preliminary investigation was initially dropped by the Chief Prosecutor of Stockholm, stating after reading the women’s testimonies that no crime had been committed. However, seven days later, another prosecutor reopened the investigation.

5). He did not escape or avoid facing questioning. When he left Sweden, he sought and was granted permission by the prosecutor and left the country lawfully.

6). The history of this investigation has centered around the Swedish prosecutor’s reluctance to question him, despite Assange’s repeated efforts to cooperate with the investigation. For instance, while Swedish prosecutors were willing to travel to the UK on 44 occasions between 2010 and 2015 to question people accused of murder and other violent crimes, they would not do the same for Assange.

Assange always made himself available for questioning. He offered prosecuting authorities in Sweden numerous times and ways for him to be interviewed in order to clear his name. All of those offers were rejected by the Swedish prosecutor until forced by Sweden’s Supreme Court to go to London to interview Assange in November 2016.

7). In May 2017, Swedish prosecutors finally dropped their preliminary investigation and withdrew their arrest warrant for him. Yet London police said at that time Assange will still be arrested if he leaves the embassy building. The UK authorities maintain this stance to this day.

8). The corporate media repeatedly misrepresented his situation, particularly his reasons for avoiding extradition to Sweden. Assange sought refuge in Ecuador based on the risk of extradition to the United States from both Sweden and the UK. Ecuador granted him asylum in 2012, acknowledging that he had a reasonable fear of persecution by the United States pertaining to his publishing activities with WikiLeaks.

For more details, go to https://defend.wikileaks.org/about-julian/#swedish

Allegations of WikiLeaks’ potential collusion with Trump campaign

This allegation emerged in relation to “Russiagate” — the narrative that claims Trump and Putin colluded to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, elect Trump and defeat his rival Hillary Clinton that has been put forward by liberal media (CNN, MSNBC and CBS in particular). This was amplified over the past three years and generated McCarthy-era hysteria of the Red Scare variety in the general public.

Now Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has come to a conclusion and it has become clear there was no collusion between Putin and Trump and his associates. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone magazine in an article titled “It’s Official: Russiagate Is This Generation’s WMD” noted how this hype has damaged the reputation of the press and how it further helped increase Trump’s chance to get re-elected in the 2020 presidential race.

Journalist Jonathan Cook wrote on this issue:

“Russiagate deflected the left’s attention from endemic corruption within the leadership of the Democratic Party, which supposedly represents the left. It rechannelled the left’s political energies instead towards the convenient bogeymen targets of Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin. … In the combined success-failure of the Mueller inquiry, the left has an opportunity to understand in a much more sophisticated way how real power works and in whose favour it is exercised. It is a moment that should be clarifying — if we are willing to open our eyes to Mueller’s real lessons.”

With its implosion, it became apparent that Russiagate was a complete fabrication and was socially engineered to manipulate public opinion. So, a question is: What is this really about?

I see Russiagate as the Democratic establishment’s attempt to divert the public from what was revealed by the disclosure of the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails. They did this under the banner of “Impeach Trump” by generating hatred for Trump among progressives and exploiting their sense of frustration and anger. In reality, the DNC leaks exposed real corruption in both the DNC and Clinton campaign. It had shown how the DNC was rigging the primary in favor of the Clinton campaign and that the Clinton campaign was actively aiding Trump’s candidacy with their strategy to get “friendly media” to elevate “Pied Piper” GOP candidates (that is, the outsider candidates considered the most extremist and, it was thought, easiest for Hillary Clinton to beat).

With this said, here one-by-one I will address questions concerning the allegation of WikiLeaks’ potential collusion with the Trump campaign.

1). There is no substantive evidence that suggests that the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks have colluded. In responding to accusations of WikiLeaks favoring the Trump campaign with the DNC leaks, Assange made it clear that the role of the organization is to publish whatever is given to them, and they will not censor their publications for any political reasons. Here is Assange’s statement on Election Night, explaining why WikiLeaks published the DNC and Podesta emails: https://wikileaks.org/Assange-Statement-on-the-US-Election.html

2). Some media have criticized WikiLeaks’ timing of the first release of John Podesta’s emails, thinking it was timed to take away attention from Trump’s Access Hollywood tape. An Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi, who has worked with WikiLeaks for nine years, described how WikiLeaks had already alerted her to its upcoming release time on the previous day, before the Access Hollywood tape was published. She also described how WikiLeaks staff were preparing to release material on Trump it had been sent, which didn’t materialize in the end as it was discovered during this pre-publication process that it had already been published elsewhere.

3). Major liberal media outlets such as CNN, NBC and CBS falsely asserted that Donald Trump Jr received information from WikiLeaks prior to publication, citing an email submitted to a Congressional investigation. However, the email itself shows that it was not from WikiLeaks but a member of the public and that it was written after Wikileaks had already published.

4). Political commentator Gary Lord addressed the accusation that Assange supports Trump and WikiLeaks helped his campaign. He analyzed Twitter direct messages between Trump Jr and WikiLeaks. He reported how these exchanges reveal how WikiLeaks asked Trump’s son to help them publish his father’s tax returns (which was ignored), while refusing enquiries from both Cambridge Analytica and Trump Jr regarding the upcoming publications. Lord summed up the nature of these interactions as WikiLeaks just doing the things that any good journalistic organization would do.

5). Aside from the unconfirmed ‘Russian hack’ story disseminated by the US government and major news networks, there was another, perhaps more convincing, source that has not been explored thoroughly. Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan came out to debunk the Obama White House’s continuous accusation of Moscow’s effort to undermine the election on behalf of Trump. Murray claimed that he met one of WikiLeaks’ sources for its US election publications in a wooded area near an American University. He denied the allegation that the leaks were from the Russians, noting how “the source had legal access to the information” and that documents came not by hack but by leak.

The VIPS group (Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity) report that their digital forensics study of evidence in the public domain (the output of the anonymous persona Guccifer 2.0, and later, separately, from WikiLeaks’ website) backs Murray’s statement and further sheds light on the gap between Craig Murray’s and the US government’s claims. In a memo to President Trump, a group of former US intelligence officers claimed that “the same inside-DNC, copy/leak process was used at two different times, by two different entities, for two distinctly different purposes”. The conclusion of independent cyber investigations indicated that “data was leaked (not hacked) by a person with physical access to DNC computers, and then doctored to incriminate Russia.”

6). In regards to the allegation that Trump’s informal advisor Roger Stone “communicated” with WikiLeaks, Stone lied about such communication. The sole communications between WikiLeaks and Stone were released, showing the whistleblowing site telling Stone to go away and stop falsely claiming to the media that he had contact with WikiLeaks. Yes, there was a contact, but journalists twisted the story and used misleading headlines while burying the true context in the final paragraphs of articles, to imply that they were working together.

7). The Guardian falsely asserted that Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort secretly met with Assange. This story was debunked by credible journalists who were able to see through its falsehood and WikiLeaks is now suing the newspaper.

8). The Washington Post also recently confirmed, through information obtained from US officials speaking on condition of anonymity, that the grand jury case targeting WikiLeaks is based on the Manning disclosures in 2010, that is to say, not based on material relating to the 2016 Presidential election, and it has nothing to do with US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation.

9). The Trump administration’s assault on WikiLeaks and Assange intensified right after the whistleblowing site published a trove of documents belonging to the CIA in March 2017. In April, the then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated that the arrest of Assange is a priority. Trump’s Secretary of State and the former CIA director, Mike Pompeo, called WikiLeaks “a non-state hostile intelligence service”, claiming that the organization tries to subvert American values and it needs to be shut down.

In essence, the mainstream media’s concerted efforts to embed WikiLeaks in the Russiagate narrative is another character assassination of Assange. They are trying to shoot the messenger who has revealed their own corruption. The establishment tries to marginalize and discredit WikiLeaks, yet the fact is in publishing material that concerned the Hillary Clinton election campaign, WikiLeaks has engaged in an act of journalism, doing what other media organizations routinely do.

Why do we need to bring attention to Assange’s case and not others?

Here, I will address remarks made by some PsySR members that said “those who are not of celebrity status, for instance many African-Americans in solitary confinement in the US should deserve equal attention”.

Yes. It is a fact that Black people are disproportionately incarcerated in the US and if you are white, you have more options to avoid going to jail. Assange is no exception. In our society’s standard, he as a white male was born into a privileged position that under normal circumstances — that is, if he had not embarrassed the US government by revealing its war crimes to the public — would reduce the chances of him ending up being in jail.

Here, the question we should ask ourselves is this: Why does this white person, with his skill, intelligence and talent, find himself in a situation where he is treated worse than a murderer without committing any crimes (other than the“crime” of publishing material in the public interest)?

Being arbitrarily detained in Ecuador’s London embassy, Assange now has less rights than the UN-mandated minimum standards for prisoners. For a publisher to be subjected to this condition is unprecedented.

My answer to this question is because he effectively challenged the structure of power. It is because he took real risks and demonstrated real courage by sacrificing his personal liberty and brought to light information that belongs to the public. By doing this, he did something that not many white men who claim to be on the side of the oppressed would have done up till now. He used his privilege for the emancipation of people of color, the poor, the vulnerable, and ordinary people who are disfranchised in this fake democracy.

For this, Assange has become a modern-day political prisoner. What is perceived by some as his ‘celebrity status’ is, in my opinion, simply a testimony to the extremity and outlandishness of his situation. Julian Assange is now nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. He has won numerous journalistic awards and the importance of his work has been recognized by many human rights organizations. Assange has become a champion of the oppressed, regarded as a hero around the world, especially by those who live under authoritarian and oppressive regimes where human right abuses are rampant. Many see him as being equivalent to figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

For me, the question of why bringing attention to Assange is necessary is like asking why we needed to work to free Dr. King and Gandhi when they were put into prison. Supporting all the other disadvantaged people who are unjustly incarcerated is important, but I also think bringing attention to Assange’s plight for freedom is essential for the integrity of PsySR. We can send a strong message to the public that we are an organization that defends those who fight against the systemic injustice in our society that perpetuates racism, economic inequality and oppression.

Conclusion

We are now approaching a very critical moment in our history. Our society is fast headed toward authoritarianism, with the Trump administration waging war against truth-tellers and eager to prosecute journalists. This attack on press freedom that Julian Assange’s persecution represents is a dangerous sign that indicates this.

During the Nazis’ rise to power, the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller wrote:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Now, almost a century later, we are coming to a similar predicament. WikiLeaks and whistleblowers are on the frontline of the battle for democracy and resistance against fascism.

“First they came for Chelsea Manning, and I did not speak out — because I thought she harmed national security.

Then they came for WikiLeaks and I did not speak out — because I didn’t like Julian Assange and believed the mainstream media who told me that WikiLeaks helped bring the victory of Donald Trump.

Then they came for the New York Times and the Washington Post, and I didn’t speak out ….”

History repeats itself, unless we confront it with courage and alter its course.

Back then, medical doctors were recruited to carry out the genocide of Jews through the Nazis’ medical killing. In our time, psychologists are facilitating torture in Guantanamo Bay, and working for the CIA to target tech firm CEOs to influence decisions concerning the development of science and technology. It is imperative that psychologists critically examine our profession’s role in society and become a force that eliminates the suffering of individuals and facilitates their liberation.

Martín-Baró once remarked to a North American colleague, “In your country, it’s publish or perish. In ours, it’s publish and perish.” Assange and WikiLeaks staff and volunteers continue this same struggle that Martín-Baró and others engaged in, risking their lives and freedom to defend those who are oppressed around the world.

Unlike the time of Martín-Baró, I hope now we can work toward creating a world where journalists can publish and not perish; that speaking up for the truth and the oppressed is no longer a crime, but is something all of society can celebrate. I ask PsySR to show strong support for the freedom of our colleague Julian Assange as our continuous commitment to the work of Martín-Baró and what he fought and sacrificed his life for.

Special thanks to Bella Magnani for helping me craft this document.