By an historical coincidence, both Julian Assange and Luis Posada Carriles were brought before Western courts around the same time in late 2010 and early 2011—Assange in Britain and Posada in the United States. The contrast in their treatment by the U.S.-Anglo system of justice and in their handling by the Western establishment media is enlightening.
Posada, now 82, is a self-confessed terrorist, Bay of Pigs veteran, School of the Americas graduate, and CIA operative who has been credibly placed at two meetings where the plan was hatched for the October 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed all 73 civilians aboard. He also has been implicated in numerous other terrorist acts in which people were killed or injured and property destroyed, and he played a role in the United States’ arms-smuggling network in Central America that eventually came to light in the Iran-Contra investigations.
“The CIA taught us everything,” Posada told the New York Times in 1998. “They taught us explosives, how to kill, bomb, trained us in acts of sabotage.” Posada was a star pupil. But as a longtime CIA asset and, until the past decade, the “most notorious commando in the anti-Castro underground,” the U.S. justice system has never charged Posada with a crime related to terrorism or the death of civilians, even though a former FBI counterterrorism expert who investigated the Cuban airliner bombing claims that Posada was “up to his eyeballs” in its planning. Surely this is because his killings and bombings were carried out against targets of U.S. policy, and because he almost certainly would have implicated the CIA.
In fact, the U.S. justice system never charged Posada with any kind of offense until early 2007, when a federal grand jury indicted him with the ludicrously lesser charges of making false statements during his naturalization interview two years earlier. After Posada had slipped into Miami’s anti-Castro Cuban-exile community in March 2005, he filed for political asylum but then quickly withdrew his application when he recognized that in the aftermath of 9/11 and Bush’s “War on Terror,” his past activities made him a “hot potato.”
But before he could disappear again, he held a news conference in Miami, and Department of Homeland Security agents grabbed him—and ever since he has faced a series of on-again-off-again perjury charges related to his original interview.
With his current trial now underway in a U.S. District Court in El Paso, things have not moved beyond this point, leading one observer, Jose Pertierra, a Washington D.C.-based attorney who represents the Venezuelan government, which since 2005 has sought Posada’s extradition to stand trial for the Cuban airliner bombing, to conclude that “all parties are waiting for a biological solution to this case.”
As U.S. prosecutor Timothy Reardon told the court at the start of this trial, Posada “can do anything he wants to the Cuban regime.” But he lied during his naturalization interview, and one “must play by the rules and tell the truth to become a citizen.”
Julian Assange, by contrast, has not killed anybody, or so far even broken any law, and key U.S. military officials have denied claims that information released into the public realm via WikiLeaks has resulted in anybody’s death.
In early August 2010, a Pentagon spokesman told the Washington Post that “We have yet to see any harm come to anyone in Afghanistan that we can directly tie to exposure in the documents,” and as late as November 28, a different Pentagon official who “didn’t want to be named because of the issue’s sensitivity” told the McClatchy newspapers that the “military still has no evidence that the leaks have led to any deaths.” Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitted that though WikiLeaks has proven ”embarrassing” and “awkward,” its “consequences for U.S. foreign policy [are] fairly modest.”
Assange is nominally under attack in Britain because of allegations against him in Sweden that led to a European arrest warrant being served on him in London for questioning in relation to “rape, sexual molestation and forceful coercion,” and for which he now faces an extradition hearing on February 7. But these charges increasingly appear to be a cover for a political assault on WikiLeaks, helped along by the now-pliable right-wing Swedish political establishment, and they have been convincingly exposed as such. (See, e.g., Al Burke, “Sweden, Assange and the USA,” Nordic News Network, December 28, 2010.) Assange’s real crime is the “exposure and embarrassment of the political class,” as John Pilger put it. That and the threat that WikiLeaks will keep doing this.
Of course, classified information is leaked regularly by U.S. officials to engineer consent to policy. But WikiLeaks has provided the public and foreign ministries and news media with information that the U.S. government wants to keep out of sight that might make policy management more difficult. This is what journalists and an independent media are supposed to do anyway, so WikiLeaks in its short four-year existence has been serving a major international public good and enhancing democracy. Also, as U.S. policy has involved aggressive warfare and illegal actions and has depended on institutionalized lies that almost nobody challenges, especially in the American media, WikiLeaks and Assange may well be contributing to the reduction of warfare and the saving of innocent lives.
One year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gushed about Internet freedom, about there being “more ways to spread more ideas to more people than at any moment in history,” and that “even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.”
Clinton at that time was advocating greater transparency in countries such as China and Iran. But after WikiLeaks began to release some of its holdings of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic documents in late November 2010, Clinton did an about-face saying, in words that could have come out of a Chinese official’s mouth, saying, “It is an attack on the international community, the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations, that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity.”
So Assange quickly became, in the words of Vice President Joe Biden, a “high-tech terrorist” and the U.S. government was urged by political figures to terminate him. As one-time Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said, the government should pursue him “with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaida and Taliban leaders.”
We must “strangle the viability of Assange’s organization,” Rep. Peter King, the new Republican chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, wrote to the Treasury Department on January 12, and “prohibit people and companies within U.S. jurisdiction from conducting business with WikiLeaks and Assange.” King was behind the curve. By the time he spoke, pressed by the US government, Visa Inc. and PayPal Inc. had already agreed to freeze WikiLeaks’ sources of funds, while Amazon.com had agreed to stop supplying its cloud-computing service for WikiLeaks’ content. The result has been a concerted state and corporate attack on Assange and WikiLeaks—and, more broadly, on global Internet neutrality, freedom of speech, and democracy.
Among the notable features of the treatment of Assange have been the speed and urgency with which U.S., British and Swedish officials have moved against him, the difficulty he has had in securing his pre-trial freedom, and the rush to extradite him to Sweden, a country that is believed to be more likely than the UK to remand him to the United States.
The contrast with the treatment of Posada is dramatic. Admitted terrorist Posada’s case has dragged on for upwards of six years, he has been free on bond for close to four years, and the United States still declines to charge him with any crime related to causing the death of civilians, only with giving false testimony, and it has long refused to extradite him to Venezuela, despite a longstanding treaty that obliges the United States to do so.
The contrast between the media’s treatment of journalist Assange and the real terrorist, Posada, is also dramatic. One difference lies in attention levels. Reading U.S. newspapers and watching U.S. television, one would hardly know that Posada is on trial in El Paso. Thus during a ten-day period in the middle of January 2011 beginning with the first day of jury selection in the Posada trial (January 10-19), Assange’s name turned up in the English-language media almost 22-times more frequently than did Posada’s.
The same contrast holds true when it comes to substance: Whereas coverage of the real terrorist is protective, lacking in indignation, and exculpatory, coverage of Assange features heavily the allegations of sexual misbehavior, often using the emotionally charged term “rape,” which is not even one of the charges being investigated in Sweden, along with a sense of “how-dare-he.” Posada killed many people in his terrorist career, but the media do not focus on that. Nor do they search out the relatives of Posada’s victims to call attention to their suffering. They do not dwell on the fact that he was a CIA asset. They do not feature the contradiction between the US government’s allegedly fighting a “War on Terror” and its sponsoring and then protecting a genuine terrorist.
In short, Posada’s case is a dramatic illustration of the fraudulence of the so-called “War on Terror” and highlights the U.S. refusal to abide by the rule of law. Assange’s case shows well the U.S. establishment’s fear of the free-flow of information that might interfere with foreign policy and reveal that there are many more Posadas whose service to the empire might be disclosed. And the media’s cooperation in this protection of Posada and pursuit of Assange is clear.
Edward S. Herman is professor emeritus of finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and has written extensively on economics, political economy, and the media. David Peterson is an independent journalist and researcher based in Chicago. Together they are the co-authors of The Politics of Genocide (2010 by Monthly Review Press).