Capitalism and Democracy – Julian Assange and the search for truth

How many airline meals can you eat on a return trip from Istanbul, Turkey to Auckland, New Zealand? How many hours can you sleep? How many times can you clamber over your co-passenger in the aisle seat to visit the toilet or stretch your atrophying muscles? How many movies can you watch? I lost count, but I can tell you that Singapore Airlines are marginally better than their Malaysian neighbours in most departments – especially their inflight entertainment package.
Interesting as cinema –
but seemed to lose
sight of the main point
The films I watched, going and coming over half the world’s circumference have all faded from memory – except one, and I want to tell you about it.  ‘The Fifth Estate’ is a dramatization of three years in the life of maverick Australian computer genius Julian Assange and his Internet whistle-blowing creation Wikileaks. The film, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role, was released in October 2013 with very little media attention. Had it not been for Singapore Air’s inflight movie programme, and the ineffable boredom of twenty-plus hours in a cattle-class cabin, I would have missed it for sure.
As cinema entertainment, the film is less than riveting. Assange himself apparently refused to cooperate in its making, calling it ‘a massive propaganda attack.’ According to Forbesmagazine, ‘The Fifth Estate’ was the biggest movie flop of 2013. In what some might consider a sad case of insensitive and offensive political incorrectness, they entitled their list ’10 Box Office Turkeys of 2013.’
Well, that’s Forbes, whose owners apparently call their magazine ‘The Capitalist Tool’, so you probably wouldn’t expect them to be awfully sympathetic to Assange and his revolutionary website. I don’t know what your criteria are when choosing a movie for an evening at the cinema, but media hype and box-office takings have never been high on my personal list. I haven’t seen, and have no intention of seeing The Hunger Games 2, Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, Fast and Furious 6, or any of the other Hollywood serial blockbusters targeting the appetites of dysfunctional adolescent US males.
Who needs to see dystopian post-apocalyptic future worlds on screen – when we’re surrounded by dystopia in the here and now? On the other hand, if those gremlins in the White House and the Pentagon are precipitating the world into apocalypse now, that’s something I do want to know about – and I applaud the heroic efforts of non-conformists like Assange, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning in bringing Washington’s dirty secrets out into the open.
The biggest problem with the film, in my opinion, is that it focuses too much on the character of Assange himself. That’s to be expected, of course, in a Hollywood movie. In the end, as with The Social Network, about Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, story-telling becomes the object of the exercise. You need character development, human interest and some kind of moral or social message. If you want to see a documentary about Wikileaksand its impact on global politics, don’t expect to find it here.
Unfortunately, when historical truths are glossed over, distorted or forgotten, cinematic fiction often becomes the accepted version. News media seem to have pretty much lost interest in Julian Assange. He has been holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since June 2012, besieged by local constabulary tasked with apprehending him so that he can be extradited to Sweden for questioning over allegations that he raped or molested (you’d think it would be clear one way or the other) two women aged 26 and 31.
Circumstances surrounding events in Sweden in 2010 are murky to say the least. At first the case was thrown out by the Chief Public Prosecutor but police apparently continued investigations and it was reopened. MPs in Swedenrecently called on prosecutors to travel to London to conduct their questioning – but they refused. Assange claims to have text messages from the two women saying that Swedish police encouraged them to bring charges of rape. Whatever the truth of the matter, Assange denies the accusations and believes there is a plot to have him extradited from Sweden to the United States where far more serious charges will be brought against him – with the threat of life imprisonment or even execution.
It’s hard to know. Undoubtedly Uncle Sam and his current administration were seriously embarrassed by Wikileaks’ revelations about their activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their spying on leaders of supposedly allied countries. It would be perfectly understandable if they wanted to get Assange and shut him up for good, one way or another. The matter is complicated somewhat by his being an Australian citizen – though the government of that democratic nation seems conspicuously unwilling to stick up for him.
One thing the film does demonstrate very clearly is the way Assange’s enemies (and they must be many and powerful) have managed to shift the debate from the actual revelations about US skulduggery, to the character of the man himself. The concluding scenes of The Fifth Estate suggest that Assange is an egotist and showman, more interested in self-aggrandisement than in truth and justice. Police action in Sweden and the UK has painted him as a serial rapist trying to avoid the legal consequences of his depraved behaviour. The United States Government portrays him as a virtual murderer with the blood of patriotic US personnel on his hands.
News media, for the most part, accepted the spin and disseminated it – before subsequently losing interest. Public attention was diverted from serious questions such as whether US military personnel should actually be in Iraq or Afghanistan; what is the true nature of their activity in those countries; and whether anyone in the world is safe from surveillance by the US government.
A similar pattern of behaviour is evident in the treatment meted out to two of Wikileaks’ sources, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Elizabeth (aka Bradley) Manning. Snowden has been in Russia since June 2013, having been offered temporary sanctuary. This was necessitated by the US Government’s revoking his passport and charging him with espionage and theft of government documents. A recent article in the Washington Post questions Snowden’s commitment to democracy and open government on the grounds that he has taken sanctuary in a country accused of violating these principles. The implication is that the guy would better demonstrate commitment to truth and freedom by returning to the USA where he could be tried and put away for the rest of his life, as seems to be the case with poor Chelsea Elizabeth.
Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning is the 26 year-old US private who turned over vast quantities of military documents relating to the conduct of American military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. In July 2013 he/she was convicted of espionage and theft and sentenced to thirty-five years in prison. The day after sentencing, Manning made a public announcement that he now wished to be known as Chelsea and would be undergoing hormone therapy to confirm what he/she considered his/her true identity as a woman.
Well, it’s easy to see how some might consider that Manning’s personal problems would account for erratic behaviour and explain to some degree why he would do what he did with those confidential military documents. It’s easy to understand how some, within the news media and US society at large might want to focus on Manning’s sexual identity and lose sight of the greater issue of what those documents actually revealed.
The Wikileaks story, as it is currently unfolding, raises an interesting question about individuals who achieve beyond the limits of normal human expectations. The high achiever with feet of clay is axiomatic. Should Bill Clinton be remembered for having presided over the longest period of peacetime economic expansion in American history – or for having sex with that woman? If the current Prince of Wales ever becomes King Charles III of Great Britain, will we want to think of him as a committed champion of the environment and other worthy causes, or as a guy who once compared himself to a tampon in the service of his mistress? Shane Warne is arguably one of the greatest bowlers in the history of the game of cricket – but one could easily tell a different story by focusing on his foul mouth, marital infidelities, use of banned substances and the taint of match-fixing.
It takes a certain kind of character to blow the whistle on an employer. Most of us put up with the dirt we see in our workplaces. We turn a blind eye, rationalise it away, or conspire to become part of the problem in the interests of career advancement or mere job security. It takes rare courage to speak out, to go to the media or some other outside party and divulge corporate corruption and evil-doing. A healthy society needs to act on information thus obtained to ensure that corporations and governments are truly accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, all too often, the whistle-blower is denigrated and punished, and the real criminals escape to continue their wicked ways.
As an interesting comparison with the foregoing, there’s another computer whizz-kid global citizen I’ve been keeping an eye on over the last year or so – a certain German entrepreneur born Kim Schmitz. Schmitz, like Bradley Manning, also changed his name, though not his sexual identity. Now known as Kim Dotcom, he is resident in New Zealand, having taken refuge there from the long arm of US law, which was pursuing him to answer charges of copyright infringement related to his highly successful file-sharing site, Megaupload.
Unlike Snowden and Assange, whose search for sanctuary was denied by all of the so-called free nations of the world, Dotcom was welcomed with open arms (albeit in conditions of some secrecy) by the government of New Zealand, who granted him residency under the ‘investor plus category’[1] – reserved for immigrants undertaking to invest $10 million in the country; this in spite of a history of convictions in Germany for computer fraud, data espionage, insider trading and embezzlement.
After being granted residency in New Zealand, Dotcom was convicted in absentia by a Hong Court for similar offences, but the New Zealand government declined to extradite him because it did not consider the crimes sufficiently serious. Upsetting the United States of America, however, is a different kettle of fish, and the slippery gentleman was arrested at his Auckland mansion by NZ  police in January 2012 in a high profile operation involving, reportedly, 76 officers and two helicopters. According to Wikipedia, ‘assets worth $17 million were seized including eighteen luxury cars, giant screen TVs and works of art. Dotcom’s bank accounts were frozen denying him access to US$175m (NZ$218m) in cash, the contents of 64 bank accounts world-wide, including accounts in New Zealand, Government bonds and money from numerous PayPal accounts.’
Since then, Dotcom has been released from jail, a court decided that seizure of his funds and property had been illegal, he is seeking compensation from the NZ Government, and has made claims that the US Government prosecuted him in return for contributions to President Obama from certain Hollywood studios. He has subsequently opened a new website called ‘Mega’, released a music album and two singles, and founded a political party. When I was in New Zealand in January I saw several city buses sporting large portraits of Dotcom advertising his album. Clearly the man has a gift for self-preservation and publicity.
So what makes him different from Julian Assange? The obvious factor is money. Dotcom is a multi-millionaire whose wealth has enabled him to buy refuge with a respected member of the international community of nations, pay for the best legal representation and command the assistance of municipal mayors, ministers of the Crown and even the Prime Minister himself. Assange, on the other hand, made little or no money from his Internet activities, lived out of a suitcase, was dependent on the goodwill of friends and supporters, and, when the chips were down, became a hunted man with the international community ganging up to hound him.
A less obvious difference between Assange and Dotcom is the political leader under whose wing they are sheltering. Dotcom seems to have bought the protection of a capitalist government, of a prime minister who is the privileged friend of big business, whose ethical standards are, apparently, up for negotiation. Assange, in contrast, found that, when all had deserted him, he was offered protection by the president of a country who has fought for its national interests, reduced its high levels of poverty, indigence and unemployment, and been re-elected for a third term in office with an increased majority. Rafael Correa of Ecuador may not be the US’s favourite neighbour, but he is doing the world and the cause of democracy a great service.


Investigate the Abuses Bradley Manning Exposed

Further to my previous post about Julian Assange and Wikileaks, you’ve no doubt seen that young Bradley Manning, after serving three years in gaol before being convicted of anything, has now been sentenced to 35 years. Here’s what Amnesty International has to say:

President Obama should commute US Army Private Bradley Manning’s sentence to time already served to allow his immediate release, Amnesty International said today. 

Military judge Col Denise Lind today sentenced the Wikileaks source to 35 years in military prison – out of a possible 90 – for leaking reams of classified information. He has already served more than three years in pre-trial detention, including 11 months in conditions described by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture as cruel and inhumane. Read more:

Julian Assange, The Unauthorised Autobiography – Review

‘Indian [Native American] history is the antidote to the pious ethnocentrism of American exceptionalism, the notion that Americans are God’s chosen people. Indian history reveals that the United States and its predecessor British colonies have wrought great harm in the world. We must not forget this – not to wallow in our wrongdoing, but to understand and to learn, that we might not wreak harm again.’
That quote comes from a book I picked up on our recent visit to the USA, ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me’, by James W Loewen who, the back cover tells me, is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont. My copy is the updated 2007 edition of a book that was first published in 1995 and claims to have won the American Book Award and the Oliver C Cox Anti-racism Award of the American Sociological Association.
The words can be found in the last paragraph of the 4th chapter, which is as far as I have got so far. The chapter is entitled ‘Red Eyes’, and discusses what Loewen refers to as ‘the most lied-about subset of our population,’ Native Americans. The learned professor’s thesis is that textbooks used in US high school history courses have presented, and mostly continue to present, an idealised programme of White American-centred myth-making and patriotic indoctrination that bores and frustrates students, and bears little relation to the reality of their nation’s past.
Earlier chapters deal with the process of hero-making, the true importance of Christopher Columbus, and the truth about Thanksgiving. In discussing that sacred event on the all-American calendar, Professor Loewen points out that the traditional ingredients of a Thanksgiving meal, pumpkins, turkey, corn and squash, were all indigenous to the Americas, and that the pilgrims, in reality, were indebted to their Indian neighbours more than to their God for survival in the new colony. He further informs us that celebration of the famous feast dates only from 1863 when President Lincoln, looking for ways to stir up patriotic fervour, declared the date a national holiday.
Well, as you will expect from my title, I am not here to review the Professor’s book. Loewen is discussing history, though he does include the warning that the present cannot be properly understood without a realistic appraisal of past events. My aim was to set the scene for a discussion of contemporary events that demonstrate the same processes at work: tailoring the story to suit a desired end result, overlooking inconvenient facts, and creating scapegoats and villains to justify a particular course of action.
When it comes to studying history, the problem is not so much that the true stories are not available – rather that they are generally only available to researchers and serious students. The rest of us are lulled into soporific acquiescence by the barrage of ‘facts’ served up by the weighty textbooks we lugged around at school. When it comes to contemporary issues, we are at the mercy of the mainstream news media, for the most part controlled by business and political interests whose purpose is rarely to present an unbiased account.
I am greatly indebted to my experiences in Turkey for opening my eyes to how much my own worldview had been shaped by those factors. One of my earliest such experiences was attending a celebration where Turks were commemorating 18 March 1915 as their day of victory in the First World War theatre we know as the Gallipoli Campaign – in defiance of New Zealanders and Australians who know our boys didn’t even get there till 25 April! Of course if you search you can find details of the Royal Navy’s earlier disastrous attempt to force a passage through the Dardanelle Straits – but that didn’t feature in any accounts I heard or read in my school years.
I guess life was easier in those days for government, military and status quo propagandists when the general public’s sources of information were fewer in number, narrower in scope and more easily controlled. I learnt, many years after the event, and from a very unofficial source, that the British military had been testing its atomic weapons in the trackless wastes of Australia’s central desert – and I was shocked. Surprisingly, many people still don’t know about the Brits’ nuclear testing programme, although I guess it’s no longer classified information.
Another historical fact I learnt recently is that the United States had five military bases in Turkey during the Cold War, with nuclear weapons, missiles and artillery aimed at targets in the Soviet Union. The thing is, I can’t help feeling that the Australian public, and maybe the public in Britain and in other NATO countries too, for all I know, would have liked access to that information at the time, in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s when it was extremely relevant to events on the international stage, and they might have exercised their parliamentary vote according to whether a political party supported or opposed the business. American citizens also might have been less starry-eyed and gung-ho about President JF Kennedy’s threat to start World War III if the Russians didn’t pull their missiles out of Cuba.
It’s a fantasy, I know, but what if British and United States voters had had been able to eavesdrop on conversations between George Dubya Bush and Tony (the Poodle) Blah prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq? What if the Queen (bless her heart) had heard Tony promising Cherie that he’d convert to Roman Catholicism just as soon as he stopped being Prime Minister?
Sadly, in those pre-Wikileaks days, they weren’t, and Her Majesty didn’t. Then, almost overnight, thanks to a white-haired computer geek from Townsville, Australia, the world changed – and I suspect, hope, pray, it will never be the same again. Wikileaks was the website that brought us memorable video footage from a US Apache helicopter gunship where we heard the crew chattering excitedly like 13 year-old war-gaming kids, heard the tak-tak-tak of the cannon as the gunner got the ok to ‘Light ‘em up!’, saw the mostly unarmed civilians, including two Reuters Agency photographers, dying in a hail of 30 mm shells, saw the small van with its occupants, including two children, trying to pick up the wounded, and  suffering the same fate. War photography too will never be the same.
It was Wikileaks again that allowed us to overhear US diplomats expressing their refreshingly undiplomatic feelings about world leaders most of us have serious doubts about: Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah pressing the U.S. to ‘cut off the head of the snake’ by taking action against Iran’s nuclear program. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi described as ‘feckless’ and ‘vain.’ German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed as ‘risk averse and rarely creative.’
Of course, I understand that President Obama and his Secretaries of State past and present, Hilary Clinton and John Kerry are seriously p—d off with Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange. I can totally understand how they would be happy to lock him up in some federal penitentiary until they felt he was suitably penitent – which might be a while. On the other hand, I know there are some Americans, and even a few Australians, in spite of the reluctance of their government to stand up for the guy, who believe he did the world a favour by making that stuff available, and are secretly hoping the Ecuadoreans will find a way to spirit Assange out of their embassy, past those London bobbies, and off to the sanctuary of Quito where he can keep giving us insights into events and information our leaders would prefer us not to know.
So I want to tell you a little about the book I read before starting on the one dealing with the lies I learnt at school. It’s called ‘Julian Assange, the Unauthorised Autobiography’, and it may be even more important than the one about Steve Jobs.
One detail that needs explaining early on (and the publisher, Canongate Books does so) is how an autobiography can be unauthorised. Apparently Assange signed a contract and worked with a chosen writer, but later tried to pull out of the deal. By that time, according to Canongate, money had already changed hands (and been used by Assange to pay legal bills) and 38 publishing houses were committed to releasing the book. So here we have it – unauthorised but apparently straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.
The book begins with Assange in a cell in Wandsworth Prison in London, comparing himself to Oscar Wilde, who, at about the same age, but in an earlier century, had spent time there after being convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – Victorian-speak for male homosexuality. Assange’s sexuality seems to be more mainstream, but it’s not until the penultimate chapter that we get his side of the business with the Swedish lasses. At first he is more concerned with giving details of his court appearances and time in prison, despite not having been charged with any crime – and explaining why he believes it’s not actually about the ladies.
From Wandsworth Gaol we flashback to Australia, mostly northern Queensland, where Assange was born into a hippy alternative lifestyle in an idyllic tropical paradise tinged with reality by the difficulties of being raised by a 19 year-old politically active solo mum. I’ll skip the details, but those were interesting times – and young Julian seems to have grown up in an environment of healthy anti-establishment scepticism.
The 1980s decade brought the personal computer into middle class homes, and for Assange, the world-changing technology came in the shape of a Commodore 64, produced by a now defunct company that, for a time there, actually outsold IBM PC compatibles, Apple machines and Atari. The C64 became his ‘consciousness’. Assange and his computer geek peers ‘always knew that the world was more modern than [the old guard] realised. Cairo was waiting. Tunisia was waiting. We were all waiting for the day when our technology would allow an increasing universality of freedom. In the future, power would not come from the barrel of a gun but from communications, and people would know themselves not by the imprimatur of a small and powerful coterie, but by the way they could disappear into a social network with huge political potential.’
Assange tells of his hacking exploits, under the code-name Mendax, starting in the late 1980s, as he rose to the challenge of ‘getting past a barrier that has been erected to keep you out’. One of his better efforts, apparently, was hacking his way into the computer system of the Pentagon’s 8thCommand Group. He compares his circle of like-minded freedom fighters to the 17thcentury Levellers in England – a political movement which, according to Wikipedia, ’emphasised popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance’, expressing their ideas in a manifesto they called ‘Agreement of the People’. Perhaps, in a premonition of what was to come, Assange writes that ‘Governments were much more scared [of the power of the internet] than they were of people demonstrating in the street or throwing petrol bombs over barricades.’ In a chapter headed ‘Cypherpunks’,he speaks of a movement ‘engaged in establishing a system for the information age . . . that would allow individuals rather than merely corporations, to protect their privacy.’
What this movement produced in 2006 was Wikileaks, ‘the most secure platform for whistle-blowers the world had ever known.’ The essential principles were: so-called human rights are only rightsif they are enforceable; ordinary citizens are often in possession of information the rest of us should know for true democracy to operate; if they want to share it they should be able to do so in privacy and anonymity; once they decide to share the information, it needs to be published by the mainstream media.
The 70-page Appendix to Assange’s autobiography contains details of the most noteworthy leaks made available via the Wikileakswebsite, many of which were picked up by major news media, to the benefit of their circulation, no doubt, and to the extreme embarrassment of many governments: the Standard Operating Procedure Manual for Guantanamo detention centre, for example, and information provided by a former employee of Julius Baer Bank (HQ in Zurich) detailing how the bank assisted wealthy clients to move taxable funds to tax-havens in the Cayman Islands.
The book is a fascinating read, essential for anyone wishing to access an alternative view to that presented by those ‘outed’ governments and their lapdog news media. As Assange notes, the Information Age has rendered obsolete, or at least highly debatable, many legal concepts laid down in simpler times, not least of which is the question of who ‘owns’ information. Of course, as those 17th century Levellers discovered to their cost, the establishment elite in any society will fight tooth and nail to preserve their power and privileges. Sad to say, Assange may have been unduly optimistic about the democratic freedoms new communications technology would bring to Egypt. Possibly we will never know the extent to which the governments of the United States and Saudi Arabia influenced the military coup in Cairo. As for Wikileaks, we watch in stunned disbelief as the debate is switched from shocking revelations about events actually taking place behind the scenes on the world stage, to the romantic escapades of an Australian citizen and two sexually liberated Scandinavian women – with the active connivance of news media that were previously so keen to publish the leaked material.
Back in England in the 1640s, leaders of the Levellers were tried and hanged, or hunted down and shot by Oliver Cromwell’s men– thereby collapsing one of history’s early movements advocating popular democratic freedoms. We are currently waiting to hear how many lifetimes Private Bradley Manning will spend in prison; and Russian President Putin has seriously upset the US Government by granting asylum to Edward Snowden, who would otherwise very likely share Manning’s fate. How long Julian Assange can hang out in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London remains to be seen. The important thing for supporters of true democracy is not to lose sight of the real issue.
‘It is not Wikileaks the United States government is afraid of, and it is not Julian Assange that they are afraid of. What does it matter what I know? What does it matter what Wikileaks knows? It matters not at all. What matters is what you know. This is all about you.’

Julian Assange The Unauthorised Autobiography(Canongate Books, 2011) 339 pages 

Freedom of Speech in Other Places – apart from Turkey

‘No nation can achieve stability and economic growth if half the population is not empowered.’
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton uttered the words recently in a speech she made in Tokyo (Time, 23 July 2012). Apparently she was referring to Afghanistan, and the sad plight of that nation’s women – oppressed, downtrodden and disenfranchised. No doubt Mrs Clinton feels genuinely sorry for her disadvantaged sisters in Muslim countries, but is she aware that the average voter turnout in US presidential elections since 1992 is 52%? I can’t help feeling Madame Secretary might more profitably focus on the 48% of her own citizens who seem to feel that democracy in the land of the free has little to offer them – and look for ways of empowering them.

I mentioned in my previous post, a book called American Theocracy, where the writer Kevin Phillips posits an unholy alliance of Big Oil, the Debt/Finance Industry and fundamentalist Christianity which he claims have united to govern the United States. The book was published in 2006, and Phillips’ primary concern was President George Dubya Bush, and what he saw as the Republican Party sell-out to that Big Three. Phillips details the elements of the partnership:

  • Encouragement of continued profligate oil consumption, refusal to develop alternative fuels and limit carbon emissions;
  • Continued encouragement of consumer-driven economic growth fuelled by the debt/finance industry;
  • Deregulation of the finance sector, tax-cuts for the wealthy and calls for reduced government spending on social programmes;
  • Refusal to accept the case for global warming, and support for the lobby against abortion and in favour of teaching creation/intelligent design in schools, are all part of the plan.
  • The beauty of it is that it appeals to all of the Big Three: unfettered capitalism does not conflict with the beliefs of the religious loonies convinced that end-times are upon us and only Jesus can save the world, so there’s no need for social welfare programmes – bankers don’t really care what kind of rubbish kids get taught in schools and no doubt abortion, like everything else, will always be an available option for the rich.

Did anyone seriously believe that the Iraq invasion wasn’t about oil? Or that George W Bush is a true follower of Jesus? Honestly, if I thought Jesus loved the 43rd president, I’d have to rethink my whole understanding of Christianity.

As you may have realised, this post doesn’t have much to do with Turkey – or at least only peripherally – so at this point you may want to switch to another channel. My focus here is Ecuador, New Zealand, Sweden and the United Kingdom, the USA, Chile and Venezuela, not necessarily in that order.

Rapist or champion of freedom of the press?

No doubt, like me, you’ve been following news items from London about Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks guy. That he’s been accused of sexual assault by a couple of women in Sweden; that he’s holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in the plush neighbourhood of Knightsbridge; that the London Metropolitan Police Force has mobilised significant manpower to ensure that he can’t sneak out of the country; that the UK Government seems committed to extraditing the guy to Sweden so that he can be questioned about the alleged offences.

I have to admit I didn’t pay much attention to those Wiki-leaks when they first surfaced. I’ve always been fairly cynical about governments and politicians, and I guess I felt that nothing would surprise me. I had to do a check in the archives to see what all the fuss was about, and I can see why the US government and military would be unhappy to have such information made public. Those ‘Afghan War Logs’ and ‘Iraq war Documents’ showing that there were significantly more civilian deaths over there than official sources had been letting on; and that there seemed to be a policy of ignoring complaints of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers. Then there was that embarrassing video showing a couple of helicopter gunships mowing down apparently unarmed civilians, along with a Reuters journalist or two.

So, you can also kind of appreciate why the US army was quick to arrest a young private suspected of passing on the above material to the Wiki people. Bradley Edward Manning  is 24 years old and openly gay, with some history of psychological problems. In spite of that and his lowly rank, because of his high-level IT skills, he was posted to Baghdad and put in a position where he had access to databases storing extremely sensitive classified information. Private Manning, apparently disturbed by what he saw, and believing that the public had a right to know, took the difficult decision to blow his whistle. As a result, he has been in custody (much of it of a particularly unpleasant nature) awaiting trial on a number of charges, at least one of which carries the death penalty – though prosecutors say they won’t ask for it.

Which is where WikiLeaks comes in. According to its website ‘WikiLeaks is a not-for-profit media organisation. Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public. We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists.’  Well, if you’ve ever considered blowing the whistle on an employer, or heard about someone who did, you’ll be aware that the action carries some risks and dangers. And given that few institutions, from the corner grocer up, are as squeaky clean as they could be, you might think that there is a place in the world for an organisation like WikiLeaks. Julian Assange clearly thinks so – and that is what has landed him in trouble.

It is fairly evident that the US Government is keen to get its hands on this gentleman, and probably put him away for a long time, as a salutary lesson to others who might be tempted to emulate his obsession with transparency and freedom of information. His own government in Australia has indicated a lack of sympathy, and an inclination to cooperate with the USA. There is some evidence that plans are proceeding in secret for a grand jury indictment. Several high profile politicians and political commentators in the US have even recommended that Assange should be assassinated.

Interesting then, that an apparently unrelated and somewhat bathetic affair has arisen to threaten the WikiLeaks boss’s liberty. Two women in Sweden made complaints of rape and sexual assault against him in 2010. Despite clear evidence that Assange was consensually in the beds of the ladies concerned, and that the Swedish Prosecutor’s Office originally decided that there were no grounds for a rape charge, nor for having him arrested, this decision was subsequently overturned, and Swedish Police issued an international warrant for his arrest. Assange gave himself up to police in London, but, when it became clear that UK authorities were determined to extradite him to Sweden, he sought and was granted political asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy. It seems his fear is that, once in Sweden, the US Government will arrange for him to be sent to the US, where, he suspects, retributive justice will be swift and sure.

Assange and his lawyers believe that the Swedish business has been organised to give US authorities time to prepare a more serious case against him. They have asked the Swedish Government to guarantee that they will not authorise Assange’s extradition to a third country (the USA) – which they have refused to do. In the mean time, the Brits have police swarming all around the embassy to ensure the WikiLeaks man doesn’t sneak out. They even went so far as to imply to the Ecuadoreans that force could be used to apprehend him – a threat which they later retracted. Nevertheless, you have to ask, where does a relatively minor South American nation like Ecuador fit into this business?

Apart from a lifetime of eating their bananas, I confess to an appalling ignorance about Ecuador. Now that I know it is about the size of New Zealand, with a population of around fifteen million, I can understand why. However, it seems the small Latin American country has assumed some international fame (or notoriety) since the election of President Rafael Vicente Correa Delgado in 2006. Despite having studied economics in the US, Correa seems to be leading his nation’s march with a different drum. With the aim of reducing poverty and unemployment, and minimising Ecuador’s dependence on foreign companies and capital, he negotiated major restructuring of its external debt and a greater share of its oil profits. His government refused to renew the US military’s lease on the Pacific coast airbase of Manta, has been resisting IMF pressure to monitor its economic plan, and pursuing policies encouraging conservation in Ecuador’s share of the Amazon basin. Correa has apparently even endeared himself to the main group of indigenous people by learning their language. To tell you the truth, he doesn’t sound like such a bad guy to me.

One problem he has, however, in his relations with his large northern neighbour, is that he is good mates with Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela since 1999. Some sources suggest that Venezuela’s oil reserves could be larger than those of Saudi Arabia, and at present it is the US’s third most important source of oil. Little wonder then that there is some disquiet in upper echelons of the US Government that Chavez ‘probably doesn’t have the interests of the US at heart.’

Chavez’s self-styled policy of Bolivarianism opposes imperialism, capitalism and neo-liberalism, and has focused on participatory democracy and nationalising industries (especially oil). He has been influential in the establishment of the Bank of the South, a partnership among South American nations to provide finance for ‘the construction of social programs and infrastructure.’ In 2002 he was ousted in what may be one of history’s shortest-lasting successful military coups. Chavez maintains that the US was involved in planning the coup, and even its military leaders are on record as saying they believed they were operating with US approval. Whatever, the result was a huge outpouring of popular support for Chavez, resulting in his reinstatement a mere forty-seven hours later.

This got me wondering if there are any leaders of South American countries that are loved by US and British governments – and one surprising name I came up with was Augusto Pinochet, dictator of Chile from 1973 to 1990. General Pinochet came to power when a military coup, reputedly endorsed by the Nixon administration and the CIA, ousted the elected government of President Salvador Allende. Pinochet’s regime was characterised by free-market economic ‘reforms’, restrictions on labour unions and privatization of state assets, not to mention the imprisonment, torture, and or ‘disappearance’ of tens of thousands of civilians, some of which, unfortunately, were Spanish nationals. As a result, the General was arrested in the UK in 1998 and the government of Spain sought his extradition to face numerous charges of human rights violations. A protracted legal battle ensued, at the end of which Pinochet was released after Tony Blair’s Home Secretary, Jack Straw, overruled a House of Lords decision to extradite him to Spain. Apparently former US President Nixon, and former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had both interceded with Blair’s government on Pinochet’s behalf.

OK, Nixon we’ve touched on above, but what was Mrs Thatcher’s interest here? Well, it seems that General Pinochet’s military had given major support to the Iron Lady’s Falkland Islands campaign back in 1982. Some sources say that Chile provided invaluable intelligence about Argentinean air attacks, tied up elite Argentinean forces with threats of cross-border incursions, and even allowed British aircraft to operate with Chilean colours. Given that Dame Maggie probably wouldn’t have won a second term in office without the jingoistic patriotism generated by the Falkland Islands victory, you can see how she might have felt she owed General Augusto a favour or two. Unfortunately for Julian Assange, he clearly doesn’t have the same ties of ‘friendship’ in high level international political circles.

Even so, you might think that the British Government could take a slightly less hard-line approach to the WikiLeaks guy, if the issue really is just a matter of a couple of somewhat debatable sex offences in Sweden. As a comparison, I’d like to tell you about an on-going affair in my beloved homeland, New Zealand.

Kim Dotcom is a 38 year-old computer genius of German-Finnish parentage, currently resident in New Zealand, but very much wanted by authorities in the USA to answer charges of copyright infringement against his highly profitable company Megaupload. Admittedly, Mr Dotcom (or Schmitz, if you prefer), has a somewhat murky record of shady business practices preceding his Megaupload activities, but knowing this, the NZ government granted him permanent residency in 2010. Subsequently, however, NZ police raided his palatial home in January this year, and took the internet entrepreneur into custody – since when there has been a continuing legal shemozzle over the question of extradition. Most recently, a NZ High Court judge has ruled that in seizing Dotcom’s property, police exceeded the authority of their warrants, and the case is continuing. As an interesting aside, a prominent NZ Member of Parliament and strong supporter of the Prime Minister, has been accused of soliciting and obtaining a large donation from Dotcom for election purposes – but probably that has nothing to do with the larger matter. Whatever the case, I’m feeling kind of proud of my country for standing up to US corporate interests.

And I’m also feeling a little sorry for Turkey, as its government continues to field international criticism on human rights and freedom of the press issues. Is hypocrisy too strong a word to use for grand-standing politicians who seek votes by criticising other sovereign states while refusing to acknowledge the dubious practices of their own?

At the recent Pacific Forum in the Cook Islands, evidence has emerged of increasing competition between the USA and China for influence in the Pacific region. China, apparently, is making significant financial investment in tiny developing nations, and US officials are not happy, despite the fact that the US economy would probably implode without Chinese monetary input. One US spokesperson was quoted as saying:

” . . . we have consistently been calling for increasing transparency in the Chinese military posture.” Apparently the United States also ‘hopes to boost the forum as a regional alliance to combat shared threats such as climate change, encourage economic development and protect marine stocks in the face of overfishing’.

Run that by me again: the US government is calling for military transparency, and is acknowledging the threat of climate change?