War on WikiLeaks and Assange: 6 Ways the Whistleblower Is Being Attacked and Suppressed


"The first serious infowar is now engaged," tweeted EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow last Friday. "The field of battle is WikiLeaks."

Falling resoundingly on the wrong side of that battle are the governments of most major powers, some really bloodthirsty political figures, many financial institutions and Internet companies, and members of the media.

Here's a round-up of the efforts to attack, censor and suppress WikiLeaks.

1. Financial companies block services

Earlier this week Visa and MasterCard joined the proud list of financial institutions cowed into dropping service to WikiLeaks, announcing that they would suspend donations to the site. Visa said they needed to make sure WikiLeaks' activities did not clash with their "operating rules." As the Guardian points out, those high standards don't apply to other groups whose activities may raise cause for concern: "They claimed WikiLeaks breaches its rules, but you can still use those cards to support overtly racist organizations supported by the Ku Klux Klan."

Other companies using shoddy excuses to deny service to the site and/or customers who'd like to donate their money to a legal organization: the online money transfer company PayPal (owned by eBay) no longer takes customer donations to WikiLeaks. PostFinance, Swiss Post’s financial arm, froze the assets to the Julian Assange Defense fund. (PostFinance's website was down for almost two days, following a DDoS attack by hackers who have promised to target companies that deny WikiLeaks service. Today they went after MasterCard.)

2. Political threats against Assange and WikiLeaks

Actual government officials have publicly called for everything from Assange's assassination (because that would make the Internet go away) to charging the non-US citizen under the Espionage Act, to inventing laws that don't currently exist in order to jail him for something.

The Obama White House has made it clear they are pursuing strategies for shutting down WikiLeaks and punishing Assange; on Monday Eric Holder announced that he's involved in a criminal probe of the site, saying "People would be misimpressioned if they think the only thing we are looking at is the Espionage Act."

Assange remains in British custody after turning himself in a day after a warrant was issued for his arrest. The Independent UK reported today that US officials are in talks with the Swedish government about how to get Assange into US custody if he's extradited to Sweden.

3. Political threats against Americans reading the documents

In the meantime, government officials are trying to scare Americans about accessing the site. On Friday the Office of Budget and Management sent a memo to federal agencies instructing them to forbid employees from reading the cables. Employees who "accidentally" downloaded the documents are creepily instructed to tell their "information security offices.”

Soldiers who try to accessnews sites reporting on the documents trigger an online warning that tells them they may be breaking the law.

Last week, a State Dept. official suggested to Columbia School of International and Public Affairs that discussing the documents online could jeopardize students' job prospects, prompting the school to issue a warning about posting, or talking about, the cables on Twitter and Facebook. They walked back the statement Monday, but are prudent future diplomats likely to take the chance?

4. Government Pressure on Private Companies

Meanwhile, companies that do business with WikiLeaks have gotten both subtle and unsubtle cues to stop. A PayPal spokesperson said this morning that they decided to drop service to the site after receiving a letter from the State Department "saying that the WikiLeaks activities were deemed illegal in the United States."  (update: PayPal's claim has turned out to be pretty exaggerated. The company now claims that they were actually acting in response to a letter the Justice Dept. sent to WikiLeaks, warning them that the material had been leaked illegally and that as long as they held it "the violation of the law is ongoing.")

Joe Lieberman has gone on a rampage against online companies hosting the site's content, pompously demanding last week that "that is hosting Wikileaks to immediately terminate its relationship with them." Lieberman released that statement after Amazon kicked the site off its servers following a phone call from his office.

Many people have pointed out that all the legal and political threats lobed at WikiLeaks and Assange are just as applicable to any other journalistic outfit. On Tuesday, Lieberman showed that he's at least consistent in his calls for censorship, suggesting that the Justice Dept. open an investigation into the New York Times for publishing stories based on the documents. (US officials are not alone in threatening private companies that do business with the site: French Industry minister Eric Besson called on French servers to ban WikiLeaks.)

5. Internet Companies Cutting off Service

After the call from Joe Lieberman's offices Amazon.com kicked WikiLeaks content off its servers, then improbably claimed that the move had nothing to do with the call from Joe Lieberman's offices. Tableau software, a data visualization company, removed charts organizing the information in the cables. (At least Tableau had the guts to fess up that they'd removed the content because of Lieberman's threats) A few days later, EveryDNS, which provides domain name services, booted WikILeaks from the Internet, claiming that DDoS attacks endangered other users' content. Fortunately a host of mirror sites have sprung up around the web to keep the content online, and WikiLeaks is up under the domain name Wikileaks.ch.

6. Attacks of Media Stupidity

Unsurprisingly, misrepresentations in the mainstream media are helping corrode the discourse on WikiLeaks and Assange. A common misunderstanding is that the whistleblower dumped all 250,000 cables online completely unredacted, in some sort of destructive anarchist hissy fit. This totally false assumption, of course, helps drive the narrative promoted by government officials that the site has irresponsibly endangered US allies and destroyed all diplomacy, forever.

As Glenn Greenwald points out and as it plainly states on their site, WikiLeaks has only released a very small portion of the cables. Much of the content has already been published by newspapers, and WikiLeaks cables contain the same redactions used in newspaper stories.

One other common theme that came up a lot, at least before the soap opera parts of the story took over, is the idea that the cables contain nothing new, or interesting, or of value to anybody -- a weird way to minimize their impact at the same time that others in the media and government officials sketched out falling-sky scenarios. Given that a tiny fraction of the cables were actually released, it's pretty unclear what that judgment was based on.

A meme identified by Greenwald is newspeople breathlessly announcing Tuesday that the 'international manhunt for Assange" was over, as if Assange had been, let's see, hiding in a cave in Pakistan or something. It's an effective narrative because it jibes with the seemingly universal need to shoehorn Assange into a James Bond movie (admittedly tempting), but in reality Assange ended up in a British courtroom Monday in a pretty pedestrian fashion -- he turned himself in after a British warrant was issued for his arrest.

But implying otherwise not only adds drama to broadcasts, but helps solidify the image of Assange as a wanted criminal mastermind -- and prosecuting a criminal mastermind, of course, is certainly more palatable than hounding a journalist.

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