War on Assange masks crimes of American power
Allegations about Julian Assange's private life have overshadowed the real triumph of WikiLeaks, says Patrick Cockburn
As Julian Assange evades arrest by taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to escape extradition to Sweden - and possibly the US - British commentators have targeted him with shrill abuse.
They almost froth with rage as they cite petty examples of his supposed gaucheness, egotism and appearance, as if these were criminal faults.
These criticisms say more about the conventionality and herd instinct of opinion-makers than they do about Assange. Ignored, in all this, is his achievement, as founder of WikiLeaks, in publishing US government cables giving people insight into how their own governments really behave.
Thanks to WikiLeaks, more information is available about what the US and allied states are doing and thinking than ever before.
An extraordinary aspect of the campaign against Assange is that op-ed writers feel free to pump out thousands of words about his alleged faults, with never a mention of far more serious state crimes revealed by WikiLeaks.
All these critics - and the readers who agree with them - should first watch on YouTube a 17-minute video taken by the crew of an Apache helicopter over Baghdad on July 12, 2007. It shows the crew machine-gunning to death people on the ground in the belief that they are all armed insurgents.
In fact, I cannot see any arms and what, in one case, was identified as a gun turned out to be the camera of a young Reuters photographer, Namir Noor-Eldeen, who was killed along with his driver.
I was in Baghdad when the shooting took place and I remember disbelieving the Pentagon's claim that the dead were all armed insurgents, but could not prove it. Rebel gunmen did not amble about the streets in plain view when a US helicopter was nearby.
The existence of a video of the killings became known, but the US Defense Department adamantly refused to release it under freedom of information. The official story of what had happened would not have been effectively challenged if a US soldier, Bradley Manning, had not turned over the video to WikiLeaks, which released it in 2010.
The cables obtained by WikiLeaks were published later that year in five newspapers - The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El Pais. The Belfast Telegraph has since published hundreds of confidential State Department cables in conjunction with WikiLeaks.
But the response to Assange himself was surprisingly mean-spirited and dismissive. Journalists seemed angry that their professional territory was being invaded by an Australian computer nerd doing their job.
The British commentariat is notoriously club-like, conservative and hostile, but this, in itself, would not have been enough for so much of the media to declare open season on Assange.
What created the difference were the rape allegations made in Sweden. Rape allegations destroy a reputation, however flimsy, or non-existent, the evidence, or convincing the rebuttal.
Assange has never really recovered from this. As for the suggestion that he exaggerates the chances of being extradited to the US from Sweden, this is surely very flip. Who would willingly take even a 5% chance that their flight to Stockholm might result in 40 years in a US prison cell?
Some adopt the official line that lives had been put in danger by the leaks. A more dismissive response was that the WikiLeaks revelations weren't that secret after all. In practice, the WikiLeaks documents are vastly and uniquely informative about what the US does and what it really thinks of the world we live.
All governments indulge in a degree of hypocrisy between what they say in public and in private. When democratic openness about general actions and policies is demanded, they pretend they are facing a call for total transparency, which would prevent effective government.
This deliberate, self-serving inflation of popular demands is usually aimed at the concealment of failure and monopolising power.
What the US government wanted to keep quiet about in Afghanistan was not just an embarrassingly negative assessment of Prime minister Hamid Karzai as their main local ally. It was that it had no credible local Afghan partner and, therefore, could not win the war against the Taliban.
Assange and WikiLeaks unmasked not diplomatic reticence in the interests of the smooth functioning of government, but duplicity to justify lost wars in which tens of thousand died.
Recent history shows that this official secrecy - frequently aided by 'embedding' journalists with armies - works all too well.
In Iraq, leading up to the 2004 US presidential election, foreign embassies in Baghdad all reported that US soldiers were only clinging to islands of territory in a hostile land. But the Bush administration was able to persuade US voters that, on the contrary, it was winning a battle to establish democracy against the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime and Osama bin Laden's adherents.
State control of information and the ability to manipulate it makes the right to vote largely meaningless.
That is why people like Julian Assange are so essential to democratic choice.