Illustration from the updated edition of William Blum’s “Killing Hope”
The slow-motion execution that the U.S. empire is subjecting Julian Assange to, where Washington’s satellite state the U.K. is depriving him of the conditions necessary for a sound physical and mental state, is an external version of how the empire’s internal settler state creates political prisoners. Within the borders of the U.S. occupier regime, African liberation fighter Kevin Rashid Johnson and indigenous liberation fighter Leonard Peltier continue to be unjustly imprisoned. Should Assange be convicted, the empire will expand the arbitrary incarceration powers it exercises upon its internal subjects to a global scale, with the added effect of making war crimes journalism criminally prosecutable throughout this expanded range of tyranny.
In the hyperlinks on the names of these three political prisoners, I’ve attached petitions to free them, which I hope you click on and sign. But overcoming this global dictatorial force will require more than signing petitions, or protesting, or any other kind of action that won’t necessarily bring the empire’s full fury upon you. It will require taking the same kinds of actions that have brought this fury upon Assange, Johnson, Peltier, and others. To understand why these sacrifices will be necessary, we need to understand that the fight against imperialism is a war, one which is escalating in its scope and in the number of its participants.
This reality becomes apparent from studying the story behind how Assange got where he is now, and behind how U.S. imperialism became the kind of beast it is now. Namely: a beast that’s eating its own tail in the face of its weakening.
“We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
This statement was made in 2004 by a Bush administration official whose identity is unconfirmed, but is likely Republican propaganda strategist Karl Rove. It was said in the context of referring to journalists, who the speaker derisively described as being part of the “reality based community” and as therefore not understanding the flexibility with which the empire’s key officials treat reality. The speaker’s claim that the United States is an empire “now” was made for the sake of bluster, because the U.S. has in fact been an empire since its founding upon illegally annexed indigenous land. But the statement’s internal logic makes room for this fact, since as it clarifies, facts are malleable as far as the imperialists are concerned.
In the face of the Downing Street Memo, the additional evidence that the government had lied to justify invading Iraq, and the photographs of torture at Abu Graib, a strategy for making facts malleable was exactly what the imperialists needed. This strategy went beyond the promotion of misleading narratives that its propagandists put forth, like the idea that waterboarding isn’t torture or the 2008 CIA hoax about Syria having had a nuclear reactor.
The torture of the U.S. empire’s War on Terror prisoners has continued, and Washington was able to partner with Israel to bomb the “reactor.” But in the face of international backlash for Washington’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the reemergence of Russia as a power which defies Washington, the unanticipated strength of anti-American guerrilla struggles in Washington’s new wars, and the rise of China throughout the 2000s, the imperialists needed to do more than lie. They needed to keep their operations, which would rapidly expand amid these manifestations of imperial decline, increasingly concealed.
Washington normalized this growing policy of secrecy with its narrative handling of AFRICOM, the avenue for African military occupation the empire created in 2007 to preemptively counter China. Washington’s ambitions for AFRICOM were to create a new secret war with Africa, one which couldn’t be publicly acknowledged as a war and whose activities couldn’t be reported on too frequently. As reporter Trisha Marczak wrote in 2012, when this war‘s nature had become apparent to outsiders, concealing AFRICOM’s costs to civilian lives would prove essential for maintaining lack of public scrutiny:
In many cases, the extremists the U.S. is now attacking through drone wars are the very people once funded by the government to bring about the change America sought. In March, a coup, led by an officer who received training in the U.S., to overthrow Mali’s military went awry. While deemed a success, the events that followed created lawlessness and a hotbed for al-Qaida and other Islamist extremists who have since taken over. Now, the U.S. government is targeting those whom they helped overthrow the previously existing government. What Panetta did not address was how the U.S. would strive to carry out a drone campaign that didn’t endanger the lives of innocent civilians. In Pakistan, where the U.S. has carried out heavy handed drone operations to wipe out terrorist operatives, it has taken the lives of more than 880 civilians since 2004, according to statistics gathered by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. If the goal of increased operations in Africa is to break down terrorist cells, the killing of innocent civilians could prove counterproductive to its mission, inciting more violence among those affected by the death of innocent civilians.
Keeping this vile underbelly of U.S. foreign policy unnoticed was vitally important in the emerging era of 21st century great-power competition. So when WikiLeaks exposed this underbelly, they reacted with the maniacal fury of a threatened dictatorship.
This geopolitical context was why the empire put Manning in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day without even the ability to exercise, and why it then forced Assange into a nearly-as-atrocious confinement in London’s Ecuadorian embassy. It was also why the empire subjected these two to such fates before Manning had even been convicted of any crime, and when the sexual assault charges which caused Assange to seek asylum were lacking in any true basis.
As Slate summarized, the documentation Manning provided to WikiLeaks revealed a litany of abuses, corruption, and blatant lies on the part of the U.S. government, with the following war crimes being the most damaging imperialist secrets to have been shown:
During the Iraq War, U.S. authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape, and murder by Iraqi police and soldiers….There were 109,032 “violent deaths” recorded in Iraq between 2004 and 2009, including 66,081 civilians. Leaked records from the Afghan War separately revealed coalition troops’ alleged role in killing at least 195 civilians in unreported incidents, one reportedly involving U.S. service members machine-gunning a bus, wounding or killing 15 passengers….In Baghdad in 2007, a U.S. Army helicopter gunned down a group of civilians, including two Reuters news staff….during an incident in 2006, U.S. troops in Iraq executed at least 10 Iraqi civilians, including a woman in her 70s and a 5-month-old, then called in an airstrike to destroy the evidence. The disclosure of this cable was later a significant factor in the Iraqi government’s refusal to grant U.S. troops immunity from prosecution beyond 2011, which led to U.S. troops withdrawing from the country.
When this was the severity of the empire’s public relations crisis, and when the empire was increasingly desperate to avoid such crises, an unprecedented war on journalism was the only conceivable response. And this war was to intensify as Washington’s geopolitical challenges grew.
“Civil wars don’t start with gunshots, they start with words.”
This was said by Clint Watts, former FBI agent and member of the neoconservative Alliance for Securing Democracy, during a 2017 congressional hearing on “Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online.” The content of his speech—which also included pronouncements like “America’s war with itself has already begun” and “silence the guns and the barrage will end”—was comically absurd. But as usual with these kinds of hyperbolic statements, there’s method to the madness. By reviving neo-McCarthyist rhetoric about a supposed foreign conspiracy against the American people, and hammering it in constantly with ill-sourced stories about Russia “hacking the election” and “hacking our minds,” the empire manufactured consent for a war not just against the Chinese-Russian bloc, but against the empire’s own citizenry.
The purpose of the narratives about interference from Russia, China, Iran, and so on is to prime the masses of the imperialist “Five Eyes” alliance to automatically reject information which contradicts the empire’s orthodoxy. If you hear about the fact that Washington perpetrated a fascist coup in Ukraine in 2014 to start a proxy war of genocidal aggression against Russia, you’re expected to dismiss it as Kremlin propaganda. If you hear about how Washington backed terrorists for the purpose of instigating and perpetuating a civil war in Syria, or how the White Helmets have ties to these terrorists, or how all of Assad’s supposed chemical attacks have had signs of being repeats of the WMD hoax, you’re supposed to see this all as “fake news.” There’s no room for nuance or critical thinking, only a war mentality where everything gets sorted into “patriotic” and “enemy.”
Such was the perfect angle with which to vilify WikiLeaks, paint its reporting as non-credible, and rationalize Assange’s ever worsening torture as him simply getting his just desserts. Despite UN investigators concluding that Assange was subjected to “prolonged exposure to psychological torture” by being confined to the embassy under threat of even worse imprisonment, and Assange having been deprived of crucial medical care as part of this punishment, Assange’s treatment was celebrated by pro-NATO pundits. Imagine how these pundits would react if China did the same to a journalist or a political dissident.
The encyclopedia of media lies about Assange, ranging from the idea that his rape charges are true to the narrative that he only published leaks about the U.S. to the debunked claim that his publishing the Manning leaks had cost lives, have all served the central Big Lie surrounding him. This is that Russia hacked into the Democratic National Committee in 2016, a claim which has been debunked by digital forensic research.
Despite all the evidence against this narrative, the media has kept hammering it in, engaging in the “argument from authority” logical fallacy by citing statements of agreement from U.S. intelligence officials to insist that it’s true. The empire’s propagandists have had to keep up this Big Lie, because it forms the basis for the idea that WikiLeaks can’t be trusted—and that Assange’s torture is therefore a righteous blow against the Russian bogeyman. Washington’s narrative managers claimed that Russia gave Wikileaks the DNC emails, therefore meaning Assange and WikiLeaks were part of Russia’s “hacking” of the 2016 election.
Everything about this narrative was designed to not just justify one of liberal “democracy’s” most visible human rights shames in the torture of Assange, but to delegitimize the very concept of journalism. If the outlet that’s given the public access to U.S. war crimes documentation, evidence of illegal U.S. encroachments on Pakistan’s sovereignty, proofthat the CIA hacks into home devices, and communications between top Democratic officials proving a campaign to rig the primary, is nothing more than another Russian “fake news” operation, reality itself becomes drastically redefined. Within the fantasy world that the imperialist propaganda machine created, a large chunk of facts were no longer facts, but weapons of an all-imposing enemy to the East.
What the Big Lie about WikiLeaks’ DNC emails source also supported was Russiagate, the sensationalist narrative about Trump having colluded with Russia that dominated U.S. political discourse for two years before being put to rest by Robert Mueller’s 2019 report on the claim’s veracity. As Robert Parry observed, this continent-hopping conspiracy theory mythology about foreign hackers and a Manchurian candidate served to justify an unprecedented crackdown on the free press:
The likely outcome from the anti-Russian show trials on Capitol Hill is that technology giants will bow to the bipartisan demand for new algorithms and other methods for stigmatizing, marginalizing and eliminating information that challenges the mainstream storylines in the cause of fighting “Russian propaganda.” The warning from powerful senators was crystal clear. “I don’t think you get it,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, warned social media executives last week. “You bear this responsibility. You created these platforms, and now they are being misused. And you have to be the ones who do something about it. Or we will.” As this authoritarian if not totalitarian future looms and as the dangers of nuclear annihilation from an intentional or unintentional nuclear war with Russia grow, many people who should know better are caught up in the Russia-gate frenzy.
Indeed, this was exactly what happened, with Big Tech weaponizingalgorithms and censorship against socialist, anti-imperialist, and pro-social justice content. In the age of Covid-19 censorship, a post-January 6th paranoid atmosphere, and intensive propaganda against China, the frightful long-term implications of these narrative manipulations and attacks on press freedom are becoming apparent.
“Cognitive warfare’s objective is to make everyone a weapon.”
This is a statement from a 2020 NATO-funded report on modern psychological warfare tactics. It clarified that Five Eyes military leaders have now thoroughly incorporated psychological warfare into their operating procedures, implicitly on the same level as sea warfare or air warfare. It’s unsurprising that this is the moment when they’ve first decided to place cognitive warfare on this level of prioritization; it’s now that the imperialists are faced with an unprecedented contraction of capital, environmental threats which the Pentagon believes could soon strain U.S. armed forces, and an irreversible decline in their dominance.
Their dominance is irreversible because whereas they could make the U.S. the new primary imperialist engine after the British empire’s collapse, now that Washington’s influence is declining, they can’t simply rearrange their power like last time. They’re aware that the market access and geopolitical reach of the so-called “West” is at risk of contracting to a fatal extent. An extent which could make Washington lose its currency leverage, make way for a new wave of revolutions in the Global South, and weaken capital in the imperialist countries enough for revolutions to happen within them.
So the imperialists are pivoting towards the fortification of their control over their internal populations, hoping absence of revolutionary consciousness in the core will compensate for the imminent loss of the peripheral countries to anti-imperialist revolutions. The report alludes to this by stating: “The modern concept of war is not about weapons but about influence. Victory in the long run will remain solely dependent on the ability to influence, affect, change or impact the cognitive domain.”
This is wishful thinking. What the population of a given country thinks won’t prevent capital’s trajectory towards collapse. But cognitive warfare can make a country’s masses demobilized, and therefore vulnerable to the drastic measures capital will take to preserve itself. With its 20th century atrocities across the Global South, the CIA killed hope of anti-imperialist liberation for generations, condemning these countries to decades of dictatorship and intensifying exploitation. Now it’s aiming to do the same within the core imperialist countries.
It’s doing this by continuing to persecute not just Assange, but Manning as well, who was kept in inhumane conditions a second time two years ago and could easily be detained again. Washington remains determined to assure Assange’s death; the Biden administration has deliberately ignored warnings that extraditing him to an even worse U.S. prison would exacerbate his mental health crisis to the point of suicide, and Washington continues to seek his extradition to the heart of the beast. Should he not be taken to the U.S., he’ll likely be put in an Australian prison. Either way, his conviction would be a turning point in repression.
The imperialists want to make an example out of these whistleblowers so that no one is brave enough to expose the future atrocities of AFRICOM, U.S. operations in southwest Asia, or Washington’s expanding project to militarily encircle China. Perpetual war, whether it’s in Afghanistan or Taiwan, has long been the empire’s only buffer against the corrosive dynamics of imperial decline. And the empire must preemptively suppress any additional leaks about this militaristic campaign.
At least this is what the cognitive warfare strategists wish would happen; leaks are going to keep happening, even if Assange is convicted. So these strategists are employing the backup plan of training those within the propaganda echo chamber to automatically dismiss any disfavored facts as enemy propaganda. Since Russiagate was forced to be abandoned, the propagandists have pivoted towards mainly demonizing China, using bunk research on supposed Uyghur human rights abuses, bourgeois “pro-democracy” arguments on Hong Kong and Taiwan, and baseless “Wuhan lab leak” rumors to make Sinophobia the central facet of Western foreign affairs thinking.
The neo-McCarthyist rhetoric has shifted accordingly, with the media now promoting rhetoric about China “infiltrating” U.S. institutions and Westerners commonly adopting “CCP shill” as an online insult. It’s the slogan that’s replaced “Russian bots.” This is what NATO must mean by making everyone into a weapon; their emotionally charged lies about Uyghur “concentration camps,” and their racist yellow peril narratives on the “China virus,” have successfully radicalized the West’s chauvinists into proto-fascists. Proto-fascists who will no doubt participate in the crimes of the new McCarthyism at every chance they get, whether this means turning in their neighbors or joining counterrevolutionary militias.
NATO and the CIA are waging a perpetual war on facts, where the few journalists who call the U.S. State Department out for lying about Xinjiang are branded genocide deniers, the U.S. media spreads fabricated rumors about China flying warplanes over Taiwan, and the big tech companies censor accounts from Washington’s regime change target countries under intelligence community pressure. The catastrophes the U.S. has been reeling from during the last couple years reinforce this cognitive warfare siege. The pandemic has given Silicon Valley more excuses to enact censorship than ever, and the Capitol Hill riot has been exploited by the Biden administration to chip away at civil liberties under guise of combating extremism. When Big Tech began censoring Palestinians in response to the Capitol Hill riot, it became apparent which groups and political affiliations would really be targeted by Washington’s post-January 6th crackdown.
Global tensions, public health catastrophes, fascism—all of capitalism’s crises are being used to bring the iron heel of capital down ever further.
Assange’s persecution is part of the largest capitalist reaction in history. A reaction that, despite its grand scope and technological advancement, can’t negate the realities of imperialism’s contradictions. The U.S. empire is on its way to losing the capital it needs to function. When this deficiency gets severe enough, the revolutionary cadres will have an opening to bring the empire down.
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