Chomsky: Prosecution of Assange Reflects “Extreme” Use of State Power

Noam Chomsky in Conversation with Patrick Farnsworth

November 25, 2019. TruthOut.

Without whistleblowers and investigative journalism, governments are free to abuse their power and keep the population in the dark about the atrocities they commit, not only to others, but also to the citizens they supposedly represent. With WikiLeaks editor and publisher Julian Assange facing an extradition hearing in February, and whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning serving time for repeatedly refusing to testify before a grand jury against Assange, we are witnessing the harsh consequences of challenging state power. If there were any illusions about what the price is for holding systems of power accountable for their crimes, these two cases in particular should dispel those notions indefinitely.

In the transcript of my interview with world-renowned political dissident Noam Chomsky presented below, we begin with an examination of the current state and trajectory of the United States empire within the broader scope of recent history, highlighting the alleged “withdrawal” of the U.S. military presence in Northeast Syria as an indication of what the U.S. geopolitical influence in the region currently is. From there, we speak of the responsibility journalists have, especially in this time of increasingly hostile attacks by the Trump administration against whistleblowers, journalists and publishers, to speak truth to power.

To examine this latter point, we focus on the current situation of Julian Assange, imprisoned in the high-security Belmarsh Prison in London. He is awaiting an extradition hearing set for February, after his asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London was revoked and was handed over to British authorities in April. “Assange basically is being murdered by the British government,” states Professor Chomsky, as Assange’s health continues to rapidly deteriorate from his time holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy, and more recently, by his treatment under British authorities in Belmarsh Prison.

The WikiLeaks publisher faces 18 charges, including conspiracy to hack government computers and violation of espionage law, with the real possibility of being extradited to the United States, “where he’ll be tried with crimes that, even theoretically, can lead to the death sentence, which he’s already practically suffering [from] now.” Chomsky compares this attack on press freedoms and whistleblowers to the Red Scare post-WWI, in which there was a massive attack on human rights, mass deportations, and independent and dissident media was effectively crushed.

The U.K. and U.S. governments are using the horrendous treatment of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, and publishers like Julian Assange, to set an example. The treatment of Julian Assange is one of the most extreme cases of this. Regardless of your personal opinions about his decisions as a publisher, it needs to be understood that this case is symbolic of the lengths the State will go to crush dissent. The health and well-being of the WikiLeaks founder is being destroyed, blatantly and in public view, for daring to reveal the truth about the U.S. government and its numerous war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the world over. It is the responsibility of journalists, and of people who care about the truth and exposing the abuses of state and corporate power, to speak up for Assange and anyone who puts their lives and freedom on the line. If there ever was a time to speak truth to power, it is now.

Patrick Farnsworth: The first thing I wanted to discuss [is what] your general sense of what’s going on geopolitically with the United States. The very general question I would ask right away is, do you get the sense that the United States, as a global empire and as a geopolitical force in the world, is it expanding, is it a stable entity, or is it in decline? What is your general sense based on the trends of what’s going on in that realm?

Noam Chomsky: Well, if we look over the long term, the United States has been in decline since 1945. The U.S. had reached the peak of its power in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. In fact, [it’s] a level of power that had never existed in world history, the United States’ control. It was far and away the richest country in the world [and] had gained enormously through the war. Industrial production quadrupled. The United States was, of course, untouched by the war. Its rivals had been seriously harmed or destroyed. It had probably 40 to 50 percent of world wealth. Statistics weren’t very good in those days, but something roughly like that. Security was incomparable. [The U.S.] controlled the western hemisphere, controlled both oceans, controlled the opposite sides of both oceans. It was just incomparable, but it started to decline right away. The first step was in 1949 when China became independent. In the United States, that’s called “loss of China,” which is a pretty revealing expression. It was just known that we owned the world and the loss of China was a terrible event. It goes on.

By the 1970s, the world economy was pretty much tripolar with U.S.-based North America, German-based Europe, and at that time, Japan-based Northeast Asia (already the most dynamic region, without leaving out China and the East Asian Tigers). The U.S. share of global income had declined to maybe 25 percent, which is still enormous, but not like in 1945. If we proceed further, pretty much the same tendencies. I mean, militarily, of course, the U.S. is just totally incomparable. No other country has 800 military bases around the world, nobody has even a dozen. If you look at global power, the U.S. is incomparable. You can see it very clearly in the use of sanctions. No other country can impose sanctions. The U.S. can impose sanctions wherever it wants and it forces other countries to adhere to them, because the U.S. controls the global financial system.

There’s another change that’s taken place during the neoliberal globalization process. The national income, which is what is usually measured, doesn’t mean as much as it used to. A different measure which may be more insightful of global power is the amount of global wealth owned by domestically based multinationals. And if you look at those figures, it’s astonishing. U.S. based multinationals control about half of all the world’s wealth, and by now the statistics are good. They’re first in practically every category. This is changing somewhat under Trump’s wrecking ball. We don’t know exactly how that’ll work out, but it’s fundamentally the same. So yes, the U.S. is still the dominant global power, but it has limits that it didn’t have in the past.

Okay, and that’s something I wanted to discuss. The United States pulled out of — well, I shouldn’t say that it pulled out of Syria, but it withdrew support of the Kurds, of the people of northern Syria, which is a rather controversial move. There was a lot of blowback or reaction to that decision. I wanted to get your sense of whether other world powers are coming in and filling in the role that the United States played particularly in Syria, and maybe in other regions around the world as well, which can be an indication of the U.S. military’s lack of control that it may have once had in these regions. So, maybe using Syria as a specific example, what do you make of that?

Well, first of all, Trump’s sudden withdrawal of a small U.S. contingent in the Kurdish dominated areas and his invitation to Turkey to expand their aggression and atrocities against the Kurds, that was a grotesque betrayal, and not the first. There’s a long history of it. Now the Kurds in Syria are basically handed over to their main enemies, Turkey and Assad’s Syria. The Russians stepped in and are in control. [Trump] basically invited Russia to intervene, to be the moderate power that tried to calm things down and to some extent, they’re doing it. The United States didn’t leave Northeast Syria, they just moved troops to the oil producing regions. The number of troops is about the same. Other troops went to Iraq right across the border, and the Iraqi government didn’t want them there.

If you look back a couple of years to around 2011 and 2012, the United States and other Western powers assumed that it would be possible to overthrow the Assad regime, and not just them, but the Gulf states, too — and they were all intervening, supporting their local allies, pouring arms in in an effort to overthrow the Assad regime. The CIA sent advanced weapons to the groups they were supporting, anti-tank weapons, and that did succeed in stopping Assad’s forces. But quite predictably, it brought the Russians in. In 2015, the Russians intervened and neutralized the U.S. weapons. The U.S./Gulf [states] supported, by then, mostly jihadi-based elements. And Russia — the U.S. was not going to counter Russia, it could lead to a nuclear war. So, they sort of pulled back and Assad has slowly, with Russian and Iranian aid, reconquered most of the country. There are some parts that are not yet under Assad’s control. And they leave most of the problems, most of the ISIS and other jihadi groups located in the Northeast Syria, which is under Kurdish control — that would probably now be abandoned to some combination of Assad and Turkey with Russia being [another ] external force.

There are more U.S. troops remaining in the South, but in effect, Trump did authorize Turkey, Russia, and Iran to expand their [influence]. This was strongly opposed by the U.S. military and diplomatic centers, not for good reasons in my opinion. But anyway, those under President Trump obviously will keep shifting around terms.

But in general, the U.S. is very far from withdrawing troops from the region. In fact, while all this is going on, Trump sent thousands of additional troops to Saudi Arabia to support their murderous war in Yemen. So, it’s very far from withdrawal from the Middle East. There is kind of a geostrategic strategy, in the background: to construct an alliance of the most reactionary states in the region — the Gulf dictatorships, Sisi’s Egypt — a brutal dictatorship. Israel, which has moved very far to the right — its alliance with the Gulf states has become more evident in the last couple years, especially under Trump. And to link this alliance with other reactionary forces, Modi in India, some of the so-called illiberal democracies in Europe, in Orban’s Hungary or Salvini’s Italy and so on. This is incidentally described fairly openly and frankly by Steve Bannon, who’s kind of in the background as an advisor. But that’s what’s been taking shape as a kind of a base for U.S. power in the region with many uncertainties as to how it will develop. But the general point is the U.S. is not withdrawing from what Trump calls endless wars. Still, deeply involved in them.

The next thing that I would like to discuss is the state of journalism and particularly whistleblowing in this time. I want to point to Julian Assange, at least at first, and get your thoughts on what’s currently unfolding with him. He is in Belmarsh Prison in London. He’s been there since April, since he was forcibly removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy and the asylum that he had there. There was recently a report that came out [of a recent court appearance]. The report says that he was fighting back tears, that he couldn’t think properly, that he couldn’t understand the court proceedings. He had a hard time even recalling, I think, his own name, the date even. What do you make of this case, and not just of Assange, but also how the U.S. media in particular has covered what’s happening to Assange, WikiLeaks, and whistleblowing in general?

[It’s the] U.S. media and the British media, as well. Assange basically is being murdered by the British government. His being sequestered in the Ecuadorian Embassy was bad enough. The embassy (incidentally I visited him there) is kind of like a small apartment. He was basically stuck in a couple, one or two rooms. In many ways it’s worse than being in prison, at least prisoners are allowed to go into the yard and see the sun. He couldn’t go out. It was plainly psychologically very difficult, it would be for anyone. Now after the rightwing government in Ecuador expelled him, he was taken over by the British. He’s in a high security prison under very harsh conditions. All of this for the crime of skipping bail…. And his treatment, the people that have seen him at that court scene that you mentioned say that his health is sharply deteriorating. He’s being treated in a way which is basically destroying him.

There is an extradition hearing coming up. How it’ll turn out, we don’t know. The British will probably extradite [him] to the United States, where he’ll be tried for crimes that, even theoretically, can lead to the death sentence, which he’s already practically suffering [from] now. And as for the media, they’re simply supporting this, or even not reporting it, or saying, “yeah, it’s the right thing because he’s a hideous criminal who revealed to the world the things that the U.S. government doesn’t want populations to know.” Meanwhile, the same media eagerly exploit the revelations that come out from WikiLeaks. So, that’s basically what I have to say about Assange.

Is there any legal precedent to this, though? I feel like what’s happening is extralegal, as in, what they’re doing seems to be outside of the bounds of international law. Is that true or is this something that can be seen as a precedent? Is there something we can look to in the past as being an example of what they’re doing today?

It’s probably not technically — I mean, the U.N. rapporteur has described it as in violation of conventions on torture and treatment of prisoners. But whether that’s in violation of international law, you could debate. However, talking about international law is rather difficult. I mean there are gross violations of international law that nobody even mentions. So, in this century, the most extreme violation of international law was the U.S./U.K. invasion of Iraq. That’s a textbook example of aggression with no credible pretext. It’s what the Nuremberg Tribunal [and in] general International Law regard as the supreme international crime, differing from other war crimes in that it encompasses the totality of what happens then and afterwards. [This] includes the creation of the breakup of Iraq, the killing of hundreds of thousands of people, [generating] millions of refugees, inciting ethnic conflicts, which are tearing the whole region apart, leading to the birth of ISIS and so on. That’s an extraordinary international crime, has anybody said anything about it?

Yeah, no.

International law is for the weak.

Okay, this really comes back to the threat — what are the implications of this court case, this extradition hearing for Assange? What is, do you think, the long term implications of this, as far as our ability to have whistleblowers, and the kind of information that journalists are able to use in general? Whether or not you love or hate Assange as a person and what he may have done personally as a publisher of this information, the real fear is that [this case is] going to have a real impact on freedom of the press. Do you get that sense, or is that already long gone? Are we way past that point?

I’m afraid it’s another case, and an extreme case, of the use of state power. The U.S. is in the background, but Britain is the country that is implementing the use of state power to prevent, to punish, the release to the public of information that power systems don’t want them to have. That’s basically what it amounts to.


And yes, that’s certainly a message to journalists everywhere, not that it’s new. It’s by no means the first time, or even the most extreme, after all people have been deported, imprisoned, and all sorts of things.

To you, is this an indication that we are at the point where real substantial journalism is being thoroughly undermined and threatened? I really think about what it means to be a journalist in an authoritarian state and what the real risks that come with doing real journalism are right now. It’s rather bleak, I guess. For people that are getting into journalism right now, what they can expect? What they’re coming up against?

Well, you know, I wouldn’t say it’s crossed a border, we’ve been through much worse in the past. So take Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare in 1919, right after the First World War. I mean, thousands of people were deported. The independent press was virtually crushed. There was a massive attack on human rights. The so-called McCarthy period was bad enough even though not that severe. The Trump period is innovating in a way which is familiar from totalitarian states. The entire system in the United States under Trump is becoming a kind of proto-fascism without the ideology, just the appurtenances of fascism. One of those is to totally destroy the information system so that the concept of truth, fact, accuracy just fades into oblivion. And the way they’re doing it is just by flooding the information system with fakery, perfectly conscious lying and deceit on every imaginable topic, trivial or important, to the point where people have to sort of abandon the effort to try to find out what’s true or false. Of course, you can still do it if you work at it. But for much of the population, it means that the whole concept of accuracy, truth, fact and so on, kind of dissolves. Well, that’s a very effective way of undermining public engagement in many of the decisions that matter in the world. In other words, it’s destroying democratic functions. And Trump is a master at it, and that’s working very well. He’s got an adoring constituency where he can do no wrong. Facts are what he says. They’re maybe about forty percent of the population or more, very solid base. The Republican Party is terrified of that base, won’t do anything to cross Trump, he’s their God. Some sectors of it, like evangelicals, who are a big segment of the population in the United States, are almost totally in line in support of their [leader] and so on.

It’s wrong to describe this as fascism. Gives it too much credit, it has basically no ideology. The ideology for Trump is just Me. Whatever is important for me. But it has some of the features of totalitarian systems [with] undermining of the media, creating anger and distrust regarding the media as some kind of enemy. That’s a good way to undermine democratic functioning. That’s happened for sure.

This interview was recorded and released in audio form Nov. 7th, 2019. This article was edited by Mirna Wabi-Sabi, and originally published at Gods & Radicals Press.