The past 72 hours has held one of the strangest disharmonic convergence of free speech events I have ever seen.
(1) On Tuesday, President Obama flourished his pretty rhetoric on free speech to the United Nations (UN):
Those in power have to resist the temptation to crack down on dissidents.
(2) A day later, the Sydney Morning Herald published
U.S. Air Force documents classifying Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange as "enemies of the state," an action in sharp contrast to Obama's rhetoric about the importance of protecting dissent in a democracy.
Declassified US Air Force counter-intelligence documents, released under US freedom-of-information laws, reveal that military personnel who contact WikiLeaks or WikiLeaks supporters may be at risk of being charged with "communicating with the enemy", a military crime that carries a maximum sentence of death.
(3) The day after Obama's UN address, Assange addressed the UN from the Ecuadorian embassy where - fearing extradition to the U.S. - he has been granted asylum. Read FireDogLake's Kevin Gosztola for the highlights,
including an understandable demand (especially in light of the fact that the U.S. government declared Assange the "enemy") that Obama live up to the free speech ideals Obama himself so eloquently presented to the UN:
President Obama spoke out strongly in favour of the freedom of expression. Those in power, he said, have to resist the temptation to crack down on dissent.
There are times for words and there are times for action. The time for words has run out. It is time for the US to cease its persecution of WikiLeaks, to cease its persecution of our people and it cease its persecution of our alleged sources.
It is time for President Obama to do the right thing and join the forces of change: not in fine words but in fine deeds.
I discussed Assange's speech on RT last night, but what was clear from Assange's moving description of accused Wikileaks source Bradley Manning is that critics who claim Assange is only out for himself are sorely mistaken. Not only has Assange spoken powerfully about Manning, but he has spoken passionately about freedoms of speech and the press, and spoken out against the criminal prosecution of American whistleblowers (and my clients) John Kiriakou and Thomas Drake under the Espionage Act.
Fourth free speech free fall after the jump.
(4) WaPo reported yesterday that the Defense Department issued a memo about whether or not employees are permitted to buy, read, and discuss Matt Bissonette's bestselling book No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden. According to WaPo, the memo instructed that employees:
* “are free to purchase NED [No Easy Day];
* “are not required to store NED in [secure] containers . . . unless classified statements in the book have been identified;
* “shall not discuss potentially classified and sensitive unclassified information with persons who do not have an official need to know and an appropriate security clearance;
* “who possess either firsthand knowledge of, or suspect information within NED to be classified or sensitive, shall not publically speculate or discuss potentially classified or sensitive unclassified information outside official . . .channels. . .;
* “are prohibited from using unclassified government computer systems to discuss potentially classified or sensitive contents of NED, and [no] online discussions via social networking or media sites” about classified stuff “that may be contained in NED.”
First, it is chilling in and of itself that the Defense Department has any say in what books its employees choose to read on their personal time. Since when does the government need to issue a memo authorizing employees to buy a book?
Moreover, the Defense Department's memo is confusing at best as the government refuses to say what, if any, classified information is actually in Bissonette's book. WaPo writer Al Kamen summed up the conclusion employees are likely to draw from the memo:
Hard to say what the “potentially” classified stuff is. So, until they tell you what the bad stuff is, it’s safe to buy NED and even to read it but don’t underline it and don’t talk about it — except to say “cool book, great cover,” stuff like that.
The chilling effect on speech is obvious, and no doubt, some employees will stay away from the book altogether to avoid any potential hassle. Perhaps that is precisely the point. The Defense Department memo is the third example in as many days of the government's actions directly conflicting with the Obama's rhetoric on free speech.
Assange's speech to the UN should be a wake-up to the Obama administration that the man Vice President Biden called a "high-tech terrorist" and the Air Force declared an "enemy of the state" articulated the same principles of free speech and press that Obama himself endorsed a day earlier. Considering there is so much common ground in their rhetoric to the U.N., Obama owes the public an explanation for his crackdown on dissent here at home.