A Remarkable Silence: Media Blackout after Key Witness against Assange Admits Lying
MEDIA, 5 Jul 2021
1 Jul 2021 – As we have pointed out since Media Lens began in 2001, a fundamental feature of corporate media is propaganda by omission. Over the past week, a stunning example has highlighted this core property once again.
A major witness in the US case against Julian Assange has just admitted fabricating key accusations in the indictment against the WikiLeaks founder. These dramatic revelations emerged in an extensive article published on 26 June in Stundin, an Icelandic newspaper. The paper interviewed the witness, Sigurdur Ingi Thordarson, a former WikiLeaks volunteer, who admitted that he had made false allegations against Assange after being recruited by US authorities. Thordarson, who has several convictions for sexual abuse of minors and financial fraud, began working with the US Department of Justice and the FBI after receiving a promise of immunity from prosecution. He even admitted to continuing his crime spree while working with the US authorities.
Last summer, US officials had presented an updated version of their indictment against Assange to Magistrate Court Judge Vanessa Baraitser at the Old Bailey in London. Key to this update was the assertion that Assange had instructed Thordarson to commit computer intrusions or hacking in Iceland.
As the Stundin article reported:
‘The aim of this addition to the indictment was apparently to shore up and support the conspiracy charge against Assange in relation to his interactions with Chelsea Manning. Those occurred around the same time he resided in Iceland and the authors of the indictment felt they could strengthen their case by alleging he was involved in illegal activity there as well. This activity was said to include attempts to hack into the computers of members of [the Icelandic] parliament and record their conversations.
‘In fact, Thordarson now admits to Stundin that Assange never asked him to hack or access phone recordings of MPs.’
Judge Baraitser’s ruling on 4 January, 2021 was against extradition to the US. But she did so purely on humanitarian grounds concerning Assange’s health, suicide risk and the extreme conditions he would face in confinement in US prisons.
The Stundin article continued:
‘With regards to the actual accusations made in the indictment Baraitser sided with the arguments of the American legal team, including citing the specific samples from Iceland which are now seriously called into question.
‘Other misleading elements can be found in the indictment, and later reflected in the Magistrate’s judgement, based on Thordarson’s now admitted lies.’
The Stundin article further details Thordarson’s lies and deceptions, including mispresenting himself as an official representative of WikiLeaks while a volunteer in 2010-2011, even impersonating Assange, and embezzling more than $50,000 from the organisation.
By August 2011, Thordarson was being pursued by WikiLeaks staff trying to locate the missing funds. In fact, Thordarson had arranged for the money to be sent to his private bank account by forging an email in Assange’s name. That month, Thordarson sought a way out by contacting the US Embassy in Iceland, offering to be an informant in the case against Assange.
‘within 48 hrs a private jet landed in Reykjavik with around eight [US] agents who quickly set up meetings with Thordarson and with people from the Icelandic State Prosecutors office and the State Police Commissioner.’
But it turned out that the US officers did not have permission from the Icelandic government to operate in the country and Ögmundur Jónasson, then Iceland’s minister of interior, ordered them to leave. Meanwhile, the FBI were allegedly complicit in DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) attacks on the websites of several Iceland government institutions. The FBI had then approached Icelandic authorities, promising to assist them in preventing any future such attacks. In reality, the approach was a ruse to fool Iceland into cooperation in an attempt to entrap Assange.
Jónasson said that the Americans:
‘were trying to use things here [in Iceland] and use people in our country to spin a web, a cobweb that would catch Julian Assange.’
The US officials left Iceland, flying to Denmark, but taking with them their new informant and ‘star witness’, Thordarson.
‘The meeting in Denmark was the first of a few where the FBI enthusiastically embraced the idea of co-operation with Thordarson. He says they wanted to know everything about WikiLeaks, including physical security of staff. They took material he had gathered, including data he had stolen from WikiLeaks employees and even planned to send him to England with a wire. Thordarson claimed in interviews he had refused that particular request. It was probably because he was not welcomed anymore as he knew WikiLeaks people had found out, or were about to firmly establish, that he had embezzled funds from the organization.’
‘After months of collaboration the FBI seem to have lost interest. At about the same time charges were piling up against Thordarson with the Icelandic authorities for massive fraud, forgeries and theft on the one hand and for sexual violations against underage boys he had tricked or forced into sexual acts on the other.
‘After long investigations Thordarson was sentenced in 2013 and 2014 and received relatively lenient sentences as the judge took into account that he changed his plea at court and pleaded guilty to all counts.’
The article continued:
‘Incarceration did not seem to have an intended effect of stopping Thordarson from continuing his life of crime. It actually took off and expanded in extent and scope in 2019 when the Trump-era DoJ [Department of Justice] decided to revisit him, giving him a formal status as witness in the prosecution against Julian Assange and granting him immunity in return from any prosecution.’
A ‘Sociopath’ Who ‘Lied to Get Immunity’
Under President Obama, the US Department of Justice had decided against indicting Assange, despite devoting huge resources to building a case against him. The stumbling block was ‘The New York Times Problem’: the difficulty in distinguishing between WikiLeaks publications and NYT publications of the same material. In other words, prosecuting WikiLeaks would pose grave First Amendment risks for even ‘respectable’ media such as the NYT.
But this changed after Trump took office. Stundin explained:
‘President Donald Trump’s appointed Attorney general William Barr did not share these concerns, and neither did his Trump-appointed deputy Kellen S. Dwyer. Barr, who faced severe criticism for politicizing the DoJ on behalf of the president, got the ball rolling on the Assange case once again. Their argument was that if they could prove he was a criminal rather than a journalist the charges would stick, and that was where Thordarson’s testimony would be key.
‘In May 2019 Thordarson was offered an immunity deal, signed by Dwyer, that granted him immunity from prosecution based on any information on wrong doing they had on him. The deal, seen in writing by Stundin, also guarantees that the DoJ would not share any such information to other prosecutorial or law enforcement agencies. That would include Icelandic ones, meaning that the Americans will not share information on crimes he might have committed threatening Icelandic security interests – and the Americans apparently had plenty of those but had over the years failed to share them with their Icelandic counterparts.’
Thordarson’s offer of an immunity deal came the month following Assange’s forced removal from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, most likely with US connivance, and subsequent incarceration in the high-security Belmarsh prison.
It is not clear from the Stundin article why Thordarson has now decided to come clean. But the Stundin journalists noted that a psychiatric assessment that had been submitted to an Icelandic court before he was sentenced diagnosed him as a sociopath:
‘incapable of remorse but still criminally culpable for his actions. He was assessed to be able to understand the basic difference between right and wrong. He just did not seem to care.’
In a new blog piece discussing these revelations, Craig Murray, who had reported from the Old Bailey during the Assange extradition hearing, referred back to the final day of proceedings. Magistrate Baraitser had refused to accept an affidavit from Assange’s solicitor Gareth Peirce addressing the updated indictment on the grounds it was out of time:
‘The affidavit explained that the defence had been unable to respond to the new accusations in the United States government’s second superseding indictment, because these wholly new matters had been sprung on them just six weeks before the hearing resumed on 8 September 2020.
‘The defence had not only to gather evidence from Iceland, but had virtually no access to Assange to take his evidence and instructions, as he was effectively in solitary confinement in Belmarsh. The defence had requested an adjournment to give them time to address the new accusations, but this adjournment had been refused by Baraitser.
‘She now refused to accept Gareth Peirce’s affidavit setting out these facts.’
Even before the Stundin article was published five days ago, Thordarson’s testimony should have already been recognised as suspect, to say the least. As WikiLeaks noted last year:
‘The “Star Witness” of the new superseding indictment is a diagnosed sociopath/ convicted conman/ child abuser/ FBI informant who was found guilty in Iceland of impersonating #Assange’
The recent Stundin revelations that the updated US indictment against Assange rests on now-admitted lies means that the FBI case is demonstrably a travesty.
US policy analyst Gareth Porter noted:
‘It’s now clearer than ever before that the U.S. indictment of #Assange is based on fraud. A key accuser admits he lied to the help set up Assange. How much evidence does the Justice Department need stop this criminal abuse of power?’
As the famous US whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted:
‘This is the end of the case against Julian Assange.’
Or, as journalist Glenn Greenwald followed up, more realistically:
‘It should be.’
Jennifer Robinson, a human rights attorney who has been advising Assange and WikiLeaks since 2010, told Democracy Now:
‘The factual basis for this case has completely fallen apart.’
Robinson pointed out:
‘the evidence from Thordarson that was given to the United States and formed the basis of the second, superseding indictment, including allegations of hacking, has now been, on his own admission, demonstrated to have been fabricated [our emphasis]. Not only did he misrepresent his access to Julian Assange and to WikiLeaks and his association with Julian Assange, he has now admitted that he made up and falsely misrepresented to the United States that there was any association with WikiLeaks and any association with hacking.
‘So, this is just the latest revelation to demonstrate why the U.S. case should be dropped.’
‘it’s significant that the initial indictment for Julian Assange related only to the publications back in 2010, 2011, the Chelsea Manning publications. It was a second, superseding indictment, introduced by the Trump administration, which was based upon Thordarson’s evidence [our emphasis]. Now, any lawyer and even any layperson would be looking at evidence from a convicted felon, who had been convicted of forgery, fraud and sexual abuse allegations associated with minors. That is a problematic source. Now we have him admitting that he lied to the FBI about that evidence. This raises serious concerns about the integrity of this investigation and the integrity of this criminal prosecution, and serious questions ought to be being asked within the Department of Justice about this prosecution and the fact that it is continuing at all.’
The headline of the article accompanying Robinson’s interview put it succinctly:
‘U.S. Case Against Julian Assange Falls Apart, as Key Witness Says He Lied to Get Immunity’
Tumbleweed in the ‘MSM’
But all of this is seemingly of no interest to the ‘mainstream’ media. We have not found a single report by any ‘serious’ UK broadcaster or newspaper. Journalist Matt Kennard, head of investigations at Declassified UK, observed fully two days after the story broke:
‘I don’t think one US or UK newspaper has reported this. The free press is incredible.’
Several days on, the ‘mainstream’ media silence is truly remarkable. As we remarked via Twitter:
‘The discipline, or blindness, to ignore awkward facts is a reliable feature of corporate “journalism”’
Of course, it is possible that we have missed something, somewhere in the ‘MSM’; perhaps a brief item at 3am on the BBC World Service. But in a sane world, Stundin’s revelations about a key Assange witness – that Thordarson lied in exchange for immunity from prosecution – would have been headline news everywhere, with extensive media coverage on BBC News at Six and Ten, ITV News, Channel 4 News, front-page stories in the Times, Telegraph, the Guardian and more. The silence is quite extraordinary; and disturbing. Caitlin Johnstone described it as a ‘weird, creepy media blackout’:
‘not one major western media outlet outside of Iceland has reported on this massive and entirely legitimate news story. A search brings up coverage by Icelandic media, by Russian media, and by smaller western outlets like Democracy Now, World Socialist Website, Consortium News, Zero Hedge and some others, but as of this writing this story has been completely ignored by all major outlets who are ostensibly responsible for informing the public in the western world.’
‘It’s not that those outlets have been ignoring Assange altogether these last few days either. Reuters recently published an interview with Assange’s fiance Stella Moris. Evening Standard has a recent article out on Assange’s plans to marry Moris in Belmarsh, as does Deutsche Welle. It’s just this one story in particular that they’ve been blacking out completely.’
She offered an explanation for the silence across the media:
‘they’re all generally following the lead of just a handful of top-tier publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. If just those few outlets decide to ignore a major news story that’s inconvenient for the powerful (either by persuasion, infiltration or by their own initiative), then no one else will either. As far as the media-consuming public is concerned, it’s like the major news story never happened at all.’
‘Western mass media outlets are propaganda. They are owned and controlled by wealthy people in coordination with the secretive government agencies tasked with preserving the world order upon which the media-owning plutocrats have built their kingdoms, and their purpose is to manipulate the way the mainstream public thinks, acts and votes into alignment with the agendas of the ruling class.
‘You see this propaganda in the way things are reported, but you also see it in the way things are not reported. Entire news stories can be completely redacted from mainstream attention if they are sufficiently inconvenient for the mechanisms of empire, or only allowed in via platforms like Tucker Carlson Tonight and thereby tainted and spun as ridiculous right-wing conspiracy theories.’
Our polite challenges to Paul Royall, editor of BBC News at Six and Ten, and Katharine Viner, editor of the Guardian, went unanswered, despite multiple retweets and follow-up queries by other Twitter users. Of course, this is the standard non-response of even the ‘best’ state-corporate media to uncomfortable questions.
As we have often observed, the establishment media relentlessly warn of the insidious nature of ‘fake news’: a claim that does have a seed of validity. But it is the state-corporate media themselves who are the primary purveyors of fake news. As Tim Coles, author of ‘Real Fake News’, commented:
‘Whenever people in power tell you that fake news is undermining democracy, they really mean that alternative sources of information are challenging their grip on power.’
In fact, the most dangerous component of ‘MSM’ fake news is arguably propaganda by omission. In ostensible ‘democracies’, the public cannot make informed decisions, and take appropriate action, when the crimes of ruling elites are kept hidden by a complicit media.
Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. In 2007, Media Lens was awarded the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Prize. We have written three co-authored books: Guardians of Power-The Myth of the Liberal Media (Pluto Press, 2006), Newspeak-In the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009), and Propaganda Blitz (Pluto Press, 2018).
Tags: Activism, Assange, Big Brother, Ecuador, Human Rights, Journalism, Justice, Media, Surveillance, Sweden, Torture, UK, UN, USA, Violence, Whistleblowing, WikiLeaks
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