It now seems that the smears in the Julian Assange rape case are bidirectional, from the exceptionally flimsy charges accusing the WikiLeaks boss of being a sexual predator to the increasingly loud and incoherent conspiracy theories suggesting that his two accusers are working on behalf of the CIA.
Before Assange was remanded to custody in the United Kingdom, awaiting a possible extradition to Sweden to face multiple sexual assault charges, his most credulous supporters switched tactics, from attacking the overly broad Swedish conception of rape to suggesting one of his alleged victims moonlights as an American agent; downshifting from Camille Paglia to Three Days of the Condor.
Here’s how an evidence-free, innuendo-filled personal attack on a rape accuser trespasses the mainstream political debate. On his Twitter feed, MSNBC host Keith Olbermann (162,000 followers) links to a rambling blog post arguing that Anna Ardin, the Swedish feminist who accused Assange of rape, is an anti-Castro activist with connections to CIA front groups. Elsewhere on the Internet, NYU professor Mark Crispin Miller, the popular liberal website FireDogLake, Bianca Jagger, and The First Post (a British news website “brought to you by The Week”) all circulated the charges without an ounce of skepticism.
I have previously written that, knowing what we know about the charges Assange faces (which is admittedly not that much), it seems likely that he’s a victim of both an overzealous Swedish prosecutor and a culture that embraces an exceptionally broad definition of sexual assault. But this isn’t enough for the conspiracists and paranoiacs, who see Assange as the torchbearer for transparency, the world’s only hope for crippling American power. If American intelligence could dream up COINTELPRO, they could surely convince a pair of left-wing political activists to lure Assange into a “honey trap,” right?
So what’s this evidence of CIA perfidy that Olbermann finds so convincing? A few clicks in and one comes to an article posted on Alexander Cockburn’s far-left website Counterpunch by the writers Israel Shamir and Paul Bennett (more on them in a moment) positing that because Ardin, who wrote a master’s thesis on the Cuban opposition movement, visited the "Ladies in White"—a group comprised of female relatives of jailed Cuban dissidents—while conducting research in Havana, and the vile extremist Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles (who was once employed by the CIA) went to a Miami protest on behalf of the Ladies in White, it follows that Ardin is therefore connected to the CIA. Got that? In 2007, the Ladies in White were presented with the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament, raising the tantalizing possibly that Ardin is also an agent of Brussels.
Olbermann is sufficiently convinced that this connection merits your attention. This odious type of guilt-by-six-degrees-of-separation is so strained, so unbelievably lunk-headed, that normally I would suggest that it best be ignored. But when Olbermann spreads this poison, and when a mainstream liberal website like FireDogLake gets in on the act, it’s worth forcefully debunking.
Shamir scoffs at the idea that Ardin “is often described by the media as a ‘leftist,’” suggesting her mildly critical remarks about the Castro dictatorship expose her as a reactionary (I previously outlined her politics here). But reading her writings on Cuba, it’s clear that while she isn’t a Castro hagiographer (how could one be, especially a self-identified feminist?) ,Ardin persists with some fairly conventional left-wing views of the regime. “Since the 1959 revolution and communist takeover,” she has written, “healthcare and education are free, there are few or no starving or living on the street, and largely needn’t worry about violence or robbery. But salaries are extremely low.” Indeed, she sees a moral equivalence between the United States and the Cuban dictatorship, sighing that “The social democratic opposition—Corriente Socialista Democrática Cubana—is trying to show that there is an alternative between the only two clearly presented, extreme alternatives: either Castro and his gang govern Cuba or the USA does.”
So who is Israel Shamir, Counterpunch's resident intelligence correspondent? Alternately known as Jöran Jermas and Adam Ermash, Shamir is a fringe writer who has devoted his professional life to exposing the supposed criminality of “Jewish power," a paranoid anti-Semite who curates a website full of links to Holocaust denial and neo-Nazi sites, defenses of blood libel myths, and references to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Ali Abunimah, Hussein Ibish, and Nigel Parry have warned their fellow Palestinian activists to avoid contact with Shamir, citing his frequent forays into the sewers of Jew-hatred. The British anti-fascist magazine Searchlight (along with its Swedish sister magazine Expo) showed that Shamir is a “Swedish anti-Semite” who has repeatedly lied about his past, not a truth-telling Israeli dissident.
Spend a few minutes on Shamir’s website and here's some of what you'll learn: Imprisoned neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel is a “German political prisoner of Zion”; Maria Poumier, a French Holocaust denier whose work Shamir publishes, claims that the “Nazi-jewish H[olocaust] was just a civil war between European brothers”; Shamir himself believes that the Holocaust “narrative is Jewish, it belongs to Jews, and it has no meaning but as manifestation of Jewish supremacy.” Shamir also asserts that the pro-Nazi historian David Irving “was sentenced [to prison] for denial of Jewish superiority,” warning his readers of “Jewish mind-control on a world scale.” On the Auschwitz death camp, Shamir says that “The camp was an internment facility, attended by the Red Cross (as opposed to the US internment centre in Guantanamo).”
Shamir's co-author on the Assange piece, a nonentity called Paul Bennett, is new to the crackpot scene, it would seem, though one gets a sense of his intellectual rigor from a review he contributed to Amazon.com denouncing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s classic Gulag Archipelago as “100% pure reaganaut (sic) political propaganda.”
You get the idea.
I suspect if confronted, Olbermann would argue that he was unaware that the article’s author was a spittle-flecked anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. And I would believe him. But here is Olbermann’s (completely justified) attack on Fox News' Glenn Beck, after the wild-eyed host quoted the long-forgotten anti-Semite Elizabeth Dilling on his radio show. Beck later backtracked, claiming that he was unaware of Dilling’s anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi connections:
[Beck] held up and praised a book supposedly outing communists in America called "The Red Network," written by Elizabeth Dilling in 1934 and said, "this is a book—and I’m getting a ton of these—from people who were doing what we’re doing now. We now are documenting who all these people are. Well, there were Americans in the first 50 years of this nation that took this seriously, and they documented it."
Oops. Elizabeth Dilling also was an anti-Semite, a supporter of Hitler. She blamed the Second World War on the Jews….Beck says she was, quote, doing what we’re doing now. Ruh-roh. But Beck has now explained it all away. Elizabeth Dilling was a rabid anti- Semite, pro-Nazi, doing what you’re doing now? "I don’t know, because I didn’t look it up.”
Olbermann is right, of course. But see how easy this game is? Israel Shamir is Olbermann’s Elizabeth Dilling. And by helping enter this absurd conspiracy theory into the bloodstream of the left-wing blogophere, Olbermann has assisted in promoting the sinister views of an unreconstructed anti-Semite.
The attacks on Ardin show how, with the help of a mainstream figure like Olbermann, easily falsifiable personal attacks are like a game of telephone, becoming mangled truths for the partisan shock troops. One blogger writes that it “turns out that the guy (sic) who accused him may have been a CIA agent.” Over at the Daily Kos, a “diarist” writes that “Not only is she NOT a leftie she is an extreme right wing CIA operative of some type.” That Ardin works for a left-wing political party and confesses that were it not for their accommodating policy towards Castro she would defect to the former communists (Vänsterpartiet) makes little difference. Why let the truth intervene when one can defend Assange and blame Washington in one fell swoop?
It is interesting to note that the Swedish media, which can always find column inches for a conspiracy theory involving those mustache-twisting, cat-stroking boffins at the CIA, have said almost nothing about the Ardin-as-CIA agent smears. Because they know a thing or two about Shamir’s credibility (he lives in Stockholm) and chuckle at the idea that Ardin, a deeply ideological social democrat who once advised her blog readers on how to wreak revenge on uncooperative former paramours, is an American intelligence asset.
Postscript: One more bit of misinformation that requires clarification. Olbermann, who seems happy regurgitating anything repeated on a lefty blog, writes that “The term ‘rape’ in Sweden includes consensual sex without a condom.” No it doesn’t. I confess, though, that when I wrote about the condom story a few months back—in a defense of Assange—I quoted the Guardian’s bowdlerization of the condom claim but failed to clarify that this “consensual, unprotected sex is illegal” meme is nonsense.
Update: Keith Olbermann tweets "If the author of that article is a holocaust denier, I repudiate him and what he wrote, and apologize for retweeting the link."
Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.