National Lawyers Guild Echoes Smear Campaign About Julian Assange

I have been a proud member of the National Lawyers Guild for over 30 years, beginning in law school, and serving as union staff of the SF/Bay Area Chapter for over a decade.  The Guild was founded in 1937 as an organization of lawyers to defend FDR’s New Deal, and was the first racially integrated Bar Association.  Its preamble states that it is:

…an association dedicated to the need for basic change in the structure of our political and economic system…which shall function as an effective political and social force in the service of the people, to the end that human rights shall be regarded as more sacred than property interests.

The Guild is unique as a multi-issue progressive legal organization which strives to integrate both political and legal action, recognizing that many victories which appear to be won in the courts are actually won in the streets. Unlike the ACLU, it also takes positions on foreign policy issues.

My employment as Program Director ended about a year after 9-11 because some in the organization disapproved of my work with Arab and Muslim groups, which included setting up a hotline for those contacted by the FBI and (then) INS.  I was even reprimanded for spending too much time supporting fearless people’s lawyer Lynne Stewart, because she defended Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, even though defending unpopular defendants is central to the purposes of the Guild.

Although I left the Guild’s employ due to political differences, I remain a dues-paying member because I still identify with the principles of the organization and believe there is room for struggle about those principles. However, the Trump-era brought in a new McCarthyism to which the Guild, shockingly, has fallen prey.

In September of last year, the Black Agenda Report printed an article entitled “We Love the CIA or How the Left Lost its Mind,” which exposed the Guild’s politics at the time:

Another casualty is the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), which prides itself on having resisted Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. Riva Enteen, longtime NLG member and former program director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter writes:

Last year the NLG refused to schedule a convention panel on Russiagate, with proposed speakers Cynthia McKinney and Ray McGovern. The Executive Committee also refused, ‘because of our relations with Russia,’ to issue a statement condemning the requirement that RT register as a foreign agent. This year it is still not addressing the legal or McCarthyesque aspects of Russiagate at its upcoming convention.

The Guild’s subsequent position on Julian Assange is still more troubling.  Four days after Assange was arrested and dragged from the Ecuadorian Embassy on April 11, I asked the Guild’s director if we could issue a statement of support for Assange and Chelsea Manning, who was imprisoned for refusing to go before a Grand Jury to testify against Assange.

The director said:

We haven’t been working on the Assange or Manning cases and unfortunately do not have the capacity to adequately write a statement.

So two long-term Guild members, both also in leadership of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (which strongly supports Assange and Manning), wrote a statement of support for Assange and Manning on behalf of the Guild.

Then followed a month of excuses from the president and director:

The Executive Committee decided that [the] statement wasn’t specific enough to what we wanted to put out as an organization.

Her statement didn’t follow our guidelines.  I’m attaching our media guidelines here, so you can see more of what I mean.

Issues need to come from committees, and further committee work.

It also needs some punchy language, like a quotation.

Finally, after prodding, the Guild president on May 13 admitted:

The delay has been that Julian Assange is, for many of us in the NLG, a figure we would be hesitant to unconditionally support. Wikileaks released material harmful to Hilary Clinton before the election, and is part of why Trump secured the presidency.  Also, earlier today Sweden re-opened the rape case against Assange. And he behaved in the Ecuadorian embassy in ways that seem very disrespectful of staff there. So, while it’s important to support whistleblowers, an uncritical statement about Assange right now doesn’t seem appropriate.

As a feminist for over 50 years, I am outraged that male Guild members have said that as feminists, they can’t support Assange.  Katrin Axelsson and Lisa Longstaff of Women Against Rape should put the issue to rest for anyone paying attention:

The allegations against [Assange] are a smokescreen behind which a number of governments are trying to clamp down on WikiLeaks for having audaciously revealed to the public their secret planning of wars and occupations with their attendant rape, murder and destruction… The authorities care so little about violence against women that they manipulate rape allegations at will. [Assange] has made it clear he is available for questioning by the Swedish authorities, in Britain or via Skype. Why are they refusing this essential step in their investigation? What are they afraid of?

As to his behavior at the Embassy, I am embarrassed to even address it. The Embassy was the most watched place on the planet, so if there was anything unsavory, we certainly would have seen it.

But what on earth do his alleged untidiness or ill treatment of his cat, even if they were true, have to do with Wikileaks, the revolutionary media organization he founded?  As historian, former UK diplomat and blogger Craig Murray recently wrote in Consortium News:

Julian Assange revolutionized publishing by bringing the public direct access to massive amounts of raw material showing secrets the government wished to hide. By giving the public this direct access he cut out the filtering and mediating role of the journalistic and political classes. Contrast, for example, the “Panama Papers,” which — contrary to promises —only ever saw less than 2 percent of the raw material published and where major western companies and individuals were completely protected from revelation because of the use of MSM intermediaries. Or compare WikiLeaks to the Snowden files, the vast majority of which have now been buried and will never be revealed, after foolishly being entrusted to The Guardian and The Intercept. Assange cut out the intermediary role of the mediating journalist and, by allowing the people to see the truth about how they are governed, played a major role in undercutting public confidence in the political establishment that exploits them.

There is an interesting parallel with the reaction to the work of Reformation scholars in translating the Bible into vernacular languages and giving the populace direct access to its contents, without the mediating filters of the priestly class. Such developments will always provoke extraordinary venom from those whose position is threatened. I see a historical parallel between Julian Assange and William Tyndale in this respect. It is something worth bearing in mind in trying to understand the depth of the state’s hatred of Julian.

The crux is that the Guild is taking the position that because Assange released information that may have hurt Clinton’s campaign, it will withhold support for him.  Assange was a hero to the Guild when he exposed Bush’s war crimes, but is now vilified because he’s seen as hurting Clinton. The Guild is subordinating its principles for partisan electoral considerations, which means political differences.

Following the president’s comment, I sent two links to help clarify some of her concerns.  The excerpt below is from the article “How many times must Assange be proven right?” by Caitlin Johnstone:

It’s impossible to tell the same group of people day after day that Assange is an evil Nazi Putin puppet rapist who smells bad and mistreats his cat, and then persuade them to respond to a depraved Trump administration agenda against that same person with an appropriate level of resistance.

On the eve of the 2016 election, Assange explained why he released the DNC and Podesta emails

Our organization defends the public’s right to be informed. This is why, irrespective of the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election, the real victor is the US public which is better informed as a result of our work.

The president is now claiming to be victimized by me.  Her email, addressed Riva (and all), says, It would be amazing if I could stop being treated like the enemy here.  The president was reassured that she is not the enemy, and that “we are all working for the same thing ultimately.”  I replied that maybe “we are all working for the same thing”, but the words from the president reflect the need for political struggle, not accusing me of making her the enemy.

Ultimately, the great problem is not the current Guild president, but the 82-year old organization that is losing its political compass.  Nor is this problem unique to the Guild; Trump’s election, “Russiagate,” and the smear campaign against Assange have deluded and disoriented many organizations and individuals with profoundly critical and activist traditions.

Riva Enteen, former Program Director of the SF National Lawyers Guild, is a lifelong peace and justice activist, retired social worker, lawyer, and editor of "Follow the Money" a collection of Pacifica Radio's Flashpoints Interviews. She can be reached at Read other articles by Riva.