The perils of Googledemia
Dear Glenn Greenwald,
This is a response to your recent blog post, in which you address several comments I’ve made on Twitter about your defence of Julian Assange’s jumping bail to avoid facing questions in Sweden. You argue that Twitter’s truncated format prevents any checks on claims people make and ‘enables easy distortions’. You seem to feel that the blog format is more accountable. Perhaps you have a point. So let me try to do that here, and see if I can check your claims.
In your blog post, you wrote:
‘Sweden is plagued by oppressive pre-trial confinement, disturbing levels of judicial secrecy, and a history of lawless rendition cooperation with the CIA, all of which creates a reasonable fear that Julian Assange would be extradited to the U.S.’
In The Guardian on June 20, you wrote:
‘For several reasons, Assange has long feared that the US would be able to coerce Sweden into handing him over far more easily than if he were in Britain. For one, smaller countries such as Sweden are generally more susceptible to American pressure and bullying.
For another, that country has a disturbing history of lawlessly handing over suspects to the US. A 2006 UN ruling found Sweden in violation of the global ban on torture for helping the CIA render two suspected terrorists to Egypt, where they were brutally tortured (both individuals, asylum-seekers in Sweden, were ultimately found to be innocent of any connection to terrorism and received a monetary settlement from the Swedish government).
Perhaps most disturbingly of all, Swedish law permits extreme levels of secrecy in judicial proceedings and oppressive pre-trial conditions, enabling any Swedish-US transactions concerning Assange to be conducted beyond public scrutiny. Ironically, even the US State Department condemned Sweden's “restrictive conditions for prisoners held in pretrial custody”, including severe restrictions on their communications with the outside world.’
In an interview with Democracy Now on May 30, you said:
‘I think there’s two issues of concern with being extradited to Sweden. One is that, although we don’t think about Sweden this way, it is nonetheless the case that they have a very oppressive—I would even say borderline barbaric—system of pretrial detention, where when somebody is charged with a crime, they are almost—especially in Assange’s case, where he’s not a Swedish citizen—automatically, more or less, consigned to prison, not released on bail, even though he’s proven over the course of the last two years that his appearances can be secured. And not only would he likely be imprisoned pending trial, but he would be imprisoned under very oppressive conditions, where he could be held incommunicado, denied all contact or communication with the outside world.
The hearings, pretrial hearings in Sweden, are not public. They are entirely private. The media, the public has no idea what takes place within these hearings. And given how sensitive this case is, the idea that judicial decisions in Sweden will be made privately and secretly is very alarming.’
Your claim that Assange ‘would be imprisoned under very oppressive conditions, where he could be held incommunicado’ was quoted in the widely-publicized open letter delivered to the Ecuadorian embassy in London last week, calling for Ecuador to grant Assange asylum, and which was signed by several well-known figures from the world of media and journalism, including yourself.
On the sheer face of it, all this is rather hard to swallow. I am a British citizen living in Sweden, and while I’m not so naïve to think that the country is a paradise or incapable of wrongdoing, all of those ideas fly in the face of what I’ve learned about it. Sweden is renowned as a transparent liberal modern democracy and, as you said on May 30, is not usually thought of as oppressive, let alone barbaric. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, and nor does it mean that it can’t be everything you say it is. But your claims go so heavily against the grain of what most people think about Sweden that they need to be supported with convincing evidence.
So what is your evidence for all this? In your blog post, you claim to have spent months ‘talking to numerous WikiLeaks associates and Europeans lawyers and journalists about the reasons Assange and his lawyers fear his extradition to Sweden’ – but you didn’t quote or cite any of these interviews in that post, or in your Guardian article on this, or in your interview with Democracy Now. I can’t see you having cited any lawyers or journalists anywhere on this issue. You state on your blog that you provided ‘ample documentation’ about conditions in Sweden in your Guardian piece and elsewhere. But you backed your points in The Guardian piece by quoting from and linking to just three articles online. You made much the same points, as we can see, to Democracy Now, and didn’t cite any sources for them at all. In your blog post, you write that Sweden has ‘quite awful judicial secrecy, pre-trial confinement conditions, and a history of lawless rendition cooperation with the U.S.’ and that you have repeatedly cited your evidence for this, ‘which includes:
- this (Fair Trials International documenting the oppressive pre-trial confinement and judicial secrecy "routinely imposed" by Sweden);
- this (2010 State Department report on Sweden's human rights practices condemning "lengthy pretrial detention," "restrictive conditions for prisoners held in pretrial custody", "extended isolation," and noting that cases involving rape "may be closed to the public");
- this (2009 report from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, noting that "Since the CPT’s last visit to Sweden in 2003, practically no legislative or regulatory changes have been introduced in the area of restrictions, and the Committee’s concerns about the procedure for the application of restrictions to remand prisoners, and the impact of such measures on their mental health, remain valid"; that "At the court hearing concerning remand in custody, prosecutors do not have to present concrete evidence in support of the request for the imposition of restrictions (as distinct from the grounds which justify remand custody), and the choice of specific restrictions is left to the discretion of prosecutors"; and that "the proportion of remand prisoners with restrictions had been higher in the recent past (e.g. 70% in March 2008)."
- this (a report from Human Rights Watch describing the "the United Nations’ ruling that Sweden violated the global torture ban in its involvement in the CIA transfer of an asylum seeker to Egypt"; in particular: "Swedish officials handed over al-Zari and another Egyptian, Ahmed Agiza, to CIA operatives on December 18, 2001 for transfer from Stockholm to Cairo. Both men were asylum seekers in Sweden, and suspected of terrorist activities in Egypt, where torture of such suspects is commonplace").’
Three of these articles are ones you cited in The Guardian piece. Let’s start with the one that isn’t: the third one cited, the 2009 report by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment orPunishment (CPT). On the face of it, the parts you’ve quoted do seem to hold up your claim that Sweden has ‘oppressive pre-trial confinement’ and that it might have an impact on a remand prisoner’s mental health. But a closer look reveals some serious problems with your research. Firstly, you admit you haven’t read the whole report, which you provided a link to your followers on Twitter just 12 minutes after it was sent to us both. I am instinctively skeptical of someone who points to a report as evidence for their case when they haven’t even read it in toto. But you excuse this on the following grounds:
‘I verified its authenticity by examining the Committee's website. The report is divided into sections by topic. The vast majority of the topics have absolutely nothing to do with the issue at hand (treatment of juveniles, conditions at psychiatric facilities, etc). The section that is relevant to the issues being discussed is easily found -- it's labeled "Imposition of Restrictions on Remand Prisoners" -- and they document exactly the oppressive pre-trial conditions that the other evidence I cited described.’
The document does contain descriptions of pre-trial conditions that very closely resemble those in the other articles you cite, for one rather glaring reason you have missed, but I’ll get to that shortly. There are several troubling aspects about your justification for not having read the whole document. Journalistic rigour doesn’t entail simply verifying that a document is authentic. Even an authentic report could have contained errors, or been proven wrong by other sources just as authentic. It could also be an authentic document, but one created by an organization that adopts spurious means or has a spurious agenda. I’ll grant that the European Council, of which the CPT is a committee, doesn’t immediately seem to fit either of those categories, but then neither does Sweden instantly ring the bells of highly oppressive judicial procedures. Where’s your skepticism? More importantly, where’s your research? The organization’s title and provenance sound impressive, but I would still expect you to have corroborated with other sources that the Committee for the Prevention of Torture is a respected and competent body in this field and that it is widely seen as impartial. That might have entailed, for example, you seeing where else this report had been cited, seeing if there has been any criticism of it and – as you have admitted you’re not an expert in Swedish law – calling some people who are experts in it and asking them what they thought of the report. Instead, you simply presumed that the findings of a report you hadn't read through were rock solid, and asked your 84,000-plus Twitter followers to do the same.
Secondly, you say you examined the Committee’s website. You don’t seem to have done so in any great depth, though, because you tweeted this link to your followers within 12 minutes of it being drawn to your attention. You also neglected then, and have neglected since, to make any mention of other country reports by the CPT. How did its report on remand conditions in Swedish prisons in 2009 compare to other countries it has visited? All its reports are on its site.
But more importantly than all of that, you failed to notice that the Swedish government had responded to the findings and recommendations in the report, and that its response is readily available on the site. Considering that the report you cite is from 2009, it is of course relevant whether the situation described in it is still valid. So how the Swedish government responded in writing, and how they responded in fact, are both very important. You clearly haven't checked. You fail to appreciate that a four-day visit to five prisons in 2009 may not accurately represent the current situation in the country. It’s a very basic point to have missed.
Your assumption that the report can be taken as convincing evidence simply by reading the section in it marked ‘Imposition of Restrictions on Remand Prisoners’ also shows a worrying failure to grasp the importance of context to corroborating research. If you don’t read the full report you don’t know its framework, purpose, stated restrictions, how widely and appropriately the compilers of it consulted, and you’re incapable of judging whether its methods as a whole seem sound.
But let’s assume for a moment that you had actually done some basic journalistic homework instead of simply pointing to this 2009 report that you hadn’t even read, and that the report does in fact represent an accurate picture of the remand situation in Sweden in 2012, and that if Julian Assange went to Sweden all the worst practices that have taken place were applied to him: he was placed in extended isolation, cut off from other prisoners, newspapers and TV, and his mental health put at risk as a result. That would all be extremely unpleasant for him, of course, but I don’t see you arguing that Assange should not go to Sweden because it would be extremely unpleasant. You have explicitly argued that Sweden’s pretrial detention conditions are part of a package that lead to a reasonable fear of extradition from Sweden to the US:
‘Sweden is plagued by oppressive pre-trial confinement, disturbing levels of judicial secrecy, and a history of lawless rendition cooperation with the CIA, all of which creates a reasonable fear that Julian Assange would be extradited to the U.S.’
Even if Sweden does have oppressive pre-trial confinement, I don’t see – and you haven’t explained – how that creates the reasonable fear that Assange would be extradited to the US. The two things aren’t linked. If he is subjected to extended pretrial detention in Sweden, he will be in Sweden, not in the US. It looks like you’ve simply listed a lot of scary-sounding stuff and said they all create the fear of extradition. But I can’t find any article or interview with you where you’ve addressed why this might be. Perhaps I’ve missed something.
Let’s move on to the 2010 US State Department report you cite, ‘condemning Sweden’s “lengthy pretrial detention”, “restrictive conditions for prisoners held in pretrial custody”, “extended isolation,” and noting that cases involving rape "may be closed to the public”.’
Well, that also all sounds rather terrifying. But let’s look closer at those quotes as they appear in context in the report:
‘Prison conditions generally met international standards, and the government permitted visits by independent human rights observers. However, lengthy pretrial detention was a problem.’
That’s where your first quote comes from.
‘Restrictive conditions for prisoners held in pretrial custody remained a problem. According to the Swedish Prison and Probation Service, in July approximately 45 percent of pretrial detainees were subject to extended isolation or to restrictions on mail delivery or exercise. According to authorities they took this step when detainees' contact with persons outside the detention center could risk destroying evidence or changing statements, thereby imperiling the ongoing investigation.’
That’s where your second and third quotes from – extended isolation is one of the restrictive conditions. The reasons for imposing this in certain cases sound valid to me, but I’ll admit that 45 percent of detainees being subjected to it does seem more alarming. The source for that, you can see, is the Swedish Prison and Probation Service. It would be interesting to call them up and ask them why this is the case. It would also be interesting to know what the State Department made of other countries’ records in this regard, including for example Britain. You haven’t looked at any of this. Four documents online are enough evidence for you, and apparently should be for everyone else.
But it’s not just that your research is lacking – even the little work you have done is so sloppy. You’ve cited the 2010 State Department report. Why not look at its most recent report, from 2011, as that is more likely to present a picture of what would apply in Assange’s case in 2012?
Here’s the new equivalent of that first quote:
‘Prison conditions generally met international standards, and the government permitted visits by independent human rights observers.
Prisoners had access to potable water. There were no specific prison ombudsmen, but prisoner complaints were sent to and handled by the justice ombudsman. Authorities used alternatives to sentencing for nonviolent offenders, such as intensive supervision with electronic monitoring, conditional sentence, probation, and community service. During the year the government took a number of measures to improve prison conditions, including measures to decrease the rate of recidivism and a national effort to reduce the number of career criminals.’
Well, fancy that! Things have changed rather a lot between the 2010 and 2011 reports. First of all, they scratched the sentence about lengthy pretrial detention being a problem, and it doesn’t appear anywhere else in the report. How about that? If you had cited the most recent State Department report on this you would not have been able to quote that at all. It seems it no longer applies.
But note the second paragraph, too – none of those findings were in the 2010 report. The Swedish government, it appears, has made efforts to improve prison conditions. It mentions a couple, but I’m intrigued that this report has dropped the part about the lengthy pretrial detention, so perhaps that was also addressed. It would be so interesting to know, but of course that would involve research. And as you’re the one making the rather lurid claims about Sweden, I suggest it might be an idea for you to be the one to pick up the phone and write the emails.
The next quote you used has also been affected:
‘Restrictive conditions for prisoners held in pretrial custody remained a problem. A new Act on Treatment of Persons Arrested or Remanded in Custody that went into force on April 1 includes the possibility of appealing a decision on specific restrictions to the Court of Appeals and ultimately to the Supreme Court.’
Well, it’s still a problem, according to the US government, but I wonder if the latter part might affect Julian Assange. Perhaps someone could investigate.
A few more points about the US State Department document you’ve cited. If you had read it closely, you’d have realized that it contains no original findings or research, and depends almost entirely on two sources: the Committee for the Prevention of Torture report from 2009, and the Swedish government’s response to that report (where, it seems, it has drawn the information about this new act and from the Swedish Prison and Probation Service). The fact that you didn’t cite the CPT report in The Guardian and were not aware of it until we were both tweeted the link on June 25 suggests that you didn’t read this document thoroughly – if you had, you would surely have been interested in the report by the august-sounding Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture that it mentions several times. You weren’t.
It strikes me from the US State Department’s reliance on that CPT report that there may not be all that much information available to cite about Swedish pretrial detention – at least online, in English, for free. Sometimes one has to read books, or academic articles that aren't free, or write to people, or call them, or meet them. And for the first three of your quotes, this document’s source is none other than one of your other documents, with no original research of its own. So the 2010 US State Department report is not additional backing for your case at all. It is simply restating research from the CPT site, and is out of date to boot.
The final bit you quote from this document does appear to be from another source, although it’s not cited: this is the part about rape cases sometimes being held in camera:
The constitution provides for the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence. Trials are generally public. Juries are used only in cases involving freedom of the press or freedom of speech. In other cases, judges or court-appointed civilian representatives make determinations of guilt or innocence. Cases of a sensitive nature, including those involving children, child molestation, rape, and national security, may be closed to the public. The court system distinguishes between civil and criminal cases. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and to consult an attorney in a timely manner. In criminal cases the government is obligated to provide a defense attorney. A "free evidence" system allows parties to present in court any evidence, regardless of how it was acquired. Defendants can confront or question witnesses against them and present witnesses and evidence on their behalf, and defendants and their attorneys have access to government-held evidence relevant to their cases. If convicted, defendants have the right of appeal.’
This appears to be your only source for the following assertion of yours on Democracy Now:
‘The hearings, pretrial hearings in Sweden, are not public. They are entirely private. The media, the public has no idea what takes place within these hearings. And given how sensitive this case is, the idea that judicial decisions in Sweden will be made privately and secretly is very alarming.’
I hope you have another source for all that, because it’s not what this document says at all. It says cases of a sensitive nature may be closed to the public, not that they will be, and it is referring to trials not pretrial hearings. Significant differences. I think it’s pretty sane policy that some very sensitive cases are not held in public, and I think conflating a trial closed to the public with the idea that it is held secretly and will not be just requires a lot more evidence. I think you’ll appreciate that on the showing so far I would also need that evidence to come from a journalist much more diligent than you at interpreting it.
The next document is an excerpt on your site from a document written by a British NGO, Fair Trials International. It’s a little concerning from the outset that you chose not to link to the document itself, but instead to your own website, where you reproduced only part of it, and then highlighted in yellow parts of it that you feel suit your case. Reading the entirety of that excerpt presents a less persuasive picture by far. Reading the entirety of the report (available here), the issues are even more nuanced. And once again, you appear to have done no research into the document you cite or the organization that produced it. You offer no corroborating evidence that Fair Trials International is a respected NGO that researches fairly. You just cite a report from it, and presume that it is scrupulously-conducted original research that reflects the current situation.
You have also either only skim-read the full document, or not read it at all. The chief source for the information in it is… once again, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture report from 2009! The writers of the Fair Trials International report don’t even seem to have read that fully themselves, as can be seen in this excerpt:
‘The Council of Europe has reported ongoing concerns about remand conditions in Sweden and that many people feel that they are prevented from contacting family members to ‘break’ them.1 The US State Department has also noted that people are often subject to extended isolation and severe restriction on their activities whilst awaiting trial.2’
Footnotes 1 and 2 refer to none other than the CPT’s 2009 report and the 2010 US State Department report. But the US State Department got its information about pretrial isolation and restrictions from the CPT. So Fair Trials International have pretended that they have two sources for their information when in fact they only have one – and another body who has repeated it. And you have taken this one step further, by pretending to have three sources for the same information. Both this document and the US State Department document take the vast body of the information you are using in your argument from the CPT’s website. So one report appears to be backed up twice, when it is simply the same visit to Sweden in 2009 providing the information.
The paragraph above shows that Fair Trials International either didn't read the CPT report in full to realize that the State Department drew that information from it, or they were being deliberately dishonest and trying to make one source look like two. Either discounts this as a reliable piece of research, even if it does contain original research, which I doubt – there are no other footnotes and no indication FTI has visited Sweden, interviewed anyone or done anything but not read two documents properly.
And of course the same applies to you – either you simply skim-read these three documents and didn’t notice that two of them took almost all of their information from the third, or you did know that and have knowingly tried to present them all as original research. I note that the Fair Trials International report, which you have excerpted on your own website, footnotes the 2010 US State Department report, not the more recent 2011 report. This suggests to me that you simply followed the FTI's footnote, and therefore knew perfectly well that this document simply replicated research from elsewhere. But whether you misled knowingly or unknowingly, this discredits you as a serious researcher. You’re not engaged in journalism or academia here, but a superficial imitation of both: instead of detailed research and rigid corroborated investigation, you use authoritative language to give the appearance you are citing ‘ample evidence’, providing a flurry of links from impressive-sounding bodies. But you haven’t read them carefully, or even completely, let alone researched their context, reliability, reception or relevance. Perhaps Googledemia would be the best term for it.
I’ve talked about context. A deeper look at Fair Trials International led me to this interesting document from 2011. This examined pretrial detention practices in 15 EU countries. First of all, the fact that pretrial detention exists in so many countries drew me up. Suddenly Sweden doesn’t seem such an outlier – pretrial detention, commonly called remand, is very common. But secondly, the document criticized the conditions of pretrial detention in every single country it looked at. So if you imagine that Julian Assange’s accusers had been French, Polish, Portuguese, Dutch, British and so on… you could construct a very similar argument to the one you have done for Sweden: ‘Country X has pretrial detention. It has been criticized on these grounds by Fair Trials International. He should not go.’ Similarly, I suspect if you Googled around a bit you could find reports from the Council of Europe and others that also criticize all those countries’ pretrial detention records. You could cite them merrily, without even reading them through or checking that the information in them isn't simply replicated research, or even still applies. And if it’s not pretrial detention, you could find something else: no country is perfect, and all judicial systems in the world will at some stage have been subject to criticism from a respected body.
Your final cited document involves a rendition case from 2001. I’m not sure I can be bothered to go into this in depth, but in short – is this the best you could do? That's your smoking gun to suggest Sweden would extradite Julian Assange to the US? There have been three general elections in Sweden since that case, in 2002, 2006 and 2010. The case you cite happened 11 years ago. It’s like claiming that the current American foreign policy is de facto the same as that of George W Bush’s administration. It’s like trawling through the actions taken by Tony Blair’s government and claiming that David Cameron’s will do the same because Britain has a history of it. It’s manifestly silly. When you claim Sweden is ‘plagued’ by ‘a history of lawless rendition cooperation’, what you really mean is that you searched and searched online, and you found one controversial case from 2001 – which, incidentally, I don’t think is nearly as cut and dried as you claim. To convince that this represents a country with, as you put the same point in The Guardian, ‘a disturbing history of lawlessly handing over suspects to the US’, you’ll need to find more than one example of it four administrations ago.
In conclusion, your claims about conditions in Sweden rely on shockingly thin and sloppy research. They rely on just four articles. One of them you haven’t read through. Two you appear to have only skim-read, and both of those almost entirely depend on the first article’s original research and contribute barely none of their own. All three are outdated. The final article you cite is about events that took place in 2001, and you’ve claimed that this alone represents systematic behavior by the Swedish state. You have misunderstood, exaggerated and in some cases totally misrepresented what is in these four articles.
Well, I could be here all day, as there are so many other arguments you’ve made that don’t stand the barest scrutiny, but I think I’ve made my point. You were right about one thing, though – it is easier to hold people’s claims to account outside the confines of 140-character bursts.