Biden DOJ’s Prosecution of Assange Shows an Abject Failure to Protect the Freedom of The Press

Image by Peter Nicholls via NBC News

Content Warning: This article contains discussion of multiple sensitive topics

On Dec. 10, 2021 (which was ironically international human rights day), the U.K.’s high court ruled that Julian Assange may be extradited to face trial in the U.S. and on Jan. 24, Assange won the right to appeal against the extradition. Assange’s team will now appeal to the Supreme Court in early February to see if he can be saved from the talons of the US government. The case against Julian Assange began when Wikileaks published information provided by U.S. Army Intelligence Analyst and whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Documents from Manning, including the Afghanistan War Diary and Guantanamo Files, revealed embarrassing and atrocious details of misconduct and deception by US military officials. One of the most horrific leaks was the extremely disturbing Collateral Murder video which uncloaked how U.S. military pilots murdered two journalists when they opened fire without provocation and further fired at unarmed adults and children who came to help the wounded. This humiliating and shameful experience for the U.S. national security state triggered a thirst for revenge which has made the crude destruction of one man’s life an instrument for assaulting the freedom of our press. If Assange, after being systematically abused by many so-called democratic countries and misrepresented by media stenographers for national security ghouls, is prosecuted with an indictment that criminalizes typical journalist activities based on the ill-defined term “national defense information,” it will deeply chill investigative reporting on the most secretive, unaccountable institutions in the U.S. and set a precedent for the violation of press freedom. 

When Wikileaks published leaked documents from Manning in 2010, the U.S. started building a case to indict Assange under the Espionage Act. After Assange visited Sweden in 2010, he faced and denied allegations of sexual assault and rape (later, the UN envoy on torture, Melzer, noted that police reports of charges are inconsistent, and there is evidence indicating that police fabricated charges). He applied for and was granted asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy on the basis that extradition to Sweden was a step towards extradition to the U.S. Soon, the Obama DOJ determined that if they indicted Assange under the Espionage Act, then other outlets like The New York Times could also be prosecuted for publishing leaked materials. In light of this “New York Times” problem, the case didn’t move forward. 

Near the end of Assange’s time in the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2018, the Trump DOJ under Jeff Sessions obtained an indictment against Assange in which they accused him of a hacking conspiracy. When the Ecuadorian Embassy revoked Assange’s asylum in late 2019, Assange was dragged out of the embassy and imprisoned in the notorious Belmarsh prison for violating bail conditions. While Sweden had promised to reopen their investigation, they did not find enough evidence to even charge him. Whether the allegations from Sweden were fair or not, Assange found himself in a UK prison facing 18 charges from the US

Assange’s treatment for the next two years has been described as torture in a letter by more than 60 doctors in the UK, a statement by Melzer, and by various rights organizations. Not only was he held in isolation for long periods of time and subjected to surveillance and degrading treatment, but his court appearances were also marred by systematic undermining of legal procedures, including his placement behind a wall of glass which made it difficult for him to confer with his lawyers. While the ruling from Assange’s January 2021 extradition hearing concurred with U.S. authorities that his actions are not protected by freedom of speech, extradition was refused on grounds that it would be “oppressive” given Assange’s mental health and U.S. prison conditions. Soon after the hearing, an Icelandic newspaper reported that the key witness in the indictment, Sigurdur Ingi Thordarson, was an FBI informant who had exaggerated his role in Wikileaks and admitted to lying in his testimony for the hacking indictment. 

A shocking report also revealed that the CIA, unable to tolerate the leak of Vault 7 in 2017, had plotted to murder Assange by abducting and then assassinating him in a London shootout. This plot complemented the 2020 revelations that the CIA had a Spanish security firm spy on Assange and his fiance, Stella Morris, extensively. They went as far as using cameras and microphones to spy on meetings Assange had with his lawyers, tracking both Morris and her mother, and trying to steal their baby’s pacifier and diaper to do a DNA test.

Even though these shameful details reveal the danger U.S. officials pose to Assange, the U.S. has continued the extradition process, providing a flimsy assurance that they would not apply Special Administrative Measures or place Assange in a supermax prison unless Assange gives them a reason to decide otherwise. This is a condition that can be easily abused. However, the high court responded by ruling that Assange may be extradited, paving the path for his prosecution in the U.S. Eastern District Court of Virginia. As the Eastern District Court is near the Pentagon and CIA, the jury pool is far more sympathetic towards intelligence agents, and therefore it is unlikely that Assange will be acquitted if he is extradited to the U.S. Shortly after the ruling, it was revealed Assange had a stroke on Oct. 27, which was the first day of the high court appeal hearing, and Morris attributes this to his poor treatment and stressful experience during the extradition battle. Even if the CIA couldn’t personally kill Assange, he has been systematically abused to the point where there are legitimate fears he could die by illness or suicide. (It is noted on the Useful Idiots (42:30 – 43:30) podcast that Assange himself has clearly expressed he will not come back to the US alive because of what he expects to face here.) Recently, he has been given permission to appeal the decision that he can be extradited, and his legal team is currently working on that. 

The astonishing part of this twisted political saga is the behavior of many mainstream media outlets. As Assange is being indicted on uncorroborated charges for the very activities which investigative journalists engage with all the time, this trial has massive implications for the freedom of the press. However, mainstream media has mainly focused on contributing to the smear campaign against Assange. When Assange’s asylum was revoked, plenty of mainstream outlets, with an almost sick glee, reported extensively on allegations of “dirty,” unhygienic behavior. These same outlets never bothered to examine the change in Ecuadorian political leadership and the political motivations of Ecuadorian officials making these claims. Furthermore, they parrotted alarmist claims from national security officials about how Assange’s actions were irresponsible and dangerous, despite the fact that the government cannot prove that any harm was done to its sources and that their favored whistleblower of the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsburg, also argued that Assange’s actions are in the public interest.

Perhaps this behavior was predictable because these mainstream outlets are already quite beholden to the security state. In No Place to Hide, an account of how whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked NSA documents and the content of these leaks, journalist Glenn Greenwald writes that “the unwritten protective rules” requiring editors to consult national security agents before publication give the government control over what is disclosed. This, according to Greenwald, is most likely the reason why The Post hid the locations of extrajudicial CIA torture sites and The New York Times waited for more than one year to publish information about warantless NSA spy programs in 2005. Given that mainstream outlets are now full of national security officials, with outlets like CNN and MSNBC routinely featuring and simpering over people like James Clapper, who lied to congress about the NSA spy programs, and John Brennan, who lied to congress not only about spying on them but also about deaths in the Obama drone program he oversaw, the influence of the worst people in the security state has likely interleaved itself into the production of media. Even Frank Figulizzi, an ex-FBI official who was involved in lying to Iceland for Thordarson’s false testimony, is now propped up by MSNBC and NBC without proper disclosure of his involvement. Hence, we see these security state stenographers and other media apparatchiks join these ex-officials and the broader campaign to smear Assange. 

While the treatment of the security state as a collaborator already silences much dissent and has done so for years (just see what happened to Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges), the situation can become even more dire. As ACLU attorney Ben Wizner noted on Democracy Now!, the indictment against Assange is “a rubicon we didn’t want crossed” because it “criminalizes investigative journalism.” He notes this indictment doesn’t mean that The New York Times will be prosecuted immediately, but it does mean the threat of prosecution will more profoundly affect what journalists publish. Moreover, Wizner notes that this indictment sets the precedent that a country can apply their secrecy laws to an unaffiliated foreign publisher. Just think about what kind of global authoritarianism this introduces and how hypocritical it is for the U.S. to lecture the rest of the world about journalistic freedom. South China Morning Post editor Yonden Lhatoo makes this point perfectly as he condemns the persecution of Assange and then introduces the listener to a thought experiment about what would happen if China did something like this (“the whole world would self-combust in collective outrage”). Noam Chomsky’s critique that it is “incomprehensible” for U.S. intellectuals to apply the same standards to the US as other countries rings true here. 

Still, many people who fretted about an assault on the freedom of the press during Trump’s presidency seem content, even happy, to watch as Biden continues Trump’s policy and Assange languishes in prison. Others don’t even realize this is happening. Indeed, some of this is because the media has launched such a concentrated character assassination on Assange that even Melzer admitted on the Useful Idiots podcast (10:30 – 15:45) that he unconsciously internalized the horrible image that media reporting constructed around Assange and therefore initially ignored Assange’s request for support. Many Democrats also especially hate Assange because they attribute Clinton’s 2016 loss to Wikileaks publishing emails which exposed how internal corruption in the DNC systematically undermined the democratic process to favor Clinton.

But if people have concerns about Assange’s behavior, personal character, or political ethos, those concerns don’t need to be litigated here because they don’t matter in this context. Whether Assange is a “good person” or a “bad person” doesn’t change that this is an assault on the freedom of our press. If there is concern that he committed some other crime, then let him stand trial for those concerns separately from these current charges, away from the revenge-poisoned CIA officials. But the fact remains that people are only told that he is a “bad person,” and little to nothing about what is at stake, to sneak in this horrible precedent which will criminalize national security reporting. Whether one thinks that Assange is a “good person” who was smeared to achieve this assault on press freedom, a “bad person” who is being used to achieve this assault on press freedom, or something in between, it is essential to recognize that this is an assault on press freedom. 

Whether Assange is prosecuted under the criminalization of national security reporting and a likely bullshit hacking charge in the U.S., or dies in the UK by suicide or illness, it will not only mark the cruel, systematic, extra-legal destruction of a man’s life, but will also act as a direct attack on our freedom of speech and ability to hold powerful institutions accountable. It is already horrible that whistleblowers like Snowden, Manning, and Hale are treated like criminals for exposing criminal activity; it is even worse if nobody can publish criminal activity without fear that the U.S. security state will retaliate. If Assange is not affirmatively freed, pardoned, and compensated before it is too late, a deeply chilling message will be sent to the next person who receives leaked documents or a video of U.S. military malfeasance. In a democratic society, journalism is meant to empower people, to give people the tools to hold powerful institutions accountable. These leaks are the only way to make the most secretive institutions in the U.S.  more accountable and transparent. Neutering outlets and independent journalists from this investigative work is fundamentally anti-democratic because it enables a shadow government which is not accountable to people. This is a step towards an ethos of authoritarianism and repression which affects us all. 

The urgency of this moment must not be lost. Organizations around the country and world are agitating for Assange’s release and the guarantee against extradition, many of which can be found and supported here. Many members of the Swarthmore community are also connected to people who are part of and have power over cultural trends, politics, and media. These connections should be used to pressure the media into covering this case and the Biden DOJ into dropping the charges. The freedom of the press has always allowed us to amplify the voices of the vulnerable and make progress as a society. If this battle is lost, the damage might be irreversible. 

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