Julian Assange is a complex character whose work at WikiLeaks has attracted enemies from divergent political parties, movements, and elected officials worldwide. Regardless, the relentless persecution of Mr. Assange and the threat it forbodes for freedom of the press and free speech is alarming and has a potential impact much more extensive than this particular case.
Australian native Julian Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006. The multi-national media organization specializes in gathering, analyzing, and publishing secret documents concerning war, spying, and corruption in countries throughout the world.
As of 2015, WikiLeaks had exposed more than 10 million documents, always at the consternation of government officials trying to keep those documents from public view.
Disclosures Embarrass U.S. Government
In 2010, WikiLeaks launched a massive effort to disclose documents and materials the U.S. military and intelligence agencies wanted to keep secret because of their embarrassing and possibly illegal activities. The Reuters news agency listed some of these documents disclosures as follows:
- April 5, 2010 – WikiLeaks releases leaked video from a U.S. helicopter showing an airstrike that killed civilians in Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff.
- July 25, 2010 – WikiLeaks releases over 91,000 documents, primarily secret U.S. military reports about the Afghanistan war.
- October 2010 – WikiLeaks released 400,000 classified military files chronicling the Iraq war. The following month, it released thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, including candid views of foreign leaders and blunt assessments of security threats.
While enlightening to the U.S. public, these disclosures were problematic for national security strategies and the agencies’ and countries’ public relations. In most cases, the disclosure of past conduct was momentary and quickly dissipated as the second decade got underway. However, the public humiliation was not forgotten, and calls for accountability were not silenced.
But the minimal security harm caused by the leaks did little to appease a U.S. government determined to hold Assange accountable for WikiLeaks disclosures.
Witch-hunt for Assange Begins
In November 2010, with some prodding by American officials, a Swedish court issued a warrant for Assange’s arrest on a rape allegation leading to his arrest in Britain the following month. Despite American opposition, Assange was released on bail.
The next decade would prove to be a legal nightmare for Julian Assange. He would spend most of the decade in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had sought and was granted political asylum.
In 2017, the Swedish government closed its rape investigation involving Assange.
Not dissuaded, the U.S. government, through former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, called WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service.” Bowing to the Trump administration’s desire to return Assange to America, the Swedish government reopened their investigation.
Pompeo, of course, was acceding to the mercurial whims of former President Donald Trump, who called for the execution of Assange in a 2010 interview, which was inconsistent with later statements made while Mr. Trump ran for office.
By 2016 while Trump was doing everything he could, both legally and illegally, to secure the presidency of the United States, he declared his undying “love” for WikiLeaks. The Assange-founded group had just dumped thousands of embarrassing Democratic Party emails weeks before the Democratic Convention took place in August 2016, which selected Hillary Clinton as the party’s presidential candidate. Trump “loved” the damage the Wiki-Leaks email dump did to the Clinton campaign.
However, after Trump secured the presidency, the U.S. government began a campaign to force Ecuador to give up Assange to British authorities. Ecuadorian authorities responded by placing Assange in isolation, which seriously debilitated his health, hoping to force him to vacate their premises.
Finally, in 2019, after realizing that Assange was not about to give up his asylum protection voluntarily, Ecuador summarily revoked Assange’s asylum. In April, British Metropolitan Police entered the Ecuadorian Embassy, arrested Assange, and escorted him to a waiting armored vehicle.
That same month the U.S. Justice Department indicted Assange for one count of conspiracy alleging “computer hacking” with a maximum penalty of ten years in prison.
The following month a British court sentenced Assange to 50 weeks in prison for skipping bail—a sentence he completed early. Assange was remained in custody pending a request for extradition to America. On May 23, 2019, the U.S. Justice Department issued a superseding indictment charging Assange with 17 espionage charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 and continued renewed efforts to secure his presence in the U.S.
In June 2019, the U.S. Justice Department formally requested that Britain extradite Assange to America to face the computer hacking conspiracy and espionage charges.
A week-long extradition hearing took place in a London courtroom in February 2020, just as the COVID pandemic began to spread.
Due to pandemic-related delays, it was not until January 21, 2021 that the British court handed down a decision on the U.S. extradition request.
English Judge Blasts U.S. Penal System
Judge Venessa Baraitser ruled that the request was “oppressive” and created a real risk that Assange would take his own life if placed in U.S. custody. Judge Baraitser was particularly concerned about the “near-total isolation” Assange would face as a defendant facing national security charges in the American penal system.
A group called the Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group, which includes more than 20 Australian lawmakers, promptly urged the governments of Britain and the United States to allow Assange to return home to his native country.
But that would not happen.
In February 2021, President Joe Biden’s Justice Department announced it would continue to seek the extradition of Assange to face the Trumped-up charges brought by the previous administration’s corrupt Justice Department under the leadership of Attorney General William Barr. The Biden position runs counter to the wishes of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who believes Assange should be allowed to return home after more than a decade in custody under severe circumstances.
In October of 2021, the Biden administration announced it would appeal Judge Baraitser’s refusal to extradite Assange to the U.S. where he would surely die in a Federal Super Max prison in Colorado.
We believe the decision to appeal Judge Baraitser’s ruling is horrendous and certainly not in keeping with the Biden administration’s pledge of fairness. It smacks of revenge for the 2016 WikiLeaks’ dump of Democratic emails in 2016 that may have cost Hillary Clinton the presidency.
Whatever legitimate national security harm Julian Assange may have inflicted on the U.S.—and most reputable national security experts agree the speculative damage was minimal at best—has long since passed.
Threat to Free Press
First Amendment Watch at New York University explained the threat to the press in its well-reasoned Deep Dive.
“While Assange is not a traditional journalist, he nonetheless engages in the types of activities that reporters routinely do, such as receiving documents and information from sources and publishing it. First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, responding to questions asked by The Washington Post about Assange’s prosecution under the Espionage Act, replied, “If it violated the Espionage Act for WikiLeaks to gather information from sources not permitted to release it and then publish it, then what American newspaper could be free from risk?”
Legal experts contend that the charges facing Assange are likely to be challenged on First Amendment grounds. “The Espionage Act doesn’t make any distinction between journalists and nonjournalists,” Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department official, told The New York Times. “If you can charge Julian Assange under the law with publishing classified information, there is nothing under the law that prevents the Justice Department from charging a journalist.”
Publishing information is what the press does, especially in a country founded on the principles of a free press. Mr. Assange is a publisher who disclosed important information to the American people and the world, often contrary to official statements on the issues. He cast a bright light on the dark secrets of governments and corrupt politicians across the globe.
Like him or not, enough is enough, justice demands that Julian Assange be freed and allowed to return to his homeland. To do otherwise will add legitimacy to attacks by governments worldwide upon the free press, a dangerous slippery slope that cannot be allowed to remain out of control.