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The persecution of Julian Assange

His extradition would turn journalism into an act of treason.

Fraser Myers

Fraser Myers
Deputy editor

Topics Free Speech Politics World

The fate of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is on the line. Today marks the final day of hearings in his last-ditch appeal to the UK High Court to avoid extradition to the US. If he is extradited and then found guilty, he could be sentenced to up to 175 years in prison.

Officially, Assange faces 17 charges of espionage and one of computer misuse. But his only actual ‘crime’ is to have published things that are true and that have embarrassed people in power. Perhaps it is grimly fitting that he has been too unwell to attend court, or even follow the proceedings via video link. Because it is really journalism and freedom of the press that have been in the dock this week.

Don’t just take my word for it. That Assange’s only crime is to have done journalism was the conclusion drawn by the US Department of Justice (DoJ) in 2013, not long after the publication of his most famous leaks.

Wikileaks shot to prominence back in 2010 when it published ‘Collateral Murder’, a classified video from 2007 showing a US helicopter attack that killed 12 people in Baghdad, Iraq – including two Reuters journalists. It then published more than 90,000 classified US military files related to the war in Afghanistan (the ‘Afghan War Diary’) and around 400,000 on Iraq (the ‘Iraq War logs’). In December 2010, it leaked the contents of 250,000 secret diplomatic cables from US embassies, in collaboration with the Guardian. Practically every major media outlet in the world covered the stories that emerged from the leaks.

Outraged by all this, the Obama administration began exploring the possibility of prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act 1917, a law passed during the First World War intended for prosecuting spying and treason. But, as the DoJ conceded through gritted teeth, the state would then also have to ‘prosecute the New York Times and other news organisations and writers who published classified material, including the Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper’.

This reluctance to go after Assange was not because Barack Obama was a fan of free speech and freedom of the press. Nor was he particularly soft on whistleblowers. On the contrary, the Obama DoJ prosecuted three times as many whistleblowers as every prior administration in US history. It was also under Obama that Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning, Wikileaks’ key source, was prosecuted.

What the Obama DoJ recognised was the crucial distinction between leaking or stealing classified information and publishing it. To criminalise the mere publication of secrets would open the door to criminalising investigative journalism more broadly. After all, as George Orwell famously said, ‘Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed’.

Throughout this period, Assange had been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He had fled there in 2012 to escape four charges of rape levelled by the Swedish authorities, though these have since been dropped. He continued to edit Wikileaks from the embassy until 2018.

Any caution about prosecuting Assange for journalism evaporated in 2017, following Wikileaks’ publication of ‘Vault7’. This included more than 8,000 CIA documents, which revealed the techniques agents used to hack into smartphones and turn them into listening devices.

The CIA branded the leak its ‘Digital Pearl Harbour’. It led Mike Pompeo, the then CIA director, to declare all-out war on Assange. He publicly branded Wikileaks as a ‘non-state hostile intelligence service’. He said the US must not allow its ‘free-speech values’ to undermine its interests.

Since then, it has been revealed that around the same time discussions about kidnapping and assassinating Assange were taking place at the highest levels of the CIA and the Trump administration. Two years later, Pompeo, who had by then been promoted to Donald Trump’s secretary of state, issued the 18 indictments against Assange under the Espionage Act.

Pompeo’s personal animus towards Assange was all too clear. Yet since the Biden administration took power, it has been pursuing the Wikileaks founder with just as much vigour. This shouldn’t really be a surprise. For all the talk of Biden’s presidency marking a restoration of pre-Trumpian ‘liberal norms’, the Biden-era DoJ has been ruthless in its pursuit of enemies of the regime. While Assange’s diplomatic-cable leaks were embarrassing enough for Team Obama, leading Democrats would never forgive Assange for what happened next. Ahead of the 2016 election, Wikileaks published thousands of emails belonging to John Podesta, chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Many liberals hold this leak as partly responsible for Trump’s shock victory.

It is abundantly clear that the US is pursuing a politically motivated vendetta against Assange. Both Democrats and Republicans have been badly burnt by his leaks, as has the broader security state, which even considered assassinating him. Yet the UK courts have consistently refused to recognise this. UK law is supposed to ban extradition to the US for ‘political purposes’, but these protections seem to have fallen completely by the wayside so far. It seems unlikely they’ll be rediscovered by the High Court at the 11th hour.

The persecution of Julian Assange brings shame on both Britain and America. Extraditing and convicting him would eviscerate press freedom. It would turn journalism into an act of treason. The stakes could hardly be higher.

Fraser Myers is deputy editor at spiked and host of the spiked podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @FraserMyers.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Free Speech Politics World

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