Chip Gibbons, Jacobin
he US is attempting to imprison one of its critics, Julian Assange, by claiming a global right to prosecute any journalist in the world. If that prosecution succeeds, it would be a severe blow not just to press freedom, but to our very right to oppose imperialism and empire.
From 2010 to 2011, WikiLeaks showed us what “the world according to US empire” looks like. Thanks to a cache of cables, including the Iraq and Afghan War Logs, State Department Cables, and Guantanamo Bay prisoner files, released by whistleblower Chelsea Manning, the world was given an unprecedented look into American abuses of power around the world. Using the US government’s own documents, WikiLeaks produced a searing indictment of the US national security state.
But it is not the US national security state that today finds itself indicted, but WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The United States has charged Assange under the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. While the Espionage Act has become the go-to weapon against whistleblowers, this is the first time a publisher or journalist has ever been indicted under the Espionage Act. If convicted, Assange faces over 170 years in prison, likely to be served in solitary confinement in a US supermax prison.
Assange is an Australian national who operates outside the United States. In a sweeping move, the United States is claiming the right to apply the Espionage Act to anyone anywhere in the world who has the audacity to publish truthful information about its own crimes. As part of their attempts to apply the Espionage Act extraterritorially, they have requested that the UK extradite him to the United States.
For eighteen days in September and October, a UK court heard arguments from British prosecutors representing the US government and Assange’s own defense. The judge is likely to make a ruling on whether to extradite Assange in January 2021. Given that either party can appeal the decision, it is unlikely to be the end.
Assange has already endured what journalist Charles Glass called “an unprecedented and illegal campaign to eliminate” him. While trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy, a private security firm spied on Assange and was specifically tasked by the United States with spying on his lawyers. They even discussed with US intelligence poisoning or abducting the publisher.
The FBI seized legally privileged material concerning Assange’s defense. A UN special rapporteur has found Assange has been subjected to “psychological torture” and warned the journalist would face a “show trial” in the United States. The stakes for Assange’s extradition are extremely high.
What’s at Stake
Assange’s extradition comes as part of a heightened war on those who expose the human rights abuses of the US national security state. Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, the whistleblowers who gave the Pentagon Papers to the media, were the first people ever indicted under the Espionage Act for “leaking” information to the media. With a few exceptions, this particular use of the Espionage Act largely remained dormant — until the Obama administration. Obama normalized the once-rare practice and made the Espionage Act the go-to weapon against national security whistleblowers. The Trump administration has been more than happy to escalate this war on whistleblowers and has now indicted a journalist.
Press freedom advocates have always argued that this war on journalists’ sources was a backdoor war on journalism itself. The decision to indict Assange confirms this. Any precedent allowing the prosecution of Assange opens the door for prosecuting a range of news outlets, including “mainstream” ones like the New York Times. These outlets routinely publish stories based on classified information and have had their sources indicted under the Espionage Act. And WikiLeaks worked with a range of global outlets, including the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel in publishing the very cables at the heart of the US government’s prosecution against Assange.
Assange’s conviction opens the door for a broad assault on press freedoms, but the issue is not how a conviction of the “bad” Assange threatens the “good” New York Times. The political and media establishment in the United States may revile Assange, but it’s illuminating to take stock of his international supporters. They include former heads of state like ex-Brazilian president Lula da Silva, himself recently a political prisoner, and ex-Bolivian president Evo Morales, deposed by a coup. High-profile leftist politicians like Jeremy Corbyn, Yanis Varoufakis, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon have publicly opposed his extradition.
In 2019, the European United Left–Nordic Green Left — the European Parliament grouping that includes France Insoumise, Germany’s Die Linke, and Spain’s Podemos — presented Assange with an award for “Journalists, Whistleblowers and Defenders of the Right to Information.” Assange’s legal team is led by Jennifer Robinson, a famed human rights lawyer, and includes Baltasar Garzón, the former Spanish judge who issued the historic arrest warrant for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Assange’s supporters on the international left, especially those from countries that have been victims of US intervention, view Assange as someone who stood up to the US empire and is now in its crosshairs. They hone in on the fact that Assange exposed US war crimes and now faces prosecution for doing so.
While there has been a blackout from corporate media on the extradition hearings, independent journalists have filled the void, especially Shadowproof’s Kevin Gosztola, whose daily reports on the extradition hearing give us unparalleled insight into the proceedings.
Assange’s defense has used the extradition hearings to call attention to the grave press freedoms issues at stake, as well as highlight the abhorrent conditions of the US prison system. Press freedom advocates and even perhaps the United States’ most famous whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg have taken the virtual stand. These witnesses stressed the blow to press freedom that Assange’s extradition would pose. They also sought to situate Assange’s prosecution in a wider war on journalists.
But it isn’t just free speech advocates who testified on Assange’s behalf, but people working for human rights more broadly. Clive Stafford Smith, founder of the human rights group Reprieve UK, testified on how WikiLeaks’ work has helped human rights advocacy: the group used it when representing victims of drone strikes, relying on cables published by WikiLeaks in their case. The result? A court in Pakistan ruled that drone strikes carried out by the CIA and other US authorities were a war crime and a human rights violation.
Stafford Smith has also represented men detained at Guantanamo and documents published by WikiLeaks have aided his work. One client, Ahmed Rabbani, used materials from WikiLeaks when filing a complaint with the International Criminal Court and is “the only Guantánamo prisoner who has been publicly named in the current investigation by the International Criminal Court into war crimes in Afghanistan.” The United States has sanctioned the ICC prosecutor investigating US war crimes in Afghanistan, indicating the charges against Assange are part of a pattern of retaliation against those who challenge US war crimes.
Putting the Real Criminals on Trial
It’s jarring to hear testimony about the United States’ war crimes, then realize it is Assange who is in the docket.
The Progressive International has sought to turn the tables on Assange’s persecutors. Bringing together world leaders, like Corbyn and Lulu, with left-wing intellectuals like Slavoj Žižek and Tariq Ali, the Progressive International has organized the Belmarsh Tribunal.
Belmarsh is the London prison where Assange is being held. The tribunal draws its inspiration from the “tribunal” convened by Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre to investigate US war crimes in Vietnam. The Belmarsh Tribunal, like the Russell Tribunal, has no legal authority, but it does provide a public forum for marshaling evidence.
The Belmarsh Tribunal’s goal is to put Assange’s prosecutors on trial for the very war crimes WikiLeaks documented while defending his right to expose them. In the words of Varoufakis, one of the jurors, the Belmarsh Tribunal aims to “turn the current court case into a trial of the military-industrial-national-security complex” and in turn exercise the duty to “accuse those who truly deserve to be accused.”
The Progressive International’s Belmarsh Tribunal may lack legal authority, but it highlights the perversity of prosecuting Assange. Here, we have actual evidence of war crimes “at our fingertips.” Instead of following up on it, we have decided to put in the docket the person responsible for alerting us.
“Peace Can Be Started by Truth”
Assange’s case has grave implications for press freedom in the United States. By crossing the Rubicon and indicting a journalist under the Espionage Act for the first time, the Trump administration could create a broad precedent that threatens reporting on classified information. But Assange’s case is bigger than just that. It isn’t just the future of press freedom that hangs in the balance, but the future of human rights advocacy more broadly. Assange’s prosecution for publishing US documents is intrinsically intertwined with the war crimes he exposed.
Assange has garnered the support of a wide array of international leftists, human rights advocates, and press freedom groups precisely because of what’s at stake. Assange has argued that “if wars can be started by lies, peace can be started by truth.” Allowing the United States to imprison one of its critics, claiming a global right to come after any journalist in the world, would be a blow not just to press freedom in the United States, but our very right to work for a world free of imperialism and empire.