The gloves were off on Tuesday as the US Government explicitly argued that all journalists are liable to prosecution under the Espionage Act (1917) for publishing classified information, citing the Rosen case. Counsel for the US government also argued that the famous Pentagon Papers supreme court judgement on the New York Times only referred to pre-publication injunction and specifically did not preclude prosecution under the Espionage Act. The US Government even surmised in court that such an Espionage Act prosecution of the New York Times may have been successful.
It is hard for me to convey to a British audience what an assault this represents by the Trump administration on Americans’ self-image of their own political culture. The First Amendment is celebrated across the political divide and the New York Times judgement is viewed as a pillar of freedom. So much so that Hollywood’s main superstars are still making blockbusters about it, in which the heroes are the journalists rather than the actual whistleblower, Dan Ellsberg (whom I am proud to know).
The US government is now saying, completely explicitly, in court, those reporters could and should have gone to jail and that is how we will act in future. The Washington Post, the New York Times, and all the “great liberal media” of the USA are not in court to hear it and do not report it, because of their active complicity in the “othering” of Julian Assange as something sub-human whose fate can be ignored. Are they really so stupid as not to understand that they are next?
The prosecution’s line represented a radical departure from their earlier approach which was to claim that Julian Assange is not a journalist and to try and distinguish between his behaviour and that of newspapers. In the first three days of evidence, legal experts had stated that this gloss on the prosecution did not stand up to investigation of the actual charges in the indictment. Experts in journalism also testified that Assange’s relationship with Manning was not materially different from cultivation and encouragement by other journalists of official sources to leak.
By general consent, those first evidence days had gone badly for the prosecution. There was then a timeout for (ahem) suspected Covid among the prosecution team. The approach has now changed and on Tuesday a radically more aggressive approach was adopted by the prosecution asserting the right to prosecute all journalists and all media who publish classified information under the Espionage Act (1917).
The purpose of the earlier approach was plainly to reduce media support for Assange by differentiating him from other journalists. It had become obvious such an approach ran a real risk of failure, if it could be proved that Assange is a journalist, which line was going well for the defence. So now we have “any journalist can be prosecuted for publishing classified information” as the US government line. I strongly suspect that they have decided they do not have to mitigate against media reaction, as the media is paying no attention to this hearing anyway.
I shall now continue my exposition of the questioning of Eric Lewis. I shall not set out as much of this in full detail as dialogue as I did yesterday, but will do so at key points in the summary.
James Lewis QC Returning to the European Court of Human Rights judgement in the case of Babar Ahmad, you state that their finding that solitary confinement is permissible did not take into account more recent studies such as the 2020 Danish study by Wildeman and Andersen. Do you say this study would have reversed the ECHR decision?
Eric Lewis That is impossible to say. I hope that if the ECHR had before it the large body of evidence on solitary confinement available today, the judgement may have been different.
James Lewis QC What are the five limitations to their study which Wildemann and Andersen mention?
Eric Lewis I don’t have it in front of me.
James Lewis QC Why did you not mention the five limitations in your report? They state that their methodology is strictly observational and cannot be used to prove cause and effect.
[The report in effect shows a much higher suicide rate post-incarceration among those who had been subjected to solitary confinement, from a very large sample of ex-prisoners].
Eric Lewis I could have written hundreds of pages on recent social sciences developments on solitary confinement. This is just one such report.
James Lewis QC You were just fishing about for something, omitting details which counter your opinion.
Eric Lewis There is a huge amount of data, including from the US Bureau of Prisons. You just picked out one caveat of one report.
James Lewis QC Please keep your answers concise. The situation has changed due to the Cunningham Mitigation. Do you know what that is?
Eric Lewis Yes
James Lewis QC Why did you not mention it in your report?
Eric Lewis Because it is not relevant. A number of recommendations were set out, which have not been implemented in practice.
James Lewis QC Gordon Kromberg has produced the Cunningham Mitigation for us. In November 2016, in settlement of an 8th Amendment claim, it was admitted that conditions for mental health treatment in the Florence Colorado ADX are unsatisfactory and a large number of measures were agreed. Do you agree with Mr Kromberg that the Cunnigham Mitigation has improved matters.?
Eric Lewis In some ways it has improved matters, in other ways things have gotten worse.
James Lewis QC then proceeded to state in response to Eric Lewis’s written statement on Covid, that Gordon Kromberg affirmed that as of 2 September there was no covid in the Alexandra Detention Centre where Assange would be kept pre-trial. Eric Lewis countered that levels of Covid in federal prisons in the USA are 18%.
James Lewis QC You stated in the press that the maximum sentence is 340 years when now you state it is only 175 years. You miscalculated didn’t you? You took 20 years per count as the base when it should be 10.
Eric Lewis It was a mistake in an interview
James Lewis QC You don’t really believe in 175 years maximum sentence, do you? It’s just a soundbite.
Eric Lewis started to answer and James Lewis QC cut him off. Edward Fitzgerald rose and objected that the witness must be allowed to answer. Baraitser agreed.
Read entire report here.