Stop the Extradition: If Julian Assange Is Guilty of Espionage, So Too Are the New York Times, the Guardian and Numerous Other Media Outlets

31.5.19

An undated photo of a billboard outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, criticizing efforts by the US to punish Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange for having leaked and published classified US government documents.

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I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

Nearly seven years ago, when WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, sought asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London (on June 19, 2012), he did so because of his “fears of political persecution,” and “an eventual extradition to the United States,” as Arturo Wallace, a South American correspondent for the BBC, explained when Ecuador granted him asylum two months later. Ricardo Patino, Ecuador’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, spoke of “retaliation that could endanger his safety, integrity and even his life,” adding, “The evidence shows that if Mr. Assange is extradited to the United States, he wouldn’t have a fair trial. It is not at all improbable he could be subjected to cruel and degrading treatment and sentenced to life imprisonment or even capital punishment.”

Assange’s fears were in response to hysteria in the US political establishment regarding the publication, in 2010 — with the New York Times, the Guardian and other newspapers — of war logs from the Afghan and Iraq wars, and a vast number of US diplomatic cables from around the world, and, in 2011, of classified military files relating to Guantánamo, on which I worked as media partner, along with the Washington Post, McClatchy, the Daily Telegraph and others. All these documents were leaked to WikiLeaks by former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. 

Nearly seven years later, Assange’s fears have been justified, as, on May 23, the US Justice Department charged him on 18 counts under the Espionage Act of 1917, charges that, as the Guardian described it in an editorial, could lead to “a cumulative sentence of 180 years.” 

The charges came six weeks after the Ecuadorian government — under new, pro-US leadership — withdrew Assange’s asylum, leading to his immediate arrest by British police and his unacceptable imprisonment in Belmarsh, a maximum-security prison that is supposed to hold only dangerous convicted criminals, although it has also, since the “war on terror” began, been used to hold alleged terrorism suspects without charge or trial. 

That same day, the US began extradition proceedings, after unsealing a 2018 indictment against him “in connection with a federal charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion,” as the Justice Department described it, relating to alleged efforts to assist Chelsea Manning to “crack an encoded portion of a passcode that would have enabled her to log on to a classified military network under a different user name than her own, which would have masked her tracks better,” as the New York Times described it. Noticeably, Justice Department lawyers “have not alleged that his efforts succeeded,” and in any case the charge only carries a maximum sentence of five years.

Clearly, though, that charge was just to pave the way for the indictment unveiled last week, which has, understandably, appalled defenders of free speech, enshrined in the US in the First Amendment.

Among the many powerful rebukes to the Trump administration and the Justice Department, Glenn Greenwald’s column in the Washington Post three days ago, “The indictment of Assange is a blueprint for making journalists into felons,” provides a commendable summary.

Greenwald notes that, although the US government “has been eager to prosecute Assange since the 2010 leaks,” up until now “officials had refrained because they concluded it was impossible to distinguish WikiLeaks’ actions from the typical business of mainstream media outlets.”

“With these new charges,” however, “the Trump administration is aggressively and explicitly seeking to obliterate the last reliable buffer protecting journalism in the United States from being criminalized, a step that no previous administration, no matter how hostile to journalistic freedom, was willing to take.”

Dismissing dangerous claims that Assange “isn’t a journalist at all and thus deserves no free press protections,” Greenwald also explains that “this claim overlooks the indictment’s real danger and, worse, displays a wholesale ignorance of the First Amendment.” As he further explains:

Press freedoms belong to everyone, not to a select, privileged group of citizens called “journalists.” Empowering prosecutors to decide who does or doesn’t deserve press protections would restrict “freedom of the press” to a small, cloistered priesthood of privileged citizens designated by the government as “journalists.” The First Amendment was written to avoid precisely that danger.

Most critically, the US government has now issued a legal document that formally declares that collaborating with government sources to receive and publish classified documents is no longer regarded by the Justice Department as journalism protected by the First Amendment but rather as the felony of espionage, one that can send reporters and their editors to prison for decades. It thus represents, by far, the greatest threat to press freedom in the Trump era, if not the past several decades.

If Assange can be declared guilty of espionage for working with sources to obtain and publish information deemed “classified” by the US government, then there’s nothing to stop the criminalization of every other media outlet that routinely does the same — including the Washington Post, as well as the large media outlets that partnered with WikiLeaks and published much of the same material in 2010, along with newer digital media outlets like the Intercept, where I work.

As Greenwald also explains, “The vast bulk of activities cited by the indictment as criminal are exactly what major US media outlets do on a daily basis,” adding: 

Outside the parameters of the Trump DOJ’s indictment of Assange, these activities are called “basic investigative journalism.” Most major media outlets in the United States, including the Post, now vocally promote Secure Drop, a technical means modeled after the one pioneered by WikiLeaks to allow sources to pass on secret information for publication without detection. Last September, the New York Times published an article (titled “How to Tell Us a Secret”) containing advice from its security experts on the best means for sources to communicate with and transmit information to the paper without detection, including which encrypted programs to use.

Many of the most consequential and celebrated press revelations of the past several decades — from the Pentagon Papers to the Snowden archive (which I worked on with the Guardian) to the disclosure of illegal War on Terror programs such as warrantless domestic NSA spying and CIA black sites — have relied upon the same methods that the Assange indictment seeks to criminalize: namely, working with sources to transmit illegally obtained documents for publication.

Stop the extradition

It cannot be said with any certainty that the charges against Assange will lead to a successful prosecution in the US, but the best way of making sure that it doesn’t happen would be for the British government to refuse to extradite him, which it is perfectly entitled to do; in fact, under the terms of the US-UK Extradition Treaty, it is required not to agree to the request, because the treaty explicitly states that “[e]xtradition shall not be granted if the offense for which extradition is requested is a political offense.” 

Whether the British government will comply with this requirement is another matter. Holding him in Belmarsh seems to me to reveal the contempt with which they regard him, but even so it will be difficult for the British government to ignore what the Guardian described as the near-certainty that his “treatment in the American penal system would be more cruel than anything he might encounter even in our shameful prisons.”

That said, Assange has clearly already been suffering in Belmarsh, as two nights ago he was moved to the hospital wing of Belmarsh after what WikiLeaks’ website described as a “dramatic” loss of weight and deteriorating health, prompting “grave concerns” about his well-being. 

“Mr Assange’s health had already significantly deteriorated after seven years inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, under conditions that were incompatible with basic human rights,” WikiLeaks said in a statement, adding, “During the seven weeks in Belmarsh his health has continued to deteriorate and he has dramatically lost weight. The decision of prison authorities to move him to the ward speaks for itself.”

WikiLeaks also stated that, as the Evening Standard put it, “he could barely talk” when he met his lawyer, Per Samuelson, last Friday. Samuelson said that the state of his health was so poor that “it was not possible to conduct a normal conversation with him.”

Today, that analysis has been reinforced by Nils Melzer, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, who visited him in prison “earlier this month in the company of medical experts who examined him,” as the Guardian explained. Melzer said, “Julian Assange is showing all the symptoms associated with prolonged exposure to psychological torture and should not be extradited to the US.”

Commenting on his visit with Assange, he said, said, “Physically there were ailments but that side of things are being addressed by the prison health service and there was nothing urgent or dangerous in that way. What was worrying was the psychological side and his constant anxiety. It was perceptible that he had a sense of being under threat from everyone. He understood what my function was but it’s more that he was extremely agitated and busy with his own thoughts. It was difficult to have a very structured conversation with him.”

Noticeably, Chelsea Manning, who, unlike the Trump administration and the Justice Department, is fully aware of the difference between those who leak classified information for the public good, and those who publish it, and who is currently imprisoned for refusing to cooperate with a Grand Jury investigating Assange, after being imprisoned for seven years during the Obama presidency, released a statement from jail on the day Assange was charged with espionage in which she said she accepted “full and sole responsibility” for the 2010 WikiLeaks disclosures.

“It’s telling that the government appears to have already obtained this indictment before my contempt hearing last week,” Manning said, adding, “This administration describes the press as the opposition party and an enemy of the people. Today, they use the law as a sword, and have shown their willingness to bring the full power of the state against the very institution intended to shield us from such excesses.”

Yesterday, former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger joined the calls by high-ranking journalists and defenders of press freedom for Assange not to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act, which he described as “a panic measure enacted by Congress to clamp down on dissent or ‘sedition’ when the US entered the First World War in 1917.” 

“Whatever Assange got up to in 2010-11,” Rusbridger notes, “it was not espionage.”

When Assange was first arrested by British police, I posted a link to the page on WikiLeaks’ website showing all the media partners it has worked with over the years. What is needed now is for everyone concerned with press freedom — with, in the US, the cherished First Amendment — to declare unconditionally that the charges are wrong, and that the UK should not extradite Assange to the US. 

And while they’re at it, they might also want to point out that holding a journalist without charge or trial in Britain’s most notorious prisons for convicted criminals is not an act of justice, but one of vengeance.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

14 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, cross-posted from Close Guantanamo​, where I published it yesterday, looking at the outrageous and alarming decision by the US Justice Department under Donald Trump to charge WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange under the Espionage Act for having published a trove of classified US government documents leaked by Chelsea Manning., This is a chilling decision that, if it leads to a successful prosecution, would crush journalists’ ability to publish information about the actions of our governments that they would rather keep hidden.

    I urge all major mainstream journalists and media outlets — many of whom worked with WikiLeaks on the publication of the documents back in 2010-11, and who are all therefore as threatened as Julian Assange is — to demand that the charges are dropped, and also to urge the British government to refuse to extradite him to the US, because, under the terms of the US-UK Extradition Treaty, “extradition shall not be granted if the offense for which extradition is requested is a political offence.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy write:

    This is outrageous, they kill him

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s pretty grim, Aleksey.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Paul O’Hanlon wrote:

    It’s Tony Blair and George Bush who ought to be in the Dock at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. Down with big brother!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Paul. It’s funny, though, isn’t it, how the powerful seem constantly to be above the law?

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Paul O’Hanlon wrote:

    That’s what being powerful means. They can do what they want – they just throw the rule book in the bin. George Bush senior and junior were both put on trial by former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark and found guilty of war crimes. Some of the tribunals were held in Britain but our great seekers after truth in the media did not see fit to report them, Clark’s book `The Fire this Time` is a good read. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/68669.The_Fire_This_Time

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Liesel Wilkes write:

    What’s happening to Assange will only make whistle blowing harder. It’s Room 101, 1984.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I imagine it’s already having a chilling effect on would-be whistleblowers, Liesel.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Paul O’Hanlon wrote:

    So much for freedom of speech and the first amendment.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, exactly, Paul.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Toia Tutta Jung wrote:

    Thank you, Andy.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Toia!

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Free Julian!

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Natalia!

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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