Opinion: Misunderstanding the Julian Assange case

Published: 7/5/2022 6:02:55 AM
Modified: 7/5/2022 6:00:17 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

There’s no doubt that Julian Assange has been a polarizing figure. He’s been hated by both liberals and conservatives.

Many liberals hate him for Wikileaks’ role in releasing John Podesta’s Democratic National Committee emails before the 2016 presidential election. It was a factor that helped Trump at a critical time in the campaign. It showed the Democrats’ national committee favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the primaries. This probably depressed the election turnout for Clinton.

Conservatives have hated Assange on an entirely different basis. They’ve argued Assange’s work placed U.S. personnel and agents in danger. They’ve hated that he exposed military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Republican politicians like Sen. Mitch McConnell have called Assange a “high-tech terrorist.”

Along the way, Assange was also accused of sexual misconduct by two Swedish women. These charges were eventually dropped by Swedish prosecutors but they also placed Assange in a most unflattering light.

I believe the hatred and anger stirred up has confused the public’s view about what is at stake in Assange’s legal case. The government is turning investigative journalism into a criminal act. Assange, through Wikileaks, published classified documents in 2010. He didn’t leak them, Chelsea Manning did that.

Wikileaks published hundreds of thousands of documents about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The documents revealed the U.S. had killed hundreds of innocent civilians in these wars. Wikileaks released the infamous Collateral Murder video which showed 2007 footage of U.S. soldiers gleefully murdering a crowd of Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists. The Iraq war logs also showed over 66,000 Iraqi civilians were murdered by Iraqi forces.

In addition, the documents exposed the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Over 150 innocent Afghans and Pakistanis were held for years without charges. Prisoners included an 89-year-old man and a 14-year-old boy. The files revealed the government was holding prisoners to try and extract intelligence. The government relied heavily on evidence obtained from people who had been tortured, including at black sites. The files showed that many of those being held at Guantanamo weren’t considered dangerous.

Without Wikileaks, none of this information would have been made public. Knowing your government is conducting state torture at black sites and at Guantanamo is not some minor detail. So far, U.S. authorities have been unable to name one person who could have been shown to have died as a result of these disclosures.

George Orwell once wrote, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.”

Assange is being prosecuted for revealing war crimes. I believe he was engaged in protected First Amendment activity. Assange was publishing truthful information that was in the public interest to be disclosed. This is particularly true because of the continuing disastrous record of American engagement in foreign interventions.

To me, it’s significant that Daniel Ellsberg, exposer of the Pentagon Papers and one of the heroes of our time, has spoken up so forcefully on behalf of Assange. He has said he feels “a great identification” with Assange’s work. Both were charged under the Espionage Act of 1917.

Ellsberg has asked President Biden to drop any prosecution of Assange. The Obama Administration, after a thorough review, declined to pursue Assange’s prosecution. It was the Trump Administration that initiated the prosecution and Biden is seemingly carrying the Trump effort on. Biden can decide to drop the prosecution.

Assange faces 17 counts of violation of the Espionage Act with a possibility of having to serve 175 years behind bars. Considering he’s being charged under an Espionage Act, you might think Assange was acting as an agent of a foreign power. He was not. Nor did he sell any documents Wikileaks acquired. He simply made them available to the public.

The Espionage Act has an ignoble history. It was first used to prosecute Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs for opposing WWI. Assange’s prosecution represents the first time in American history that a journalist, rather than a source, has been charged with Espionage Act violations.

A free press exists to serve citizens, not the government. In the Pentagon Papers case, the Supreme Court wrote, “The press was protected (by the Founders) so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fever and foreign shot and shell.”

The indictment of Assange threatens press freedom. His prosecution has a chilling effect on journalists who are shining sunlight on dark places. The government message is unmistakeable: reveal secrets and you will pay a big price. There is no way to distinguish Assange’s actions from investigative journalism practiced by the New York Times or The Guardian. They too rely on publishing information that was deemed “secret” or “classified.”

The ACLU, Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, PEN International and Human Rights Watch, among others, have asked the Justice Department to drop the case against Assange. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, has written, “President Biden should avoid setting a terrible precedent by criminalizing key tools of independent journalism that are essential for a healthy democracy.”

Assange is being held in maximum security Belmarsh prison in England. He’s been in Belmarsh for three years without being convicted of any crime. Assange has had a stroke and is in poor physical and psychological condition.

The British Home Secretary Priti Patel very recently approved his extradition to the U.S. to face trial here. That decision is under appeal.

Former President Trump has demonstrated no respect for press freedom and clearly hates journalists. It’s hardly surprising that he wouldn’t care about the First Amendment or journalism. However, we have a right to expect better from President Biden.

The job of a journalist is to question governments and to put out information that governments hate having disclosed. We don’t need journalists who act as courtiers to power. History shows that survival of democracy necessitates journalists like Assange who are willing to expose the powerful. Without such journalists, the public is much more likely to be led into more imperialist misadventures like Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.




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