Julian Assange Must Never Be Extradited
Matt Taibbi / Rolling Stone
The second indictment of the Wikileaks co-founder seems designed to force the British to deny extradition. If not, it’s madness
(May 31, 2019) — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange today sits in the Belmarsh High Security prison in southeast London. Not just for his sake but for everyone’s, we now have to hope he’s never moved from there to America.
The United States filed charges against Assange early last month. The case seemed to have been designed to assuage fears that speech freedoms or the press were being targeted.
That specific offense was “computer hacking conspiracy” from back in 2010. The “crime” was absurdly thin, a claim that Assange agreed (but failed, apparently) to try to help Chelsea Manning develop an administrative password that could have helped her conceal identity as she downloaded secrets. One typewritten phrase, “No luck so far,” was the damning piece of evidence.
The troubling parts of that case lurked in the rest of the indictment, which seemed to sell normal journalistic activity as part of the offense.
The government complained that Assange “took measures to conceal Manning as the source of the disclosure.” Prosecutors likewise said, “Assange encouraged Manning to provide information and records from departments and agencies of the United States.”
The indictment stressed Assange/Manning were seeking “national defense information” that could be “used to the injury of the United States.” The indictment likewise noted that the pair had been guilty of transmitting such information to “any person not entitled to receive it.”
It was these passages that made me nervous a month and a half ago, because they seemed to speak to a larger ambition. Use of phrases like “national defense information” given to persons “not entitled to receive it” gave off a strong whiff of Britain’s Official Secrets Acts, America’s Defense Secrets Act of 1911 (which prohibited “national defense” information going to “those not entitled to receive it”) and our Espionage Act of 1917, which retained many of the same concepts.
All of these laws were written in a way that plainly contradicted basic free speech protections. The Espionage Act was revised in 1950 by the McCarran Internal Security Act, sponsored by Nevada Senator Pat McCarran (who incidentally was said to be the inspiration for the corrupt “Senator Pat Geary” character in The Godfather). The change potentially removed a requirement that the person obtaining classified information had to have intent to harm the country.
There was a way to read the new law that criminalized what the Columbia Law Review back in 1973 (during the Pentagon Papers controversy) called the “mere retention” of classified material.
This provision buried in subsection 793 of the Espionage Law has, since passage, been a ticking time bomb for journalism. The law seems clearly to permit the government to prosecute anyone who simply obtains or receives “national defense” information. This would place not only sources who steal and deliver such information at risk of prosecution, but also the journalists who receive and publish it.
If the government ever decided to start using this tool to successfully prosecute reporters and publishers, we’d pretty quickly have no reporters and publishers.
I’m not exaggerating when I say virtually every reporter who’s ever done national security reporting has at some time or another looked at, or been told, or actually received copies of, “national defense” information they were technically “not entitled to receive.”
Anyone who covers the military, the intelligence community, or certain congressional committees, will eventually stumble – even just by accident – into this terrain sooner or later. Even I’ve been there, and I’ve barely done any reporting in that space.
This is why the latest indictment handed down in the Assange case has been met with almost universal horror across the media, even by outlets that spent much of the last two years denouncing Assange as a Russian cutout who handed Trump the presidency.
The 18-count indictment is an authoritarian’s dream, the work of attorneys who probably thought the Sedition Act was good law and the Red Scare era Palmer raids a good start. The “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion” is there again, as the 18th count. But counts 1-17 are all subsection 793 charges, and all are worst-case-scenario interpretations of the Espionage Act as pertains to both the receipt and publication of secrets.
Look at the language:
Count 1: Conspiracy to Receive National Defense Information. Counts 2-4: Obtaining National Defense Information. Counts 5-8: Obtaining National Defense Information. And so on.
The indictment is an insane tautology. It literally charges Assange with conspiracy to obtain secrets for the purpose of obtaining them. It lists the following “offense”:
To obtain documents, writings, and notes connected with the national defense, for the purpose of obtaining information respecting the national defense…
Slowly – it’s incredible how slowly – it is dawning on much of the press that this case is not just an effort to punish a Russiagate villain, but instead a deadly serious effort to use Assange as a pawn in a broad authoritarian crackdown.
The very news outlets that have long blasted Donald Trump for his hostility to press freedoms are finally coming around to realize that this case is the ultimate example of all of their fears.
This indictment is so awful, in fact, that CNN’s contributor, lawyer Alexander Urbelis, seemed convinced it was written to give the British an out, “designed to ensure that Assange is not extradited to the United States.”
His thesis is that Assange at trial would be able to embarrass the Trump administration. It would do this by highlighting the fact that Trump was saying salutary things about WikiLeaks in 2016, and perhaps also by disclosing other matters pertaining to the DNC leaks.
“Seen in this light,” he wrote, “the damage to the freedom of the press may be the foreseeable but unintentional collateral damage of squashing the chances of an Assange trial.”
I’m not sure I buy this. This seems to me like another example of outside observers giving the Trump White House credit for playing 4D chess when it isn’t.
It seems more likely this is a genuine effort to expand the ability of the U.S. government to put a vice-grip on classified information, scare whistleblowers into silence, and scare the pants off editors across the planet.
The Assange case is more than the narrow prosecution of one controversial person. This is a crossroads moment for the whole world, for speech, reporting, and transparent governance.
It is happening in an era when the hegemonic U.S. government has been rapidly expanding a kind of oversight-free zone within its federal bureaucracy, with whole ranges of activities – from drone killings to intelligence budgets to surveillance – often placed outside the scope of either congress or the courts.
One of the few outlets left that offered any hope of penetrating this widening veil of secrecy was the press, working in conjunction with the whistleblower. If that relationship is criminalized, self-censorship will become the norm, and abuses will surely multiply as a result.
Add to this the crazy fact that the Assange indictment targets a foreigner whose “crimes” were committed on foreign soil, and the British government now bears a very heavy responsibility.
If it turns Assange over to the United States and he is successfully prosecuted, we’ll now reserve the right to snatch up anyone, anywhere on the planet, who dares to even try to learn about our secret activities. Think of all the ways that precedent could be misused.
Britain is in a box. On the one hand, thanks to Brexit, it’s isolated itself and needs the United States more than ever. On the other hand, it needs to grow some stones and stand up to America for once, if it doesn’t want to see the CIA as the World’s Editor-in-Chief for a generation. This case is bigger than Assange now, and let’s hope British leaders realize it.
(May 27, 2019) — Imagine a society in which journalists or publishers are threatened by the government with life in prison for reporting on massive war crimes.
Actually, you don’t have to imagine this nightmarish scenario. This is now the reality in America 2019, with the May 23 indictment of Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, for working with Chelsea Manning to bring to light US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as troves of other information relating to treatment of detainees at Guantánamo, diplomatic cables with details about US relations with its allies, and more.
The government is persecuting Assange for publishing the information that WikiLeaks received from Manning, who was a soldier and intelligence analyst stationed in Iraq with access to files revealing war crimes committed by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan and other secrets the US wanted to keep under wraps. 
In 2010, Manning put her life on the line by providing these files to WikiLeaks, with the aim, in her words, of provoking “worldwide discussion, debates and reforms” (see box for more on Chelsea Manning). The files WikiLeaks published were the basis for coverage of these crimes in the mainstream media in the US and worldwide.
Assange is now in prison in Britain, after being expelled from the Ecuadorian embassy in London after years of seeking sanctuary there from persecution. He is fighting extradition to the US.
A Dangerous Precedent Is Being Set
The Espionage Act that the US Department of “Justice” (DOJ) is using to go after Assange was first passed in 1917, in part aimed at antiwar and other radical activists. Among its elements is targeting the leaking of government/military secrets. This has been used in the past against people working within the government or in projects for the government—like Daniel Ellsberg, who was an analyst with a think tank closely linked to the US military when he made the Pentagon Papers  public during the Vietnam War.
More recently, it has been used against Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden (a National Security Administration contractor who exposed vast electronic spying by the US on billions of people).
What makes the case against Julian Assange so unprecedented and dangerous is that this is the first time the Espionage Act has been used against a journalist or someone publishing leaked documents—for making them known to the public—rather than just the original source of the information within the government/military or associated institutions and agencies.
The DOJ denies it is going after journalists and claims that the Assange indictment is about punishing the illegal obtaining and disclosure of classified information, which the DOJ says endangered the lives of American troops, diplomats, and sources. But that’s like a vampire telling you to rest assured while he bites you in the neck.
As a range of voices is correctly pointing out, what Assange is accused of doing under the DOJ indictment is no different from what all investigative journalists and their publishers regularly do—and that is very ominous, not only for the rights of journalists but also for the rights of people overall.
Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, called the indictment “a direct assault on the First Amendment” that “establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets.” 
Even Alan Dershowitz, right-wing Harvard professor and Trump supporter, said the Assange indictment was “analogous to if The New York Times and The Washington Post had been indicted after publishing the Pentagon Papers,” and called this a “very, very frightening development.” 
James Risen (former national security reporter for the New York Times and now at The Intercept) takes some of the language from the DOJ indictment and points out the implications:
The indictment says that Assange and WikiLeaks “repeatedly sought, obtained, and disseminated information that the United States classified due to the serious risk that unauthorized disclosure could harm the national security of the United States.”
That is almost a textbook definition of the job of a reporter covering national security at a major news organization. Take a look at the tips pages of most news outlets, and you’ll see a remarkable similarity between what journalists ask for and what WikiLeaks sought.
The indictment goes on to say that “WikiLeaks’s website explicitly solicited censored, otherwise restricted, and until September 2010, ‘classified’ materials.”
Today, virtually every major news organization has a similar secure drop box where sources can provide information anonymously. WikiLeaks popularized that technique for soliciting anonymous leaks, but it is now common journalistic practice.
“Assange personally and publicly promoted WikiLeaks to encourage those with access to protected information, including classified information, to provide it to WikiLeaks for public disclosure,” the indictment says. Nearly every national security reporter goes on television, gives speeches, or launches book tours to promote their work and hopefully obtain new sources.
All of this raises an obvious question: If the government can charge Assange for conspiring to obtain leaked documents, what would stop it from charging the CIA beat reporter at the New York Times for committing the same crime? 
And think about the implications of the Espionage Act indictment of Assange for journalists internationally. Assange is not an American citizen, and he worked outside the US Will his indictment now set a precedent for the US going after foreign journalists who dig up and publish information that the rulers declare to be “harmful to US national security”—charging them with serious crimes and demanding they be extradited to the US to face trial?
Furthermore, if the US can bring criminal charges against foreign journalists, can other repressive governments around the world bring charges against US reporters and publishers for exposing their secrets?
This extreme and dangerous move by the Trump/Pence regime is part of the ramping up of their overall fascist juggernaut. In the interest of humanity, this and other mounting outrages need to be met with society-wide upsurge of protest, not just against this or other particular outrages but demanding that the whole fascist regime be driven out.
And, more fundamentally, the question is posed: Will we continue to live under this system that has produced so many horrors for humanity, including this fascist regime, and condemn future generations to this . . . or make revolution to overthrow the rule of capitalism-imperialism and bring about a radically different system and world?
- Among the files leaked by Manning and published by WikiLeaks was a video taken from a US helicopter over Baghdad in 2007, with the soldiers firing on civilians on the ground as they chatted and even joked, killing 12 people and wounding two children. See American Crime, Case #23: The Afghanistan and Iraq War Logs and the Persecution of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Wikileaks for more on what Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks exposed. [back]
- Ellsberg, then a military analyst, risked life in prison to leak the Pentagon Papers, secret US government documents revealing important truths about the US war in Vietnam. [back]
- ACLU Comment on Julian Assange Indictment, May 23, 2019. [back]
- “Frightening’: Charges Against Julian Assange Alarm Press Advocates,” New York Times, May 23, 2019. [back]
- “The Indictment of Julian Assange Under the Espionage Act Is a Threat to the Press and the American People,” May 24, 2019. A PDF of the indictment against Assange is available online.
- Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.