Julian Assange Gets A Bit of Breathing Room

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A British court has denied his extradition, but that doesn't mean he's safe yet

Julian Assange's girlfriend Stella Moris speaks to the media outside the Old Bailey on January 4, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

A UK court has rejected Washington’s aggressive attempt to drag Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to the United States to face unprecedented charges of espionage, but that doesn’t mean the travails of the free information outlaw are over.

Nor does it stop the chilling effect that his prosecution has had on free speech or the press. “This is a loaded gun pointed right at journalists,” charged Marjorie Cohn, law professor and former president of the National Lawyers Guild, speaking on a panel Monday.

Why is that? Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled earlier that day that given the fragility of Assange’s mental health, he may be driven to suicide if sent to pre-trial solitary confinement in a U.S. supermax prison — in particular the Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Florence, Colorado, which now houses at least four inmates accused of espionage. This, you might say, is a searing indictment of the U.S. prison system.

On that basis, Baraitser denied the extradition, subject to U.S. appeal. Assange’s lawyers are now preparing their case to request bail.

However, as Cohn and others point out, she left nearly every single government argument to nail Assange to the wall perfectly intact. In fact, even if the Australian citizen does make bail, he is only nominally safer from the long arm of American will than he was two days ago. 

According to her extensive ruling, which was over 200 pages long with an annex, Baraitser not only claims the U.S. brought its case against Assange in “good faith,” but she disagreed the indictment was politically motivated. She dismissed arguments by Assange’s team that he would not receive a fair trial in the United States, or that myriad public statements by American politicians, including President Trump and Mike Pompeo, prejudiced his case. She waved away lawyers’ accusations that the CIA had been spying on Assange (with the help of Casino magnate and GOP bankroller Sheldon Adelson and his private security goons), illegally, during his seven years holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy.

But by far the most damning are her statements about the 18 counts in the indictment against Assange, in particular the charges that he conspired with Chelsea Manning to break into government networks to download hundreds of thousands of classified cables, reports and other documents. Baraitser contends, based on the prosecution’s arguments, that Assange’s activities went “well beyond” that of a whistleblower and journalist, and agreed they were “unlawful” in nature. 

“The fact that she accepted most of the government’s arguments … is very disturbing,” said Cohn, who joined Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and author Noam Chomsky on the panel sponsored by Assange Defense, and moderated by reporter Kevin Gosztola

The government has emphasized Assange’s alleged “aiding and abetting” of the government hack over his publishing the classified information in the indictment because of the constitutional questions raised in such a prosecution. No journalist has ever been convicted of the Espionage Act. Yet. It doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen, pointed out Ellsberg, whose own government indictment in 1973 was eventually dismissed. “Journalists seem to think the Espionage Act won’t be applied to them,” he said. “It’s time to wake up.” 

He pointed out that incoming president Joe Biden may be persuaded to keep the prosecution alive. While the Obama administration never indicted Assange (the massive leak happened during the beginning of Obama’s eight-year tenure), Biden once called Assange a “high tech terrorist.”

Cohn said it was the nature of the leaks — which led to the Afghan War and Iraq War logs, as well as the Guantanamo Bay Files, and the infamous “Collateral Murder” video — that made Assange and Manning (whose sentence was later commuted by Obama) such a target.

“We lose sight of that fact that the reason he is going through this torture is because he had the gall and the temerity to expose U.S. war crimes and human rights violations,” she said, which included undercounting civilians deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, the torture and abuse of detainees, and covering up war crimes committed by Iraq forces working with Americans. “Keep in mind we would not know any of this if it were not for national security journalists publishing the classified information” put out there by Wikileaks, said Cohn.

For this reason Assange is a “national security threat,” said Chomsky. “What we have here is a security issue. But it’s the security of the state against its own citizens.” 

How much impact Wikileaks has had on actual security is up for debate. But knowing what the country was doing in its name certainly hurt public opinion of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts as they struggled on through a second decade. Assange may have lost some of his luster as a free speech hero when he published the hacked DNC emails during the contentious 2016 election, but today, most Americans have an unfavorable view of the wars (though thousands of troops still remain in both theaters), and a wariness of getting into more.

Ellsberg, whose Pentagon Papers leak helped to expose government lies in the Vietnam War policy is unrepentant and said leaks can actually stop military conflicts. He said he was “convinced” the Trump administration is planning a campaign against Iran on the way out and encouraged anyone to expose any information that might prove it. “I think anyone with access to that I would encourage them to share it with Congress … and the press. I think it would be the highest form of patriotism for someone to do that.”

As for Assange, Washington may lose an appeal, but it would only mean he would have to stay in England forever. He won’t be safe from similar extradition attempts in other countries (though Mexico is reportedly offering Assange asylum).

So while this is a “monumental victory,” said Cohn, the charges aren’t going away. “I think we need to keep in mind why Julian Assange was indicted by the Trump administration in the first place, and why this is so disturbing and chilling to journalists going forward.”





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