from the DOJ-is-heading-down-a-pretty-dark-path-here dept
Julian Assange and Wikileaks did a lot over the past few years to destroy the goodwill they’d managed to accumulate prior to that by being a fearless publisher of leaked documents. At times, Assange has acted hypocritically and there’s some evidence he worked with Russian operatives to gather information in an attempt to damage the Democratic Party’s 2016 election hopes.
That being said, the on-again, off-again attempt to prosecute Assange over alleged Espionage Act violations threatens journalism as a whole. The DOJ occasionally appeared to recognize this, hence its stop-start prosecution effort. Attempts were made to get President Biden to drop the case, but there appears to be no turning back now. The US government has won its appeal of the UK court’s decision to refuse extradition.
Today, the U.S. won their appeal against a UK High Court ruling that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange could not be extradited due to concerns over his mental health. Julian Assange can now be extradited from the UK to the U.S.
That’s courtesy of the ACLU, which also released this statement:
Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, had the following reaction:
“The prosecution of Julian Assange poses a grave threat to press freedom. Bringing criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets. Any prosecution by the United States of Mr. Assange would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations. The government needs to immediately drop its charges against him.”
All of this is true. And it’s also true, as Marcy Wheeler points out, that Assange’s legal representation engaged in some bad faith arguing while trying to keep Assange from being extradited.
But the US is hardly without fault. It has made assurances about Assange’s treatment in prison, including a promise to keep him out of solitary confinement. Even if those making these assurances firmly believe them, the US prison system is far from willing to ensure Assange and his health conditions are treated humanely. The system does not work that way. Prisoners are considered interchangeable pieces of meat, stripped of their humanity as soon as they’re processed.
Here’s Wheeler’s take on the bad faith on both sides.
These two issues go to the dubious credibility of both sides. The High Court ruled that Kopelman did not give unvarnished expert opinion (he was in no way the only one of WikiLeaks’ experts to do so), but found that could not, at this point, affect the legal analysis. And it found that US assurances that US jails would treat Assange humanely were sufficient, even though I believe there is a high likelihood that Assange will do something that ends up getting him put in some form of isolation.
WikiLeaks has lied systematically throughout this extradition process — about why Assange was charged when he was, about what he was charged with, about how strong the case against him is, about what a Yahoo article actually said. I have described how a very close Assange associate ordered me, in advance of the first extradition hearing, to stop doing factual reporting on Joshua Schulte’s case because it would undermine the story about journalism WikiLeaks wanted to tell, which is one way I’m absolutely certain the lying is intentional. They have affirmatively told a story that was most useful to their propaganda effort, one they knew to be false.
That said, the US is little more credible. There’s scant reason to credit US assurances on jail and prison conditions. That’s true — and would be true for all international extradition cases — because our jails and prisons are shamefully inhumane. But it’s also true because a national security defendant like Assange would have little leeway before triggering more severe restrictions.
This is an example where neither side should be credited.
Without a doubt, Assange will soon find himself on the receiving end of the worst things the US penal system has to offer. Even at its best, it’s still pretty terrible.
Beyond the threat to Assange’s life and health, there’s the existential threat this prosecution poses to journalism. Assange faces 18 charges. Seventeen of those target things journalists do regularly. Sources with access to confidential and classified information are pursued. Leaked information is published. While the First Amendment tends to do a pretty good job protecting publication, it’s not nearly as helpful when it comes to the act of newsgathering, especially when the news is information the government would like to remain secret.
That these charges are being brought under the Espionage Act means Assange’s defense will be extremely limited. The newsworthiness of published classified information doesn’t matter and there’s no public interest defense to be raised. The prosecution makes its case and the defendant, for the most part, is expected to just sit there and take it.
This is why Edward Snowden fled the country. As he pointed out then, if there was a chance he’d be given a fair trial, he’d return to the US and face the DOJ in court. But the Espionage Act makes a fair trial impossible. That’s why the charges against Assange are so dangerous. If they stick, the DOJ will have little reason — other than an equally on-again, off-again sense of decency — to not bring criminal charges against journalists who seek out and publish classified information.