In what seemed like an increasingly rare bit of good news, on Monday, January 4th, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled against extraditing Wikileaks founder Julian Assange from the United Kingdom to the United States. The Australian, 49, faces charges that could result in up to 175 years in prison, most of them under the country’s 1917 Espionage Act,
Similar to the justifications presented at the time for the laws passed after the attacks on September 11th, 2001, the Espionage Act probably seemed to many people like a measured way to confront the challenges the country faced upon entering into the First World War. Like most violent conflicts between nations, it was presented as a battle of the purest good against the vilest evil rather than what one might argue it was: a squabble between ‘blue blooded’ European cousins that led to millions of unnecessary deaths, sowing a generational trauma that made an even more destructive war pretty much inevitable.
As we might expect, rather than being repealed after the ‘war to end all wars’ when it was already clear that it had mainly been used to prosecute ‘disloyal’ Americans like pacifists, the Espionage Act was quickly turned on others deemed internal ‘enemies’ like socialists and labor organizers, resulting in what came to be known as the First Red Scare.
In more recent times, the act has become a go to tool for punishing whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, whose 2010 leaks are the basis of the ongoing case against Assange.
On first hearing the news that Assange would not be extradited, some, including this writer, optimistically thought that this meant that after the long ordeal he might have the opportunity to spend time with his young family. More importantly, over the longer term, the ruling could establish that his activities as a publisher were protected under British law as surely as they should be under America’s 1st Amendment.
This was wishful thinking.
Rather than being blocked because it was a shocking attack on press freedom, the extradition request was denied due to what the judge saw as the defendant’s deteriorating mental health and the real risk of suicide were he to be sent to the United States.
In explaining her decision, Baraitser put it thus, “The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man, who is genuinely fearful about his future. I find that the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.”
Nils Melzer, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, who met with Assange in 2019, made this assessment at that time, saying in a recent interview, “I took two specialized doctors with me, people who had worked with torture victims for 30 years, a psychiatrist and a forensic expert. Both of them came independently to the conclusion that Assange showed all the signs typical for victims of psychological torture: intense anxiety, chronic stress syndromes that had already deteriorated his cognitive capacity and neurological functions, and that was already measurable at that time.
One aspect of the case that I rarely see mentioned is the absurdity of one powerful nation routinely extraditing and jailing the citizens of other countries with the complicity of their governments. While this might not bother us too much in the case of a mass murderer like Jaoquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, in the case of Assange, who has been convicted of no crime beyond jumping bail, it seems like a dangerous precedent is being set that many journalists, especially those involved in reporting on U.S. and UK national security, might come to regret not speaking out against.
As Matt Taibbi, most famous for his blistering coverage of the financial shenanigans that resulted in the crash of 2008 wrote last week, “Even if one stipulates that every piece of negative news ever written about Assange is true, his story is still primarily about the closing of an informational loophole during a time of ambitious efforts to throw a net of secrecy around the expansion of executive power.”
In his reporting, Taibbi also noted that due to what occurred at the U.S. Capitol building last Wednesday, news that Baraitser had denied Assange bail until the American government appeals her decision received little coverage.
Left unremarked upon by the judge in both of her rulings was the fact that the conditions in Britain’s Belmarsh prison, where Assange is being held, are likely a contributing factor in the Wikileaks founder’s continuing physical and mental decline. A long stint in solitary confinement, recognized as torture by the U.N., was finally brought to an end in late January of last year but has been reimposed at times to combat outbreaks of Covid 19 in the facility.
Edward Fitzgerald QC, one of Assange’s lawyers, also later made a good argument against the decision to keep him in custody as a flight risk, saying, “Going to the Ecuadorian embassy was, in the end, an extremely unpleasant experience, leading to him [Assange] being confined for seven years, and a change in the government leading to a change in the position. That is something he is never likely to repeat.”
Outside of the possibility that the American government will fail in its appeal, the hope for Assange right now is that the incoming Biden administration will take the same tack as the Obama Administration did, concluding that the U.S. government might suffer an embarrassing loss in prosecuting Assange and that in purely PR terms, going forward with the charges might backfire by creating a public outcry. While it doesn’t seem likely, the incoming president could establish his fealty to the country’s 1st Amendment and call on the country’s Justice Department to drop the charges.
Regardless, while there has been a great deal of bipartisanship in terms of persecuting Assange and trying to criminalize Wikileaks, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took it to a Kafkaesque extreme that bodes ill for Wikileaks and other inspired by it, saying in his first public statement in that role, “WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service and has encouraged its followers to find jobs at the CIA in order to obtain intelligence.”
In regards to Assange and Edward Snowden, Pompeo later said, “Clearly, these individuals are not especially burdened by conscience. We know this, for example, because Assange has been more than cavalier in disclosing the personal information of scores of innocent citizens around the globe. We know this because the damage they have done to the security and safety of the free world is tangible. The examples are numerous. When Snowden absconded to the comfortable clutches of Russian intelligence, his treachery directly harmed a wide range of U.S. intelligence and military operations. Despite what he claims, he was no whistleblower.”
Whatever one thinks of Assange, Wikileaks has been at the center of most of the most important news stories of our time, providing Pulitzer Prizes and other awards to mainstream journalists on both sides of the Atlantic who have been remarkably silent about the treatment of one of those who made this reporting possible.
It seems most fitting to end with a quote from the written testimony in Assange’s defense by another whistleblower, Danial Ellsberg, comparing what has been exposed by Wikileaks to his own leaks that helped bring about the end of the Vietnam war, “The American public needed urgently to know what was being done routinely in their name, and there was no other way for them to learn it than by unauthorized disclosure. I observe the closest of similarities to the position I faced, where the exposure of illegality and criminal acts institutionally and by individuals was intended to be crushed by the administration carrying out those illegalities.”