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When the Trump administration indicted WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange under the infamous 1917 Espionage Act, journalists and other public figures sounded the alarms, warning of a war on the free press.
Biden’s Justice Department has not called off the attack. On the contrary, it is moving full speed ahead with the prosecution. So where is the chorus of voices who denounced the indictments in 2019? They’ve gone quiet this year. Members of Congress have been silent. They should speak up now, as the case hangs in the balance.
The 18-count indictment against Assange, along with a corresponding extradition appeal to the British judiciary, has kept him in prison for nearly two years without trial. A United Nations expert has called the conditions of his imprisonment “psychological torture.”
America’s most prominent organizations concerned with human rights, freedom of the press and civil liberties haven’t lost sight of the threat that this indictment and continued prosecution of Assange pose to fundamental press freedoms. They wrote a letter to the Justice Department in February calling it a “grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad,” which could “jeopardize journalism that is crucial to democracy.”
The signatories to the letter included the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
For the first time in more than a century, a journalist could be tried and imprisoned — the charges carry a maximum of 175 years in prison — for publishing facts that the U.S. government did not want published. Assange is not charged with stealing classified information. And although he is indicted under the infamous 1917 Espionage Act, he is not charged with any collusion with a foreign power.
The 17 charges under the Espionage Act stem from Assange’s role in in 2010-2011 in publishing hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents, which were given to WikiLeaks. There is also one count of “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.”
The information that Assange published — for which he faces a possible life sentence — is not even classified as top secret. And the indictment does not allege that anyone was killed or harmed as a result of anything that he did.
It was the Trump administration that, in 2019, decided to embark on this new, groundbreaking “direct assault on the 1st Amendment,” as the ACLU has called it. This prosecution is in keeping with Trump’s authoritarian contempt for a free press and the rule of law generally. But why would the Biden administration carry it forward?
To anyone following the story, in the U.S. or around the world, it looks “bad, bad, bad,” as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes described the indictment. It looks like government officials want to intimidate journalists so that they will be afraid to publish classified information that reveals crimes or other activity that officials do not want the public to know about.
In 2010 WikiLeaks released the viral “Collateral Murder” video. It was filmed in Iraq in 2007 from an American Apache helicopter, as it mows down at least 12 civilians, including two employees of Reuters. Other U.S. documents published by WikiLeaks showed more than 15,000 civilian deaths in the Iraq war that the Pentagon did not disclose. More than 600 civilians were shown to have been killed by U.S. forces at checkpoints. The documents also show evidence that U.S. forces “handed over detainees to a notorious Iraqi torture squad,” which was created and supported by the U.S.
American military files from Afghanistan show hundreds of civilians killed by coalition forces. Files on the Guantanamo Bay detention center showed, among other things, that 150 innocent people were imprisoned there for years.
Journalists say the prosecution of Assange threatens the freedoms that they need to do their jobs — to find and report such uncomfortable truths. The top editors of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today objected immediately to the 2019 indictment, which Washington Post editor Marty Baron said was “criminalizing common practices in journalism that have long served the public interest.” The Los Angeles Times editorial board expressed concern of a chilling effect on journalists, who might think twice before accepting classified information.
We will pay a high price if this case continues, and if Assange is extradited — or held in jail indefinitely. This is possible as the Justice Department pursues further appeals. If extradited, he could be held in isolation, under Special Administrative Procedures. The British judge who refused to extradite Assange in January did so on the grounds that he was at risk of suicide if sent to the U.S.
Advocates for human rights and press freedom, as well as members of Congress, all need to raise their voices in this case before it is too late. President Biden has recently had much to say about the worldwide struggle for democracy; how it thrives “when a free and independent press pursues the truth,” as he said on Memorial Day. But democracy, a free press and human rights begin at home.