On April 11, the U.S. unsealed a year-old indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. That same morning, Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno revoked Assange’s asylum. London Metropolitan Police entered the Ecuadorian embassy where Assange had lived for seven years and arrested him. While he was initially arrested for skipping bail in the UK, the U.S. was seeking his extradition. This was the culmination of a nearly decade-long vendetta against WikiLeaks.
The indictment against Assange does not pertain to sexual assault allegations in Sweden or the publishing of Democratic National Committee emails that had become a point of inquiry in the Mueller probe. Instead, the indictment stems from the publishing of a trove of U.S. secrets turned over by whistleblower Chelsea Manning. WikiLeaks from 2010 to 2011 worked with news outlets spanning the globe, including The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spegel, Le Monde and Al Jazeera, to publish the leaked information. The increased connections of Assange and WikiLeaks to the Right, as well as allegations that WikiLeaks worked to assist the election of Donald Trump, have both given fodder to critics and alienated some long-time supporters. But as Diane Abbott, a senior figure within the UK Labour Party who objects to his extradition, said, Assange “is being pursued because he has exposed wrongdoing by U.S. administrations and their military forces.”
Far more is at stake than the fate of one person. The U.S. is targeting an individual for publishing information of public interest. Assange is not a U.S. citizen, and his “crime” did not take place on U.S. soil. The U.S. is asserting the right to track down and imprison anyone in the world who exposes its crimes. Assange’s prosecution sets not just a precedent against press freedom domestically, but the world over
Press freedom groups have long feared that Assange would be charged under the Espionage Act. No journalist has ever been prosecuted under this act for publishing classified information, as it is widely presumed that doing so would be unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that journalists cannot be held criminally liable for publishing information illegally obtained by third parties, so long as they themselves did not play a part in illegally obtaining it. The Obama Administration balked at charging WikiLeaks under the Espionage Act. Even though the Obama Administration oversaw a record number of prosecutions of whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, it viewed prosecuting a publisher of classified information as being too threatening to press freedom. As the general counsel for the New York Times pointed out, any precedent allowing the government to prosecute WikiLeaks would also apply to legacy publications that print similar information. With Trump at the helm, many feared his administration did not share such reservations.
Unexpectedly, Assange has been charged not under the Espionage Act, but with conspiring with whistleblower Chelsea Manning to crack a password on a Department of Defense computer. This was not so that Manning could gain access to new files, but to help her make it harder to identity her as the source. (The attempt also appears to have failed.) After requesting extradition, the U.S. has 65 days to bring addition charges, which may be forthcoming against Assange. The law of extradition generally forbids bringing new charges after a party is extradited.
While the charge may appear on its face to be about computer crimes, it is very much about silencing those who publish information the U.S. government does not like. Press freedom groups have argued that elements of the conspiracy, such as counseling Manning on the significance of Guantánamo detainee assessments, constitute newsgathering practices. By making newsgathering part of the “conspiracy,” the U.S. is criminalizing journalism. (Full Disclosure: This author works for Defending Rights & Dissent, a free expression organization that opposes the use of the Espionage Act against whistleblowers and the prosecution of Assange.)
An Espionage Act indictment would not only have posed significant constitutional issues, it would have been a hurdle to extradition. Political offenses are excluded from extradition, and espionage is historically considered a political offense. But as journalist Kevin Gosztola argues, the indictment itself reads very much like an Espionage Act indictment. James C. Goodale, one of the Pentagon Paper lawyers, has lambasted the computer-cracking charges as a “snare and a delusion” designed “to divert attention from the basic fact that this indictment punishes the publication of truthful information.”
Exposing the crimes of U.S. empire
The publications the U.S. is using to pursue Assange date back nearly a decade ago. In 2010, army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning realized she couldn’t stay silent anymore. Stationed in Iraq, she became disturbed by the dehumanization of Iraqi life that is inherent in protracted military occupations. She also had access to a massive trove of documents that showed how, in Chelsea Manning’s words, “first-world countries exploited third-world countries” through “crazy, almost criminal political backdealings.” Manning believed that if she could get this information to the U.S. public, she would reveal “the true nature of twenty-first century asymmetric warfare.” Her intent was clear: to expose the truth and spark a public debate. Manning tried to take her secrets to the Washington Post, The New York Times and Politico, but they weren’t interested. Manning turned to WikiLeaks
WikiLeaks first released a video of a July 12, 2007 airstrike filmed from an Apache helicopter gun-sight. The strike killed at least 12 people, including two Reuters reporters. Provocatively, WikiLeaks titled the video “Collateral Murder,” a clear commentary on the euphemism “collateral damage,” which U.S. officials use to describe civilian deaths. Soldiers fired on a van rescuing the wounded, injuring children in the process. One of the pilots responded, “Well it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.” Reuters had filed Freedom of Information Act requests about the incident, but never received the video. The Pentagon was reportedly taken by surprise at its release.
If the Pentagon was taken off-guard by the release of Collateral Murder, one can only imagine how they took what happened next. In the largest leak in U.S. military history, WikiLeaks released internal military logs from Afghanistan. The Afghan logs didn’t stay the largest leak for long. They were quickly surpassed by WikiLeaks’ release of similar logs from the Iraq War. Next came releases of State Department cables and the U.S. Guantánamo Bay detainee assessments.
The Iraq and Afghan War logs expose the reality of U.S. occupations. According to Dahr Jamail, who had reported from Iraq, “[t]he WikiLeaks cables from Iraq displayed the brutality of U.S. policies that were ongoing throughout the occupation.” Phyllis Bennis, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, wrote that the Afghan War Logs “were crucially important,” as they showed “Afghanistan was and is a real country where hundreds of thousand, millions of people with no connections to 9/11, would be killed or see their lives and families destroyed.”
These publications empowered anti-war veterans to speak up. After the release of Collateral Murder, two members of the unit involved went public. Ethan McCord could be seen in the video trying to rescue the children. He struggled psychologically as a result of what he witnessed. He didn’t initially know a video existed. But its release allowed him to publicly speak about the events of the day and against the brutality of the war. Josh Stieber had also been in the same unit depicted in Collateral Murder. Like McCord, after its release he publicly spoke out against the war. Stieber told Democracy Now in April 2010, “if we’re shocked by this video, then we need to be asking questions of the larger system, because, again, this is how these soldiers were trained to act.” Stieber would call on Congress to investigate the crimes exposed by WikiLeaks. Both McCord and Stieber would publicly apologize to those impacted by the airstrike.
The Guantánamo leaks revealed that the U.S. government knowingly held 150 innocent men. The U.S. also held Sami al-Hajj, an Al-Jazeera journalist, at Guantánamo, in part to learn about his employer. The massive, sprawling nature of the State Department cables makes it impossible to cover in its entirety. But with Venezuela currently in U.S. crosshairs, it’s worth noting the cables reveal a particular fixation with Venezuela. In order to destabilize the Bolivarian process, the U.S. pursued tactics such as working to support the opposition, foster divisions within Chavismo and isolate the country internationally.
In the crosshairs of the U.S.
This massive insight into the U.S. foreign policy apparatus essentially showed “the world according to U.S. empire.” But exposing the U.S. empire comes at a cost. Manning was subjected to a pretrial detention that a UN expert said constituted cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment — and possibly torture. While Obama commuted her 35-year sentence after seven years, she still spent more time in prison than anyone in U.S. history for leaking information to the media. (Manning recently spent 62 days in jail for refusing to testify before a grand jury against Assange. As she has been subpoenaed yet again to testify about the same information, it possible she may be jailed again.)
When Swedish authorities sought Assange’s extradition from the UK as part of a preliminary investigation into sexual assault allegations, Assange argued it was a ruse to have him extradited to the U.S. Believing threats from the U.S. to be credible, Ecuador granted Assange political asylum. With the UK guarding the embassy around the clock and threatening to arrest Assange, he was trapped in the embassy. Assange’s critics have disputed the characterization that Assange was an involuntary prisoner in the embassy, instead arguing that Assange’s fate was of his own choosing. However, a UN Working Group found both the UK and Sweden to have arbitrarily detained Assange. Even after Sweden dropped its investigation, the UK still threatened to arrest Assange for skipping bail. (Swedish authorities reopened the rape investigation on May 13, 2019.)
While western media has focused on how Assange was a bad houseguest who wore out his welcome with his Ecuadorian host, they’ve missed a larger story. Assange’s asylum came at the height of the Pink Tide, when left-leaning Latin American nations asserted their sovereignty against the U.S. It was President Rafael Correa who granted Assange asylum. Correa has blasted his successor for permitting the arrest of Assange, calling Moreno the “greatest traitor in Ecuadorian and Latin American history.” The current president is embroiled in a corruption scandal. Ecuador’s interior minister has accused one of Moreno’s chief political opponents, Ricardo Patiño, of conspiring with WikiLeaks to destabilize the Ecuadorian government. Moreno’s revocation of Assange’s asylum comes on the heels of a $4.2 billion IMF loan, leading critics such as former Ecuadorian foreign minister Guillaume Long to assert the two were connected.
The U.S. government has fought to keep secret its program of disappearances and torture, detention sites, and even what countries it bombs. But it isn’t just official secrecy that has helped obscure the nature of U.S. wars. Evidence of the human toll of U.S. wars isn’t hard to find. It’s certainly not a secret to those in other countries who live it daily. But for much of the mainstream U.S. media, there is little if any true reckoning with the civilian cost of war. WikiLeaks is currently in the crosshairs of the U.S. government, because it challenged this secrecy head on. Its fate will impact all those who wish to shine light on the U.S. empire.