Fighting the case against Julian Assange

Photo by Alberto Pezzali/AP: People form a human chain in support of Julian Assange, against his extradition to the US, in London, 8 October. 2022

Stephen Rohde reviews a new book by investigative journalist Kevin Gosztola about the persecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Truthdig 7 April 2023). The book outlines the lengths to which Washington has gone to get its hands on the journalist and editor, which includes deliberate lies and misinformation, the abuse of law and legal process, the use of slander to discredit Assange’s reputation, and even plans to murder him. This, it is suggested, attacks freedom of the press and the democratic rights of everyone. Rohde’s article, and especially Gosztola’s book, Guilty Journalism: The Political Case Against Julian Assange. are must reads for those wanting to know the truth the most important political trial in our time.

Like the Trump administration that preceded it, the Biden administration is seeking the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to stand trial on an indictment under the infamous Espionage Act of 1917. As the unprecedented U.S. prosecution of Assange reaches a critical stage, a growing number of elite media outlets, human rights advocates and press freedom organizations around the world are demanding his release. All have expressed basic agreement with Nils Melzer, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, who describes the case against Assange as a scandal that “represents the failure of Western rule of law.”

Photo by Martyn Wheatley/Parsons Media/Zuma Press/Newscom

Time is running out to correct this failure. Last August, Assange filed an appeal before the U.K. High Court of Justice Administrative Court arguing that his extradition would violate U.K. law because he is being prosecuted for his political opinions and protected speech; that the request itself violates the U.S.-UK Extradition Treaty and international law because it is based on “political offenses;” that the U.S. government has misrepresented the core facts of the case to the British courts; and that the extradition request and its surrounding circumstances constitute an abuse of process. If Assange loses this appeal, his last resort is the European Court of Human Rights.

No one has covered the Assange case more tenaciously, as well as the broader attack on whistleblowers, than journalist Kevin Gosztola. In “Guilty of Journalism: The Political Case Against Julian Assange,” Gosztola expands upon his reports of Assange’s extradition hearings in London during September and October 2020, and in a clear and compelling style, recounts the key events in the case. But he also does more than that. “Guilty of Journalism” offers revelations of egregious conduct by the U.S., including the use of knowingly false testimony, illegal surveillance of Assange and his lawyers and CIA plans to kidnap and assassinate him. These disclosures compound an already shocking tale of injustice at the hands of the U.S. government.

Opening his first chapter with the unequivocal declaration, “Julian Assange is a journalist,” Kosztola never loses sight of the extraordinary contributions WikiLeaks has made through its public disclosures since its founding in 2006. He includes an informative Appendix entitled, “Thirty WikiLeaks Files the Government Doesn’t Want You to Read,” covering climate change and the environment, corporate power, human rights abuses, regime change, foreign policy and U.S. politics. These files, he writes, “reflect the positive impact that WikiLeaks has had by boosting our shared knowledge of a government that rules the most powerful country in the world.”

If Assange loses this appeal, his last resort is the European Court of Human Rights.

In a single volume, Kosztola succeeds in concisely describing the charges and allegations against Assange, the Chelsea Manning court-martial, the origins and history of the Espionage Act, the CIA’s war on WikiLeaks, the surveillance of Assange, FBI abuses, the federal grand jury investigation of Assange, the vital information revealed by WikLeaks, the stories of courageous whistleblowers, how the Assange prosecution threatens freedom of the press, how media organizations aided and abetted the Assange prosecution and the accusation that WikiLeaks helped Russia interfere in the 2016 election. It attains the goal Gosztola set out for himself — that of producing “a guide that will live on as a resource before, during and after Assange’s U.S. trial, should it occur.”

The use of the Espionage Act, signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson two months after the U.S. entry into World War I, strongly suggests to civil libertarians and journalism groups that the Assange prosecution is politically motivated. Wilson, like Trump, demonized dissenters, calling them “creatures of passion, disloyalty and anarchy” who “must be crushed out.” By 1918, 74 left-wing newspapers had been denied mailing privileges. All told, the DOJ has invoked the Espionage Act and the subsequent Sedition Act of 1918 to prosecute more than 2,000 dissenters for allegedly disloyal, seditious or incendiary speech.

Gosztola describes how Assange established WikiLeaks in October 2006 to provide a place for newsworthy information to be released and shared with publications around the world. He notes that in 2013, the Obama DOJ declined to pursue charges against Assange for publishing classified documents because of what officials described as the “New York Times problem”:

How could the government prosecute Assange but not other news organizations that also published classified material? On June 19, 2014, human rights and press freedom organizations sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to close all criminal investigations into Assange due to concerns that “actions against Wikileaks undermine the commitment of the U.S. Government to freedom of speech.”

At the extradition hearings in London, the defense counsel demonstrated that Assange is a journalist, and that WikiLeaks is a publisher, and as such is entitled to the guarantees of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect freedom of the press.

The prosecution, acting in the name of the United States, argued that “Assange is not being prosecuted for mere publication or reporting,” but instead is being accused of “conspiring” with Manning, “soliciting” classified information, having “direct contact” with Manning and “encouraging” Manning to steal classified documents.

The defense further accused the prosecution of “criminalizing” standard techniques of news gathering used by investigative reporters at mainstream publications such as Le Monde, El País, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, The Washington Postand The New York Times.

Their reporters routinely “solicit” classified information, have “direct contact” with sources and “encourage” those sources to obtain classified information. The defense argued that the prosecution turned these traditional news gathering activities into purportedly criminal activity by simply labeling them with the sinister term, “conspiracy.”

According to an affidavit filed by Max Frankel in the Pentagon Papers case when he was Washington Bureau Chief for The New York Times, if the press did not publish official secrets, “there could be no adequate diplomatic, military and political reporting of the kind our people take for granted, either abroad or in Washington and there could be no mature system of communication between the Government and the people.”

Gosztola’s detailed account of how the U.S. spied on Assange and his lawyers will come as a surprise to many readers, as it has received scant coverage in the mainstream media despite being documented in sworn testimony at the extradition hearings and in separate criminal and civil proceedings. 

Gosztola’s detailed account of how the U.S. spied on Assange and his lawyers will come as a surprise to many readers, as it has received scant coverage in the mainstream media despite being documented in sworn testimony.

In a statement submitted during Assange’s extradition hearing, Aitor Martinez, an attorney with the law firm representing Assange in the Spanish criminal case, described the “sophisticated espionage operation” that targeted Assange involving the “installation of cameras inside embassy that recorded audio, the installation of hidden microphones to record meetings, the digitization of visitor’s documents and electronic devices and even in some cases physical surveillance, all of which were carried out to feed an FTP server (and later a web repository) that gave remote access, directly through an intermediary, to U.S. intelligence.”

Gosztola describes how “materials provided [by UC Global] for the Spanish criminal case showed Morales was in ‘continuous contact’ with U.S. authorities who recommended specific targets for the operation.”

In August 2022, several of those targets, including Margaret Ratner Kunstler and Deborah Hrbak, two attorneys who had represented Assange, along with journalists Charles Glass and John Goetz, sued both the CIA and former CIA director Mike Pompeo as a private individual for allegedly violating their privacy rights.

“The United States Constitution shields American citizens from U.S. government overreach even when the activities take place in a foreign embassy in a foreign country,” declared their attorney, Richard Roth. “They had a reasonable expectation that the security guards at the Ecuadorian embassy in London would not be U.S. government spies charged with delivering copies of their electronics to the CIA.”

The court will consider the government’s motions to dismiss in April. Assuming the case moves forward, civil discovery, including the production of documents and emails and a deposition of Pompeo under oath could expose the extent to which the U.S. illegally spied on Assange, his lawyers and others. All of this information could support efforts to dismiss the Assange case on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.

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