Defending Assange 7: Trump’s tyranny

This is Part 7 in a series on Julian Assange’s legal case and trial-by-media:

  • Part 1 discussed the value of Wikileaks
  • Part 2 discussed the Obama administration’s secret legal action
  • Part 3 discussed the Swedish sexual assault case
  • Part 4 discussed the Russian conspiracy accusations
  • Part 5 discussed the Ecuadorian “bad houseguest” accusations
  • Part 6 discussed the British charge of resisting arrest

Julian Assange is currently facing British court hearings on extradition to the United States. He has been proven right in his fear that this was the real agenda all along. Now that all the pretexts have run their course, we can finally see the true threat to Assange.

Trump, much like Obama before him, has been two-faced. When personally asked about his administration’s move to extradite Assange, he ludicrously claimed he doesn’t know anything about Wikileaks and the decision is not his responsibility. In reality, Trump has a presidential pardon so he could stop the prosecution if he really wanted to, and in the past he’s made both negative and positive remarks about Wikileaks.

In 2010, long before he ran for President, he offhandedly remarked that Wikileaks is “disgraceful” and “I think there should be like death penalty or something”. Then during his election campaign he praised Wikileaks over 100 times and claimed “I love Wikileaks”. Many Trump supporters still somehow believe Trump is really on Assange’s side and is “playing five-dimensional chess” against the deep state, but that theory contradicts all the actions of Trump and his administration.

Trump seems to have raised the priority of going after Assange. In general Trump is more openly hostile to the press than Obama was, because the press is superficially hostile to a Republican administration (albeit remaining government stenographers on most substantive issues). As soon as the mainstream media started smearing alternative media as “fake news”, Trump started applying the same slur to mainstream media. The Trump administration has refused to rule out prosecuting other journalists on the same basis as Wikileaks. So mainstream journalists should not be so confident the Assange case won’t be used as a precedent to take away their rights too.

In reaction to the 2017 CIA leaks, Trump’s first CIA Director Mike Pompeo condemned Wikileaks as a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia”. In a sense I suppose Pompeo is right: Wikileaks has acted as a kind of people’s intelligence service. Unlike the state intelligence services which claim to protect our interests, Wikileaks tells us what is actually going on. Pompeo also said:

We have to recognize that we can no longer allow Assange and his colleagues the latitude to use free speech values against us. To give them the space to crush us with misappropriated secrets is a perversion of what our great Constitution stands for. It ends now.

Interpreting constitutional rights is supposed to be the role of courts, not intelligence agencies. Do remarks like this indicate that the verdict of Assange’s case has already been predetermined? In the Q&A at the end of his speech, which seems to have been deleted, Pompeo reportedly added:

Julian Assange has no First Amendment privileges. He is not a U.S. citizen. What I was speaking to is an understanding that these are not reporters doing good work to try to keep the American Government on us. These are actively recruiting agents to steal American secrets with the sole intent of destroying the American way of life.

It’s true that Assange has never been a US citizen, and his alleged crimes against the US government were committed when he was not even in the country. But surely that should mean that American law cannot be applied to him at all, rather than American punishments without American rights? Will other states also start demanding the extradition of foreign journalists who publish their secrets?

The existence of the US Grand Jury investigating Assange, already an open secret, was again revealed accidentally a few months ago when Assange was named in documents from another case, and officially this month when it finally unveiled its indictment against Assange. The Grand Jury is located in the Eastern District of Virginia, which is the espionage court according to CIA torture whistleblower John Kiriakou, who was imprisoned for 30 months after taking a plea bargain. He says all national security cases are presided over by Reagan-appointed Judge Leonie Brinkema:

No national security defendant has ever won a case in the EDVA. In my case, I asked Judge Brinkema to declassify 70 documents that I needed to defend myself. She denied all 70 documents. And so I had literally no defense for myself and was forced to take a plea. I suspect Julian is gonna get the same treatment. He’ll just not be allowed to defend himself.

Obama had caved to public pressure to shorten Manning’s prison sentence from 35 years to 7 on the last day of his administration. But this year Manning was reimprisoned because she refused to answer questions from the secret grand jury which is now admitted to have been investigating Assange. Wikileaks tweeted:

Now the extradition request is public, it turns out the accusation against Assange is “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion”. Despite the fact that Manning took full responsibility for her leaks at her court-martial, the evidence given in the indictment is that Manning asked someone, allegedly Assange, for advice on how to crack a password. The same evidence has been available at least since Manning’s court-martial (it was listed in Manning’s charges in 2011) so why was the indictment not made public until the British police got their hands on Assange?

It’s unclear if Assange did what he’s accused of. The account with which Manning corresponded was named “Nathaniel Frank”. The prosecution might have difficulty proving that account was operated by Assange – which probably explains why they are trying to force Manning to testify against him. It’s also unclear whether Manning succeeded in cracking the password. Most importantly, Manning already had access to the documents; she only wanted the password so she could log in with a different username to cover her identity.

Many mainstream journalists claim this doesn’t threaten press freedom because Assange is supposedly being charged for “hacking” and not for publishing. In reality, he is being indicted for conspiring with a source to cover their identity online. And even that is a flimsy excuse to prosecute Assange for effectively doing journalism, which will surely set a precedent for journalists to be targeted with similar excuse charges in future.

This is explained in more detail by Glenn Greenwald, the first publisher of the Snowden leaks:

It simply accuses Assange of trying to help Manning log into the Defense Department’s computers using a different username so that she could maintain her anonymity while downloading documents in the public interest and then furnish them to WikiLeaks to publish.

In other words, the indictment seeks to criminalize what journalists are not only permitted but ethically required to do: take steps to help their sources maintain their anonymity…

The indictment claims that “discussions also reflect Assange actively encouraging Manning to provide more information. During an exchange, Manning told Assange that ‘after this upload, that’s all I really have got left.’ To which Assange replied, ‘curious eyes never run dry in my experience.’”

But encouraging sources to obtain more information is something journalists do routinely. Indeed, it would be a breach of one’s journalistic duties not to ask vital sources with access to classified information if they could provide even more information so as to allow more complete reporting. If a source comes to a journalist with information, it is entirely common and expected that the journalist would reply: Can you also get me X, Y, and Z to complete the story or to make it better?

Greenwald continues in more technical detail, pointing out that the mainstream media have adopted Wikileaks-like software to communicate more securely with their sources, which would also be criminalized by the Assange indictment. In short, we’re being led to believe this is not an attack on journalism because it’s merely an attack on what a good journalist does in the course of their work!

Another media talking point is that Assange is “not a journalist”. In reality, even a UK tribunal has ruled that Wikileaks qualifies as a media organization. Greenwald again:

Although this charge carries a maximum penalty of only five years, there is reason to believe the US will later add much more serious espionage charges that can be punished by death. The US Department of Justice has admitted in a now-public letter that it is investigating Assange for the much broader charge of “unauthorized receipt and dissemination of secret information”. And as pointed out by James Goodale, the former New York Times editor who published the Pentagon Papers:

References to a conspiracy under the Espionage Act in the Assange indictment raise the question of whether the U.S. government is going for a bait-and-switch — get Assange past the English courts and to the United States, only to charge him with espionage when he is on American soil.

It is true that the extradition treaty states that a defendant cannot be prosecuted for any offense other than that on which the surrendering country agreed to extradite. But the treaty excludes from this rule any charges “based on the same facts as the offense for which extradition was granted.” And so, while the indictment makes out a case for espionage without charging it, the government has laid the groundwork to get around the rule that Assange be charged only for the offenses already stated.

The UK is preparing to hand over Assange in the belief that he won’t face death or torture, or at least they can plausibly deny knowledge of these potential punishments. But it is already evident that the US government is inclined to harshly punish him once they get their hands on him, and establish a precedent for a much broader attack on press freedom. This should not be allowed to happen.

In my final installment, I will examine the reaction of Australian politicians and add my own concluding thoughts.

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