Assange languishes in a British prison fighting US attempts to have him extradited while alleged US war criminals he helped to expose go free. Assange’s fate will have serious ramifications for journalistic freedom and state accountability globally.
Julian Assange has been an extremely controversial figure ever since his website, WikiLeaks, published evidence of US war crimes obtained by Chelsea Manning, a US army intelligence analyst, in 2010. The publication of these classified documents has led to a campaign of well over a decade to force Assange’s extradition to the US so that he can be prosecuted for the publication of classified information embarrassing to the US government. Assange has been charged by the US with 17 counts of espionage and one count of computer misuse due to the publication of these documents. However, no US service members whose war crimes were exposed by the leaks have been put on trial by the US military.
It is unsurprising that the US has failed to prosecute its own alleged war criminals exposed by these documents, for a number of reasons. Primarily the US is not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and has held an extremely poor track record of holding its forces accountable for crimes committed. Secondly the documents published by WikiLeaks were already held by the US government, meaning that the crimes committed by US forces were already known to the US government. Journalists and relatives of the victims had already been accusing US forces of these crimes, but they were consistently met with denial from the US government, which had full access to all evidence.
The US has attempted to shift public opinion in its favor against Assange by claiming that information leaked by WikiLeaks has led to the deaths of US assets all over the world. In an attempt to prove this, a task force was set up under Brigadier General Robert Carr to document anyone who was killed as a result of the leaks. This task force failed to find a single death that could be tied to the leaks and was quietly disbanded. This indicates that the leaked documents had little to no strategic value but were highly embarrassing to the US government as they conclusively proved that the US has regularly denied knowledge of attacks directed against civilians and has knowingly lied to the public by reporting many civilians murdered by US forces as combatants. As such, the dogged pursuit of Assange increasingly appears to be an attempt to frighten whistleblowers into silence, to prevent such embarrassing revelations from being made public in the future.
Assange has already suffered tremendously for his actions, having spent almost a decade seeking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London because of US attempts to have him extradited. He also spent another two and half years incarcerated in Belmarsh Prison, although he has not yet been convicted of any crimes. The US is in the process of appealing a decision by District Judge Venessa Baraitser to reject extradition owing to Assange’s mental fragility, making suicide a not unlikely outcome should he be subjected to the harsh conditions of a US prison. Aiming to overcome this ruling, the US legal team has stated that Assange can serve his sentence in his native Australia after being convicted by US courts. However, Assange’s lawyer has protested, claiming that Assange would have to remain in a US prison for the entirety of the legal process, which could take a number of years due to appeals and the highly controversial nature of the case. He also pointed out that it is difficult to take the US at its word after a CIA plot to assassinate or kidnap Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy was uncovered.
This exposes an implicit message being sent by Washington, that criminal conduct by US service members will be ignored while exposing such criminal conduct is behavior requiring prosecution. This US government stance seems to contradict Washington’s commitment to freedom of the press and causes US condemnation of oppressive measures to ring hollow, both among adversaries as well as among allies. In fact, recent revelations surrounding the CIA plots to kidnap or assassinate Assange, as well as false testimony against Assange, recently recanted by an FBI informant and former colleague of Assange, paint the US in an extremely negative light and provide ammunition to detractors. These factors are likely to ultimately work against the US in upholding press freedoms and are a gift to autocratic regimes globally.
While the treatment of Assange is questionable at best, the most important implication of this saga is the precedent it sets. Assange is not and has never been a US citizen, nor were any of the crimes he is accused of committed on US soil. Extraditing Assange to the US for prosecution would send a strong message to whistleblowers and journalists globally that revealing compromising information about the US government anywhere on earth could lead to lengthy legal battles and a potential lifetime of incarceration, which at the moment appears to be exactly the message the US government wishes to send.