Julian Assange needs loud hailer support, not more backroom betrayal
Julian Assange needs loud hailer support, not more backroom betrayal

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel has approved the extradition of Julian Assange to the US, where he will face 18 espionage charges brought against him by the Department of Justice. The charges carry a combined penalty of up to 175 years in prison. It is another cut in the long, torturous crucifixion of the Wikileaks founder, who dared to embarrass and expose the war crimes of the US empire and its allies.

Wikileaks shot to prominence in 2010 when it released a video, dubbed Collateral Murder, of a 2007 massacre of at least twelve civilians filmed from the gunsight of a US Apache helicopter in Iraq. The video shows US soldiers joking as they gun down the civilians on a Baghdad street. Two of those killed were Reuters journalists, and two children were injured. Wikileaks also published leaked war logs from the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, along with 250,000 diplomatic cables. The leaks exposed widespread war crimes and sordid, secretive dealings by the US and many other governments.

But those in power were not concerned with prosecuting these war crimes. Instead, it was the whistleblowers and journalists they went after. Assange quickly became public enemy number one for US intelligence agencies and their counterparts in Australia and the UK. Their determination to destroy him has only grown with further leaks, from Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of massive programs of illegal surveillance, to Wikileaks’ publishing of huge troves of files about CIA hacking, dubbed “Vault 7”, in 2017.

Following the Vault 7 leaks, Wikileaks was officially reclassified by then CIA director Mike Pompeo as “a non-state hostile intelligence service”, paving the way for much more aggressive action. It has recently come to light that the White House and CIA considered kidnapping and assassination to deal with the threat posed to US imperialism by Assange. In the end, the strategy of never-ending legal persecution, begun under former President Barack Obama, has continued through the Trump years and now under Democratic President Joe Biden.

Despite only ever being convicted of a minor administrative offence—breaking bail for a charge that was later dropped—Assange has spent the last decade deprived of his liberty and under constant surveillance, first in the Ecuadorian embassy, then since 2019 in London’s Belmarsh prison.

The US is charging Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act, an undemocratic law intended to persecute opponents of US involvement in the First World War. As Brazil-based journalist Glenn Greenwald writes, the act means that “the defendant is not only guilty as soon as there is proof that they disclosed classified information without authorization, but they are also barred from raising a ‘justification’ defense—meaning they cannot argue to the jury of their peers that it was not only permissible but morally necessary to disclose that information because of the serious wrongdoing and criminality it revealed on the part of the nation's most powerful political officials. That 1917 law, in other words, is written to offer only show trials but not fair trials”.

The relentless persecution of Assange by Western governments is such a blatant attack on democratic rights, free speech and press freedoms, that you might expect the entire liberal establishment to be up in arms. But while publications like the Guardian and New York Times have run columns disapproving of the treatment of Assange, their response has been incredibly muted, and they have often regurgitated the slanders used against Assange: in particular, the widespread claim that, unlike respectable journalists like themselves, Assange is unprofessional and reckless, leaking cables without any thought for the consequences. This is partly drawn from a Guardian book, Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, written by two Guardian journalists who pretended to be working collaboratively with Assange in 2011, while actually hanging him out to dry. This book was repeatedly used against Assange by US prosecutors in UK court hearings, despite many of its claims being debunked.

Ultimately, the Wikileaks mission ran up against what these publications stand for—putting a more liberal and humane face on capitalism and Western imperialism. Assange and other whistleblowers put to shame every servile liberal journalist by actually speaking truth to power. And so he has been condemned not only by the Murdoch press and the Trumpian right, but also by the liberal press, the US Democrats and the Australian Labor Party. A most egregious example is that of PEN America, an organisation supposedly devoted to fighting for press freedom, but whose CEO, Suzanne Nossel, has justified the charges and extradition attempts against Assange. Nossel previously worked for the US State Department special task force set up to respond to Wikileaks, under then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who later tried to blame Wikileaks for her 2016 presidential election defeat.

Many are hopeful that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese might finally signal a change in direction in Australia, and put up a fight for Assange, who is, after all, an Australian citizen. While in opposition in 2021, Albanese said he did “not see what purpose is served by the ongoing pursuit of Mr Assange”. But since becoming PM he has gone quiet, hiding behind claims that “not all foreign affairs is best done with the loud hailer”. There is a terrible irony in this, as a key part of Wikileaks’ goal was to expose and upend precisely this sort of unaccountable, backroom, secret diplomacy.

Labor has form in backing the US-led persecution of Assange. It was former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard who in 2011 declared, without any charges being laid let alone a trial or a conviction, that Assange had acted “illegally”—only for the Australian Federal Police to announce two weeks later that it could find no laws Assange had breached. Former New South Wales Labor Premier Bob Carr has publicly stated that Albanese should demand the US stop pursuing Assange—but he neglects to mention that when he was Gillard’s foreign minister, he did no such thing. The ALP is running the show of the Australian state again, with its expanding military budgets, its renewed AUKUS imperialist alliance and its determination to maintain its dominance over the Pacific “family” against its rival, China. Whistleblowers like Assange and Witness K, who exposed illegal Australian phone tapping of the East Timorese government, only get in the way of such an agenda.

The slow legal lynching of Assange was always about seeking to silence a popular and courageous critic of imperialism and lying governments, and sending a message to any other would-be whistleblowers and journalists that possessing both a conscience and a spine would be career and life-ending. The fact that Assange never even committed these “crimes” of truth-telling on US soil, yet faces extradition to that country, means that no-one is safe. Speak out, wherever you are in the world, and you could rot in a US prison for life, is the clear message. It reveals again just how hollow any commitment to democracy is for the Western powers.

But the fight is not over. Assange still has legal options to appeal and delay the extradition, which gives his supporters time to continue demanding his freedom from the US, UK and Australian governments.

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