The plot to destroy Julian Assange

7 November 2021
Tom Gilchrist

For more than a decade, the US government and its allies have sought to destroy Julian Assange. They have smeared him and his work, hounded him with spurious charges and imprisoned him. causing his mental and physical health to collapse.

Thanks to a recent investigative report from Yahoo! News, we now know that this campaign of persecution included explicit discussions within the CIA about the possibility of kidnapping or assassinating him. According to a former senior counterintelligence official, discussion of plans to kidnap or kill Assange took place “at the highest levels” of the Trump administration, and “[t]here seemed to be no boundaries” as to what was considered.

The US government has had Assange in its sights since the 2010 release of the Afghan war logs and Iraq war logs. Assange and his organisation, WikiLeaks, have exposed the crimes of the US empire in the Middle East and beyond. The empire now wants revenge, and to make an example of him for anyone else considering speaking out.

For the CIA, the ongoing release of the “Vault 7” documents, which began in 2017, prompted an escalation of this campaign of persecution. The Vault 7 documents, the largest leaks in CIA history, contain sensitive information on the CIA’s hacking and electronic spying tools, detailing the agency’s ability to hack into various consumer electronic devices. This includes turning smart TVs into listening devices and hijacking the vehicle control systems of modern cars and trucks.

In the wake of these revelations, Trump’s then newly appointed CIA director, Mike Pompeo, sought to reclassify WikiLeaks from a journalistic outfit to a hostile spy agency. He declared in his first public statements in the role of CIA director in April 2017: “It’s time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia”. This new public designation of WikiLeaks accompanied the internal discussions of the possibility of kidnapping or assassinating Assange.

It also accompanied a renewed attempt to extradite Assange to the US. While the Yahoo! News report shows that options like poisoning had been considered, it has ultimately been this campaign of legal persecution that has been the preferred way to destroy Assange. For close to a decade, Assange has been imprisoned in one way or another. From 2012 to 2019, he was trapped inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he sought and received political asylum to avoid a justifiably feared extradition to the US. The six and a half years which he spent in the embassy were considered by the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention to be a form of arbitrary confinement.

According the Nils Melzer, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, during Assange’s imprisonment in the embassy, he was a political prisoner subjected to psychological torture. In a September 2020 interview, Melzer describes how “inside the embassy [Assange] was constantly surveilled, deprived of his privacy, exposed to death threats, isolated, humiliated and demonised”. Two separate medical experts who examined Assange in May 2019 found that he “showed typical signs of prolonged exposure to psychological torture”.

In April 2019, Assange’s citizenship and protection were revoked by the Ecuadorian government. He was subsequently dragged from the embassy by British police and has since been held in prison by British authorities. Despite this nearly decade-long imprisonment, the only crime which Assange has been convicted of is an administrative charge: bail infringement for charges that have now been dropped. For this minor offence, Assange was sentenced to 50 weeks in a maximum security prison.

This sentence has been well and truly served. Due to good behaviour, the sentence was cut down to 25 weeks, which means that since September 2019 Assange has been held in a maximum security prison in order to facilitate ongoing attempts to extradite him to the US. In late 2017, US prosecutors secretly filed criminal charges against Assange of conspiring with celebrated whistleblower Chelsea Manning to gain access to a government computer in 2010. These charges were revealed on 11 April 2019, at the same time as Assange was arrested by British authorities. US prosecutors later added 17 further charges. If extradited and convicted in the US, Assange faces up to 175 years in prison.

Despite the British courts ruling against Assange’s extradition in January of this year, his legal persecution continues. Ongoing attempts by the US to appeal this ruling have become a basis for the indefinite imprisonment of Assange. In late October, the British High Court held a two-day hearing to consider the US government’s appeal. A decision is expected in the coming weeks.

The January ruling against extradition was on the basis of Assange’s mental health, and that the harsh conditions of the US prison system would unreasonably increase the risk of Assange committing suicide. The US government is appealing on the basis that this decision wrongly assessed the risk. In the appeal, representative for the US government James Lewis has made much of a series of “assurances” given by the US that Assange will not be subjected to harsh measures such as super-maximum security prison or “special administrative measures” which restrict contact with the outside world.

As Assange’s defence pointed out, revelations of CIA assassination plots make these assurances laughable. And as a report on the proceedings in the Dissenter noted, “In spite of the assurance related to [special administration measures], Lewis still told the judges the US government must be allowed to hold Assange in these restrictive conditions if they fear he could be responsible for a ‘breach’ of ‘national security’. Otherwise, he would have a ‘blank check to do whatever he liked’.”

Regardless of the decision, the court cases are only beginning. If the appeal is successful, the case will go back to a lower court for a new decision, while whoever loses this current appeal can also apply for a further, final appeal in the UK’s supreme court. These proceedings could take years.

The ongoing attempts to extradite Assange constitute the most important political trial of the century. It is not just Assange on trial, but the entire idea of a free press and the ability of journalists to report on the war crimes of empire. Apart from the initial charges relating to conspiracy, the other 17 charges relate to the publication and release of secret government documents, something that has generally been standard practice for serious journalists and news outlets. These charges, begun by the Trump administration but continued by current US President Joe Biden, put into legal form the reclassification by Pompeo of WikiLeaks from journalism to “a non-state hostile intelligence service”. To criminalise this reporting in an era of growing imperial tensions is a disturbing precedent.

This trial, let alone the revelations of assassination plots against a journalist hailing from Australia, should have the media here up in arms. After years of prevarication, most liberal editorials have now come out against the espionage charges and the Australian government’s apparent lack of concern about them, worried by the precedent set for journalism. But the response by the media should match the extremity of the outrages against free reporting that are being carried out by the most powerful governments in the world. Instead, there has been a generally muted response.

Assange embarrassed the US government. Over many years, he has revealed its secrets and many crimes. His work has shown, in shocking detail, the violence and brutality that are a daily part of the US empire’s operations. For these crimes, crimes of telling the truth, he has faced a relentless campaign of persecution and the possibility of life in jail. It is our duty to stand in solidarity with him.

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