Demonstrators demand the release of Julian Assange

Protesters gather outside the Home Office in London to demand Julian Assange's immediate release on May 17, 2022. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The US Justice Department Must Drop Charges Against Julian Assange

The U.S. case against Assange is facing mounting criticism here at home as a threat to press freedom.

https://www.democracynow.org/2022/12/15/drop_the_charges_against_julian_assange

President Joe Biden is pressing ahead with a controversial criminal case against Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, a whistleblower website. Assange has been languishing for close to four years in the UK's harsh Belmarsh Prison while appealing extradition to the United States, where he faces espionage and computer intrusion charges that could land him in a maximum security prison for 175 years.

Meanwhile, the U.S. case against Assange is facing mounting criticism here at home as a threat to press freedom. In a twist this month that could have far-reaching implications for the case, two people are asking the Justice Department to indict them as well. John Young, who runs a Wikileaks-like website, Cryptome.org, and legendary Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg are demanding they be indicted for publishing and/or retaining the same documents for which Julian Assange is being charged.

In 1971, Dan Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, to several newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. The resulting stories sent shockwaves through the nation, further eroding public support for the war. President Richard Nixon was furious, and orchestrated a criminal campaign to destroy Ellsberg and to block further publication of the papers. Nixon failed in both efforts, and the case against Ellsberg was thrown out of court.

Today, Dan Ellsberg, sharp and alert at 91, sees stark parallels in the case against Julian Assange which, he says, invalidate the government's case.

"Assange, like me, was illegally surveilled. In his case, even his lawyers' and his doctors' discussions were surveilled," Ellsberg said this week on the Democracy Now! news hour. "Discussions were made of kidnapping and killing him or poisoning, just as a dozen CIA assets were brought up from Miami on May 3rd, 1973, by President Nixon with orders to 'incapacitate Daniel Ellsberg totally'."

John Young's website, Cryptome.org, actually published the same set of "Cablegate" documents days earlier than Wikileaks, and the material is still available on the site. "I'm unclear why, if they're charging him, why they've never charged someone like us," Young, who turns 87 next week, said on Democracy Now!: "All of us who are doing similar kind of work to serve the public rather than the government should do more than just protest. We've got to raise more hell and take more legal action and publish more, as our obligation as citizens...The national security people are completely out of control. They're trying to use Assange as a threat against everyone else, not only in the U.S. but around the world."

James Goodale, the renowned First Amendment attorney who as the young general counsel for the New York Times fought and won against the Nixon administration over the Pentagon Papers, agrees. In a recent piece in The Hill, Goodale wrote, "Since Cryptome published the leaks before Assange did, Assange should have no liability for such publication."

Shortly after the Justice Department's indictment against Assange was unsealed in 2019, Goodale said on Democracy Now!, "If the government succeeds with the trial against Assange, if any, that will mean that it's criminalized the newsgathering process."

Major newspapers that collaborated with Wikileaks over the publication of the leaked documents have belatedly appealed to the Biden administration to drop the charges, in a recent joint open letter:

"Twelve years ago, on November 28, 2010, our five international media outlets--The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, El Pais, and Der Spiegel--published a series of revelations in cooperation with Wikileaks that made the headlines around the globe," the letter read. "'Cable gate', a set of 251,000 confidential cables from the US State Department disclosed corruption, diplomatic scandals, and spy affairs on an international scale...We come together now to express our grave concerns about the continued prosecution of Julian Assange for obtaining and publishing classified materials."

Dan Ellsberg responded to the letter on Democracy Now!, "I am very happy that the Times, El Pais, Le Monde, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel have all finally realized, the foreign ones, that they can be extradited just like Julian...meaning that any one of those editors is as indictable as he is on exactly the same charges." Ellsberg added, "They finally realized what I've been telling them for 50 years, literally, since my trial, without success."

As the legal battle drags on, Julian Assange's health declines in prison in conditions described by Nils Melzer, former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, after visiting Assange in Belmarsh, as "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment that cumulatively have the same effect as psychological torture." Julian suffered a mini-stroke in prison in October 2021, and later contracted Covid-19.

President Biden should drop the charges against Julian Assange. As the five newspapers concluded in their open letter, "Publishing is not a crime."