PICTURED: Julian Assange at the Stop the War Coalition rally at Trafalgar Square, London, Oct. 8, 2011. PC: Haydn, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
MONDAY, November 28th 2022. Five major news outlets have signed a letter urging President Biden to end his charging of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, after having recently won a court victory that will see the man extradited to the US.
Entitled “Publishing is not a crime” it was signed by The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País, the five journals that collaborated with Assange on the release of the famous “Cablegate” leak.
This publishing decision by Wikileaks and Assange made 250,000 unredacted cables from embassies and foreign ministries across the world available to the public.
The State Dept. Cables as they were referred to in the US, and the leaks at large, represent a well of information, from which journalists now a decade after their publication still draw from, and includes crimes such as mass killing of civilians in Yemen by the US done in secret, and that Hillary Clinton had been spying on dozens of diplomats at the UN.
“‘Cablegate’, a set of 251,000 confidential cables from the US State Department, disclosed corruption, diplomatic scandals and spy affairs on an international scale,” the letter, published on Monday reads. “In the words of the New York Times, the documents told ‘the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money’”.
This kind of vocal opposition to the extradition attempt, and indeed much of Assange’s persecution by the Trump and Biden Administrations, has been rare from major newspapers, even as they have continued to use both Wikileaks, and the State Dept. Cables for their own purposes.
Bullet points of Assange trial
Beginning in 2019, Assange was held in solitary confinement in Belmarsh High Security Prison reserved for terrorists and mass murderers, while the US attempted to negotiate his extradition.
The Justice Dept. under Trump and now under Biden, has decided to attempt to charge Assange—an Australian citizen—under a US law known as the 1917 Espionage Act, passed to prosecute spies during WWI and which has never been used to prosecute American journalists or publishers, much less foreign citizens.
The Westminster Magistrate’s Court ruled originally against extradition, saying that the treatment of Assange in Belmarsh already placed him at high risk of suicide or death from despair, and that an extradition to the US would almost certainly mean his death in this way.
“Faced with the conditions of near total isolation without the protective factors which limited his risk at [Her Majesty’s Prison] Belmarsh, I am satisfied the procedures described by the U.S. will not prevent Mr. Assange from finding a way to commit suicide,” said Judge Vanessa Baraitser in her original ruling, “and for this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge”.
This was later overruled by the Home Secretary Priti Patel, whose office concretely disagreed that his extradition would be incompatible with human rights laws.
Assange’s legal team filed an appeal in August, saying he was being punished for his political opinions, and that they have already proved beyond reasonable doubt that all accusations brought by the US Justice Dept have been unfounded.
“Overwhelming evidence has emerged proving that the US prosecution against my husband is a criminal abuse,” Stella Assange, Julian’s wife and part of the legal team, said in August.
Publishing is not a crime: The US government should end its prosecution of Julian Assange for publishing secrets.
Twelve years ago, on November 28th 2010, our five international media outlets – the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel – published a series of revelations in cooperation with WikiLeaks that made the headlines around the globe.
“Cablegate”, a set of 251,000 confidential cables from the US state department, disclosed corruption, diplomatic scandals and spy affairs on an international scale.
In the words of the New York Times, the documents told “the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money”. Even now in 2022, journalists and historians continue to publish new revelations, using the unique trove of documents.
For Julian Assange, publisher of WikLeaks, the publication of “Cablegate” and several other related leaks had the most severe consequences. On April 12th 2019, Assange was arrested in London on a US arrest warrant, and has now been held for three and a half years in a high-security British prison usually used for terrorists and members of organised crime groups. He faces extradition to the US and a sentence of up to 175 years in an American maximum-security prison.
This group of editors and publishers, all of whom had worked with Assange, felt the need to publicly criticise his conduct in 2011 when unredacted copies of the cables were released, and some of us are concerned about the allegations in the indictment that he attempted to aid in computer intrusion of a classified database. But we come together now to express our grave concerns about the continued prosecution of Julian Assange for obtaining and publishing classified materials.
The Obama-Biden administration, in office during the WikiLeaks publication in 2010, refrained from indicting Assange, explaining that they would have had to indict journalists from major news outlets too. Their position placed a premium on press freedom, despite its uncomfortable consequences. Under Donald Trump however, the position changed. The DoJ relied on an old law, the Espionage Act of 1917 (designed to prosecute potential spies during world war one), which has never been used to prosecute a publisher or broadcaster.
This indictment sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s first amendment and the freedom of the press.
Obtaining and disclosing sensitive information when necessary in the public interest is a core part of the daily work of journalists. If that work is criminalised, our public discourse and our democracies are made significantly weaker.
Twelve years after the publication of “Cablegate”, it is time for the US government to end its prosecution of Julian Assange for publishing secrets.
Publishing is not a crime.
The editors and publishers of:
The New York Times