The (flawed) case against Julian Assange

Starting on September 7th, the extradition proceedings for Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange continued in London’s Old Bailey court. The hearings, the first part of which ended in February and were set to resume in May, were delayed for four months due to the ongoing health crisis. This left the publisher to languish in the notorious Belmarsh prison, despite having already served his time on bail jumping charges stemming from the years he spent in the UK’s Ecuadorian embassy before that country revoked his asylum last year.

U.S. government lawyers, acting at the behest of a federal grand jury, had charged the publisher with 18 criminal counts. All but one of them fall under the country’s 1917 Espionage Act, unusual in that Assange is not an American citizen and thus can’t really be accused of treason.

Although this had been done once already, in late June, another U.S. federal grand jury brought a 48 page superseding indictment. The main claim made by U.S. authorities in introducing the latest indictment is that it further establishes the background of their case, going beyond the publisher’s dealings with Chelsea Manning, whose 2010 leaks are at the heart of the American case against him.

Although the charges are the same, new material in the superseding indictment is focused on the charge of computer intrusion, the one count not under the Espionage Act. In furtherance of this, it alleges that Assange aided Edward Snowden in his escape from Hong Kong to Russia and accuses him of working with or facilitating other hackers, an accusation in part drawn from remarks he made at conferences in Europe and Asia, long on the public record.

A simple check of the facts around two of those named shows that one is an anonymous ‘Teenager’ from Iceland who was fired by Wikileaks for embezzlement and another is Hector ‘Sabu’ Monsegur, an FBI informant who most famously helped prosecutors build a case against Jeremy Hammond, a hacker who worked with the Anonymous collective and is serving a 10 year sentence for his involvement with a hack, unrelated to Wikileaks but later published by the group of the private intelligence company Stratfor.

While the government’s case doesn’t allege Assange actually helped with the hack, it does accuse him of offering advice and possibly tools to help Hammond go through the vast trove of documents.

Assange’s defense, led by Florence Iveson on that first day, vigorously protested the new indictment, the second superseding one brought so far, “We strongly oppose them [the U.S. government] being given a third opportunity to open this case and expand it. Our position is that the new material could and should have been provided at a much earlier stage and the only just way forward is to exclude it.”

The judge, Vanessa Baraitser, dismissed the defense’s argument, allowing the new material to be used by U.S. government lawyers in making their case. She also denied a request by Assange’s defense team for an adjournment to adjust their defense to the new allegations.

Oddly, when a group called Declassified U.K. made a Freedom of Information request to see Baraitser’s record it was denied by the British government. The group later found after a search of public records that the judge has ordered extradition in 96% of such cases that she has presided over.

Further, the chief magistrate, who Baraitser ultimately answers to, is Lady Emma Arbuthnot. She has refused to recuse herself despite an obvious conflict of interest stemming from her husband’s former job as a Conservative Defence Minister and his work with the Henry Jackson Society, which, as reported by South Africa’s Daily Maverick, is, “a pressure group with a strongly anti-Assange agenda.”

Probably the most damning accusations made earlier and basically unchanged, are those alleging that Assange allowed the names of U.S. informants in Iraq and Afghanistan to become public. In terms of these allegations, there’s already fairly solid evidence that there’s another,, perhaps more plausible, side to this story that has rarely been reported on outside of the alternative press.

It’s true that the unredacted files containing these names were released, but both Assange and Wikileaks argue this was not their fault but rather that of Guardian investigations editor David Leigh and reporter Luke Harding whose book, “Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” used the password protecting these files as the title of a chapter, making it only a matter of time before someone put this together. Seeing that the files had already become public, Wikileaks then made the decision to make them available through the site.

Nicky Hagar, a New Zealand based investigative reporter who testified for Assange’s defense, recently wrote of the animosity that grew between the publisher and the Guardian, “I hope you will forgive me for adding personal knowledge here, but the bad blood was nothing to do with redaction and everything to do with money. Julian Assange was briefly the most famous man in the world for a while and had not yet been tarnished with the allegations arranged in Sweden. Rights to an Assange book on Wikileaks and a biography were potentially worth millions to the authors. Collaboration had been discussed with Leigh but Julian had decided against. The Guardian was furious. That is what really happened. It seems a good explanation of why they instead published a money-spinning book attacking Assange. It does not really explain why they published the password to the unredacted cable cache in that book.”

Hager’s view of Leigh is interesting because in many years of following Assange’s trials I’ve never heard or read this side of the story. What has been reported all along is that the publisher was in a rush to get the documents out and took the point of view that those who might be named in the process, ‘deserved it.’

It should also be noted that at the earliest stage in the process of getting the leaks to the public, which involved various prestigious outfits on both sides of the Atlantic, including The New York Times, who won acclaim for their coverage, attempts were made to work with the American government on the redactions and to make it possible for them to protect those people named in the documents in case something went wrong. This is another part of the story favorable to Assange that rarely makes it into mainstream reporting.

Despite the hand wringing about this, while so of those named have not been officially tracked down or found by reporters, no deaths have been attributed to the leaks. It should also go without saying that the American government has the responsibility to protect those that have been employed by them in these areas of conflict rather than relying on an outfit like Wikileaks whose resources are limited at the best of times.

It’s understandable that many Americans, from the center of the political spectrum to the left are at the very least conflicted about Assange. The leaks during 2016, including the DNC and Podesta emails continue to get some blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss in that election, although I can’t imagine most people took the time to peruse them. Regardless, these leaks are not related to the U.S. government’s case.

The Manning leaks at the heart of it were immensely important in allowing a clearer picture of the human toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Binoy Kampmark reported on Counterpunch last week, speaking about the testimony of John Sloboda of Iraq Body Count,” The compilation of 400,000 Significant Activity reports put together by the U.S. Army comprised, in Sloboda’s words, “the single largest contribution to public knowledge about civilian casualties in Iraq.” 

They were, he told the court, “a very meticulous record of military patrols in streets in every area of Iraq, noting and documenting what they saw.”  Some 15,000 previously unknown civilian deaths were duly identified.”

This alone should be enough to absolve Assange, who is in ill health already and has been made to suffer enough. The many mainstream journalists cheering on his extradition may come to regret in the future when the American government comes for them or their sources.

FALL FUNDRAISER

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