I turned on the news yesterday and there was Attorney General Merrick Garland somewhere in Ukraine, talking about being part of the effort to prosecute war crimes charges against the Russian invaders. Coincidentally, the night before seeing our chief prosecutor in Ukraine, I had finished reading Nils Melzer’s recently-published book, the Trial of Julian Assange, which is an eloquent and devastating exposé of endemic political corruption deep within the state apparatuses of the US, the UK, Sweden, and other countries.
The unmistakable fact is that Merrick Garland’s Justice Department is still actively pursuing the extradition of Julian Assange, in order for him to face charges under the Espionage Act and spend the rest of his life in prison. This is the same Espionage Act that the Nixon administration considered using against Daniel Ellsberg, for leaking what became known as the Pentagon Papers, which were published in the New York Times and elsewhere.
Unlike Ellsberg, Assange did not himself steal, hack, or otherwise make off with secret documents that exposed US war crimes. He only facilitated the leaking of these documents, and the eventual publication of redacted parts of them by Wikileaks, the New York Times, and most of the rest of the world’s media. But unlike with Ellsberg, the government is going ahead with prosecuting someone — a journalist and editor named Julian Assange — under the Espionage Act.
The Espionage Act is one of these laws that is on the books but is not generally considered particularly useful by prosecutors because the law is so blatantly an outrageous, draconian relic of the Red Scare, an example of the most authoritarian responses to the militant labor movement of the post-World War 1 period. Enforcing the Espionage Act makes a complete mockery of all of the most fundamental democratic institutions. It’s obviously in total conflict with the First Amendment and many other elements of the Bill of Rights. The possibility that other journalists who expose war crimes might go to prison for the rest of their lives for violating the Espionage Act is a terrifying prospect. But Garland’s prosecution of a journalist for exposing war crimes under the Espionage Act continues.
While Garland makes plans to help prosecute war crimes committed by Russian soldiers, the war crimes committed by US forces in Bagram, Kama Ado, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Fallujah, Haditha, Baghdad, and on and on and on, go almost entirely unprosecuted and unpunished, and generally unacknowledged, except when the media spotlight is temporarily impossible to ignore, and a few crocodile tears must be shed to maintain appearances. But even while occasional noises are made by officials to half-heartedly acknowledge some of the shortcomings of the US military invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, the person most responsible for bringing the knowledge of these shortcomings to the global public is being prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917.
As far as I can surmise, the significant difference between 1971 and 2022 is Daniel Ellsberg had a very large national and global antiwar movement supporting him, and Julian Assange does not have such a movement behind him. He has many, many supporters, to be sure, despite all the massive deluge of propaganda actively put out by the US, UK, Swedish, and, since a change in administration in Ecuador, by the Ecuadorians as well, to delegitimize and vilify Assange. But the anti-imperialist movement that existed in Ellsberg’s day is absent today in the countries where it would be needed for Assange, such as in the UK and US.
Listening to the loud voices in the media constantly focusing on the war crimes of one particular nation — Russia — while consistently dismissing those committed by the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, the fact that the world’s most well-known exposer of US war crimes is in prison, silenced by the British authorities, makes this a silent scream if ever there was one.
In a maximum-security prison on the outskirts of London, built for what they call terrorists, barely allowed any visitors, cut off from communication with the outside world, while being tortured through solitary confinement, isolation, deprivation and degradation of all kinds. You and I have not heard Julian Assange’s actual voice for years. Almost no one has.
Most people who attempt to visit him in prison are turned away, including members of parliament. Whatever we know about Julian’s condition and his thoughts on anything can only be transmitted through Julian’s wife, Stella, who is able to talk to him regularly, but his ability to follow his own legal case, let alone global events, is made impossible by the British authorities, who are also clearly trying to drive him completely mad, in addition to silencing him, in the true tradition of authoritarian regimes everywhere.
The caging and silencing of Julian Assange today, and for years now, from his involuntary confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy to his abduction and imprisonment at Belmarsh, the inability of Julian to communicate with the outside world, makes the brief conversation I had with him a decade ago seem that much more precious and rare.
I had written a song about Chelsea Manning’s heroic whistle-blowing on US war crimes in Iraq. (“Song for Bradley Manning” as it was originally recorded and released — later with the vocal track re-recorded and the song re-released as “Song for Chelsea Manning.”) Folks at Wikileaks were putting out an album of songs related to whistle-blowing, and I got an email from the people in charge of the album project, followed soon after by a phone call from Julian.
Julian mainly wanted to talk about Chelsea Manning, how important her whistle-blowing was, how good it is that artists write songs about her and get the word out in whatever ways possible. I believe he was calling each of the artists on the album to thank them, basically.
As for me, I wanted to take the opportunity of having Julian Assange on the phone with me to thank him for all of his work, which I assured him was very threatening to the powers-that-be. He of course well knew this, but deflected my compliments, as people often do with compliments generally.
I also wanted to make sure he knew how much he was loved and appreciated, in the face of the onslaught of negative publicity he was receiving in the wake of a police report being filed by two women in Sweden. It was abundantly obvious that whatever went on between Julian and his hosts in Sweden, the police report was being weaponized in the fullest way possible by governments and corporate media outlets all over the world who hated Assange for exposing their dirty laundry, and he had exposed a hell of a lot of it.
It was equally obvious that many people on the left, including many people I knew, were apt to assume the worst, and also were somehow unable to distinguish between allegations of sexual misconduct between two people, and governments that wanted to kill or imprison a man for exposing war crimes. For many people, once the sexual allegations were floating around, Julian was a hot potato, too hot to touch, war crimes exposures or not.
Around a couple weeks after our phone conversation came the news that he had received asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy, fearing extradition to the US.
For years it was the case that Julian had tepid levels of support on so much of the left, particularly in the US and Sweden, as the Swedish authorities have intentionally dragged on legal proceedings purely in order to assist British authorities in keeping Julian locked up in London under a plainly preposterous legal pretense, while simultaneously managing to make sure that any time he’s in the news, the words “sexual misconduct” or worse will be associated with his name.
The demonstrations I attended outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London during these years were embarrassingly small. At least some of the global press still took him seriously and interviewed him and his advocates regularly (thank you, Amy Goodman), but by and large he was either ignored or ridiculed, in many cases by journalists writing for the same publications that had worked with Wikileaks to expose US war crimes. Since his access to a phone and the internet was cut off in the embassy, after there was a change in administration in Ecuador, no more interviews with Julian.
Things have changed in recent years, with what is unmistakably a significant upsurge in support for Assange, and recognition of the importance of his case, and the implications of his persecution for the freedom of the press in the US, the UK, and Sweden, along with the rest of the world. It turned out that his fear of being extradited to the US and facing life in prison was fully accurate, and since the extradition proceedings and his imprisonment at Belmarsh, the ever more obvious injustice here is becoming too obvious to ignore for increasing numbers of individuals and organizations.
Whether the increasingly vocal support of mainly European political blocks, newspaper editors, organizations representing journalists, doctors, lawyers, artists, and many other professions, or human rights groups like Amnesty International might have any impact on the ongoing persecution and caging of this man, there is one person who could, with the swoop of a pen, release Julian from what is now over a decade of some form of intentionally cruel confinement. That is Attorney General Merrick Garland.
The Obama administration persecuted more whistle-blowers than ever before, but in the end the president at least pardoned Chelsea Manning, so she wouldn’t have to serve the rest of her 35-year prison sentence, and he opted not to try to prosecute anyone under 1917’s Espionage Act. But as with so many other initiatives of the Trump administration, we are not seeing Biden or his chief prosecutor change course here.
If Merrick Garland actually believes in the rule of law, as he claims he does, then while he is prosecuting war crimes committed in Ukraine, he should drop the charges against this man who exposed war crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States, Julian Assange. Then he should prosecute US war criminals, and Israeli and Saudi ones as well, while he’s at it. And he should renounce future use of the Espionage Act to persecute journalists for doing what we all need journalists to continue to do: hold the powerful to account, by shining a light on the crimes and corruption they are trying to hide.