There’s No Free Press Without a Free Assange

Photograph Source: Anthony Crider – CC BY 2.0

In September 1918, Eugene V. Debs stood trial on several charges brought following an anti-war speech he had delivered in June, at a gathering of socialists, workers, and sympathetic friends in Canton, Ohio. For delivering his speech, critical of the United States’ entry into World War I and heralding “the emancipation of the human race,” Debs was arrested and branded a traitor and seditionist by the U.S. government. His words that day call to mind the truth-telling mission of another freedom of speech champion, wrongly imprisoned journalist and activist Julian Assange. Debs said:

The truth alone will make the people free. And for this reason, the truth must not be permitted to reach the people. The truth has always been dangerous to the rule of the rogue, the exploiter, the robber. So the truth must be ruthlessly suppressed.

Like Debs, Assange has been pursued and punished by the U.S. government for telling people the truth and calling attention to its wrongdoing. At his talk at the 2010 TedGlobal Conference in Oxford, Assange made a similar case for the freedom of conscience and speech, arguing that people have a right to know what our governments are doing in our names. Assange, like Debs, had the courage to call out those in power, observing that when the people are confronted with the truth, they “can see the gross disparity in force” separating the U.S. from those who resist its empire.

When Assange’s phone went off during the conversation and Ted’s Chris Anderson joked that it was the CIA calling, everyone laughed politely, perhaps nervously, at the joke. But fast forward 13 years and there’s no joking around: Julian Assange has indeed been personally targeted by the United States military and intelligence apparatus for the crime of publishing the truth, as is his and every person’s right. During the talk, Anderson raised the case of Chelsea Manning, who had been charged just five days before—and whose sentence was correctly commuted by Barack Obama in January 2017. Assange, meanwhile, remains imprisoned and fighting extradition to the United States, where journalism has become a serious crime. Assange spoke with Anderson of what real journalism is:

Information that organizations are spending economic effort into concealing—that’s a really good signal that when the information gets out, there’s a hope of it doing some good, because the organizations that know it best, that know it from the inside out, are spending work to conceal it. And that’s what we’ve found in practice and that’s what the history of journalism is.

The motivations of the U.S. terror state have been clear since long before Wikileaks’ 2010 revelations, but they have become increasingly so since: a free press cannot be countenanced, because even a modicum of truth and transparency compromises the viability of the imperial system. As with the Debs case, Assange’s has never been about concocted and totally unsubstantiated charges of espionage. Debs was no spy, and neither is Assange; everyone in the world—his tormentors especially—knows this. But he stands for the idea that governments should have to answer to the people they rule, and that is something that the United States and its allies, particularly at the most senior levels of leadership, simply do not believe and will not tolerate. Even amongst our politicians (of both parties, it must be noted), more and more people see this. They see that they are figureheads, that we are not governed by elected officials at all, but by a permanent bloc of unelected bureaucrats insulated from the results of elections by design.

But the tide is turning on the U.S. government’s lawless pursuit of Julian Assange. This past fall, Congressmen James McGovern, a Democrat representing Massachusetts, and Thomas Massie, a Republican representing Kentucky, asked their congressional colleagues to join them in urging the Biden White House to “withdraw the U.S. extradition request currently pending against Australian publisher Julian Assange and halt all prosecutorial proceedings against him as soon as possible.” In the letter, several members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, joined McGovern and Massie in restating the common-sense position that the Espionage Act should not be used “to punish journalists and whistleblowers for attempting to inform the public about serious issues that some U.S. government officials might prefer to keep secret.”

The victories for a free and open society will continue. On December 19th, a federal district court ruled that four Americans (lawyers Margaret Ratner Kunstler and Deborah Hrbek, journalists John Goetz and Charles Glass) who visited Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy can proceed with a suit against the CIA and its collaborators for violating their constitutional rights. The four plaintiffs argue that in its obsession with Assange, the government violated their constitutional right to privacy when it spied on them and collected their information. Meanwhile, thanks to the tireless efforts of Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi, newly released documents have also shown that the U.S. government closely monitored pro-Assange demonstrations in Australia in the aftermath of Wikileaks’ 2010 publications. As we learn more and more, the story gets worse and worse for the United States and the governments that do its bidding.

The United States government has to this point largely succeeded in painting a picture of Julian Assange and Wikileaks that is warped beyond recognition, maintaining a concerted propaganda effort to prevent the natural upswell of support that would arise if Americans better understood his case. The truth is that, if they did understand the case, most Americans would strongly disapprove the use of a more than one hundred-year-old Espionage Act—widely damned by legal and free speech experts for generations—to prosecute journalistic activities in which the world’s most widely-respected publications were also eager participants. The major newspapers that worked with Wikileaks were The New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, El Pais and DER SPIEGEL—they have since published an open letter calling on the U.S. government to drop all charges against Assange.

Assange’s journalistic work represents a challenge to the prevailing paradigm of public discourse, in which the masses are spoon-fed just those select pieces of information that will not seriously undermine the narratives of state and corporate power. We are permitted to see particular images, to hear particular voices, to read particular documents. Through Wikileaks and the information it published, Assange overturned this paradigm, presenting the possibility of radical transparency premised on the idea that the public actually does have a right to know what the exceedingly small group of people calling themselves our governments are up to in the world. To Assange and his supporters, the supporters of press freedom and the broader freedom of conscience and expression, that the public has this right to know is mere common sense. To the great powers of the world, the United States in particular, this is an unacceptable challenge to a system in which crimes of unimaginable scale can be carried out in secret, hidden from public view and thus insulated from scrutiny and democratic debate.

To the U.S. government, the sea change that Assange represents could very literally change the world—it could make the world democratic and free by making the world aware. Nothing similar to the American power elite could sustain itself in a free, democratic, aware world, and they are much more than clever enough to understand this. When a Julian Assange emerges, it is an existential threat to the system, the system of power and the system of thought on which it depends. There is a truism that politics is downstream from culture, and the Wikileaks project addresses our acculturation, making it more-than-normally dangerous to the ruling class. Assange and Wikileaks represent the idea that a culture of merely accepting the truth and the positions of those in power is what’s dangerous; it says that in the Information Age, we would believe what’s in front of our eyes rather than what our government says; it says that the great crimes of the powerful have gone unaddressed; it says that we do not yet understand ourselves or our psychology of social hierarchy and war.

The barriers that stand between the people and an accurate picture of American empire are falling. They are falling in large part because the barriers between the people and information about the world have fallen to all-time lows, with the advent of the internet and the radically different media environment it has ushered in. It is increasingly difficult to sell the people the kinds of lies that have so easily passed muster in bygone eras. The United States government has had to pivot to more artful and sophisticated methods of psychological manipulation, and indeed it leads the world in the development and implementation of these means. It is the world leader in spreading disinformation, and it hopes to curate a Orwellian cultural narrative in which its lies are the only truth. But it won’t succeed.

It is not possible to properly understand the United States’ handling of Julian Assange, without a theory of class and power. Our myths think in us; our immersion in them compels us to recreate the orders of class and power in which we live out our lives. In the modern world, we operate within social and economic institutions of previously unimaginable size, scale, and power. They and their behaviors are frequently incomprehensible to us, and we are carefully trained not to question them or their authority. But consider the perversity of the situation to which such unthinkingly deferential attitudes have led: the people responsible for endless undeclared wars and death and destruction on scales we can’t imagine not only escape responsibility but see their careers propelled as if their crimes are great professional achievements, all while a brave individual who has called attention to these crimes is punished.

Next month, Assange will once again appear before the High Court, his last-ditch effort to challenge the British government’s 2022 extradition order. In a hearing expected to last two days, two judges will revisit the High Court’s June 2023 decision denying his challenges to that order, and thus reopening the question of his appeal. Assange’s legal team has expressed hopes that the European Court will hear his case, but this is far from assured. As his lawyer Jennifer Robinson has recently explained, Assange’s life hangs in the balance, as years of unjust persecution and detention have wreaked havoc on his mind and body. Robinson’s statement is of course consistent with a 2021 U.K. court ruling correctly determining that “the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.” On January 15th, in his home country of Australia, a multi-party coalition of politicians submitted a letter to U.K. Home Secretary James Cleverly, urging a reconsideration of Assange’s case before next month’s hearing. The MPs argue that “the United Kingdom cannot just rely on third-party assurances by foreign governments but rather are required to make independent assessments of the risk of persecution to individuals before any order is made removing them from the UK.” They don’t take the assurances of the U.S. government at face value while their innocent countryman’s life is at stake. Who can possibly blame them at this point?

There is a gauntlet at the feet of the U.S. government—the truth versus more duplicity and doublespeak. Julian Assange and represents this conflict. As Maurizi recently observed, even 13 years later, the Wikileaks revelations continue to inform the public of some of the most serious crimes of the United States and those states in its global thrall. It is unclear whether any U.S. official will ever have to answer for those crimes. That seems less than likely. Successive military and intelligence leaders have perjured themselves in an attempt to cover this wrongdoing, doubling and tripling down on a distraction campaign focused on the very few people like Assange who have dared to tell the truth about the murder and destruction perpetrated on the world by the U.S. and its vassals.

What is more clear is that Assange what he represents win in the end, because freedom, democracy, and transparency will always be the expectation of thinking human beings. If as a global human community we allow the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States, it will be a world-historic blow to the freedom of thought, conscience, and expression. It will be a victory for secretive, abusive governments and corporate institutions around the world.

David S. D’Amato is an attorney, businessman, and independent researcher. He is a Policy Advisor to the Future of Freedom Foundation and a regular opinion contributor to The Hill. His writing has appeared in Forbes, Newsweek, Investor’s Business Daily, RealClearPolitics, The Washington Examiner, and many other publications, both popular and scholarly. His work has been cited by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, among others.