Julian Assange and the dangers of a US plea deal

August 15, 2023
New mural unveiled in Rome. Photo: @people4assange/Twitter

At every stage of its proceedings against Julian Assange, the United States has shown little in the way of tempering its vengeful impulses. In uncovering the sordid details of a global military power, the WikiLeaks publisher would always have to pay.

Given the 18 charges Assange faces, 17 fashioned from the repressive US Espionage Act of 1917, any sentence is bound to be hefty. Were he to be extradited from Britain to the US, he will disappear into a carceral, life-ending dystopia.

In this saga of relentless persecution, the country most regularly featured by commentators has done the least. Assange may well be an Australian national, but successive governments have tended to cower before Washington.

Following the signing of the AUKUS pact and the surrender of Canberra’s military and diplomatic functions to Washington, any exertion of independent counsel will be treated with sneering qualification.

The Anthony Albanese government has claimed at various stages to be pursuing the matter with its US counterparts. The Prime Minister has even publicly expressed his frustration at the lack of progress in finding a “diplomatic solution”. But he has also always accepted that legal processes must first run their course.

The substance of any such diplomatic solution remains vague. But, on August 14, the Sydney Morning Herald, citing US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy as its chief source, reported that a “resolution” to Assange’s plight might be in the offing.

“There is a way to resolve it,” Kennedy said. This could involve a reduction of any charges in favour of a guilty plea, with the details sketched out by the US Department of Justice (DOJ). Kennedy clarified that this was more a matter for the DOJ than any other department. “So it’s not really a diplomatic issue, but I think there absolutely could be a resolution.”

Kennedy met members of the Parliamentary Friends of Julian Assange Group to hear their concerns in May. The previous month, 48 Australian MPs and Senators, including 13 from Labor, wrote an open letter to US Attorney General Merrick Garland warning that the prosecution “would set a dangerous precedent for all global citizens, journalists, publishers, media organizations and the freedom of the press. It would also be needlessly damaging for the US as a world leader on freedom of expression and the rule of law”.

In a discussion with The Intercept, Gabriel Shipton, Assange’s brother, had his own analysis of the latest developments.

“The [Biden] administration appears to be searching for an off-ramp ahead of [Albanese’s] first state visit to DC in October.” In the event one wasn’t found, “we could see a repeat of a very public rebuff delivered by [US Secretary of State] Tony Blinken to the Australian Foreign Minister two weeks ago in Brisbane”.

That rebuff took place at the AUSMIN talks between the foreign and defence ministers of Australia and the US. Foreign minister Penny Wong remarked that “Mr Assange’s case has dragged on for too long, and our desire it be brought to a conclusion, and we’ve said that publicly and you would anticipate that that reflects also the positive we articulate in private”. 

Blinken claimed in his response to “understand” such views and admitted that the matter had been raised with himself and various offices of the US. He then proceeded to tell “our friends” what, exactly, Washington wished to do.

Assange had been “charged with very serious criminal conduct in the United States in connection with his alleged role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of our country. The actions that he has alleged to have committed risked very serious harm to our national security, to the benefit of our adversaries, and put named sources at grave risk — grave risk — of physical harm, and grave risk of detention”.

Such an assessment, which has been repeatedly rebutted and persistently disproved, went unchallenged by Australian MPs. Nor did any media challenge the account.

The unstated assumption is that Assange is already guilty for absurd charges. 

At this stage “deals” are the stuff of manipulation and fantasy. The espionage charges have been drafted to inflate, rather than diminish, any sentence. Suggestions that the DOJ will somehow go soft must be treated with scepticism.

The pursuit of Assange is laced by sentiments of revenge, intended to both inflict harm on the publisher while deterring those wishing to publish US national security information.

As the international law academic Don Rothwell observed, the plea deal may well take into account the four years spent in UK captivity, but is unlikely to either feature a complete scrapping of the charges, or exempt Assange from travelling to the US to admit his guilt. “It’s not possible to strike a plea deal outside the relevant jurisdiction except in the most exceptional circumstances.”

Should any plea deal be successfully reached and implemented, thereby making Assange admit guilt, the terms of his return to Australia, assuming he survives any stint on US soil, will be onerous.

In effect the US would merely be changing the prison warden while adjusting the terms of observation. In place of British prison wardens will be Australian overseers unlikely to ever take kindly to the publication of national security information.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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