The release of Julian Assange: plea deals and dark legacies

June 26, 2024
Julian Assange (left) and United States whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Photo: @RobertEllsberg/X

One of the longest political persecutions is coming to its end. But nothing about the fate of Julian Assange seems determinative.

His accusers and inquisitors will draw some delight at the plea deal reached between the WikiLeaks founder’s legal team and the US Department of Justice.

Others, such as former US Vice President Mike Pence, thought it unjustifiably lenient.

Assange is alleged to have committed 18 offences, 17 linked to the odious Espionage Act 1917. The June 2020 superseding indictment against Assange was a frontal assault on the freedoms of publishing and discussing classified government information.

At the time of writing, Assange has arrived in Saipan, located in the US territory of Northern Mariana Islands in the Western Pacific, to face a fresh indictment.

It was one of Assange’s conditions that he would not present himself in any court in the US proper, where, with understandable suspicion, he might vanish.

As correspondence between the US Department of Justice and US District Court Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona reveals, the “proximity of this federal US District Court to the defendant’s country of citizenship, Australia, to which we expect he will return at the conclusion of proceedings” was also a factor.

Before the US District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands, he will plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defence information under the Espionage Act 1917, or section 793(g) (Title 18, USC).

The felony carries a fine up to $10,000 and/or up to 10 years in prison, though Assange’s time in Belmarsh Prison, spent on remand for some 62 months, will meet the bar.

The felony charge sheet alleges that Assange knowingly and unlawfully conspired with US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, then based at Operating Base Hammer in Iraq, to receive and obtain documents, writings and notes, including those of a secret nature, relating to national defence.

He then wilfully communicated those documents from persons with lawful possession of, or access to them, to those not entitled to receive them and the same from persons unauthorised to possess such documents.

Before turning to the grave implications of this single count and the plea deal, supporters of Assange, including his immediate family, associates and those who have worked with him, had every reason to feel a surreal sense of intoxication.

WikiLeaks announced Assange’s departure from London’s Belmarsh Prison on the morning of June 24, after a 1901 day stint, his grant of bail by the High Court in London and his release at Stansted Airport.

Stella Assange regularly updated followers about the course of flight VJ199. As she posted coverage of his arrival at the federal court house in Saipan, she pondered “how overloaded his senses must be, walking through the press scrum after years of sensory deprivation and the four walls” of his Belmarsh cell.

As for the plea deal, from the emotional and personal perspective of Assange and his family it is hard to fault it.

He was ailing and being subjected to a slow execution by judicial process.

It was also the one hook upon which the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Biden administration, might move on.  As this is an election year in the US, the last thing President Joe Biden wanted was a haunting reminder of this nasty political persecution.

There was another, rather more sordid angle, and one that the DOJ had to have kept in mind in thinning the charge sheet: a proper Assange trial would have aired the CIA’s murderous fantasies regarding the publisher.

These included various possible measures including abduction, rendition, even assassination as a Yahoo News contribution in September 2021 thoroughly explored.

One of the authors, Zach Dorfman, posted a salient reminder as news of the plea deal filtered through that many officials during the Trump administration, even harsh critics of Assange “thought [CIA Director Mike] Pompeo’s extraordinary rendition plots foolhardy in the extreme, and probably illegal. They also – critically – thought it might harm Assange’s prosecution.”

Were Pompeo’s stratagems to come to light “it would make the discovery process nightmarish for the prosecution, should Assange ever see trial”.

From the perspective of publishers and journalists keen to keep the powerful accountable, the plea must be seen as enormously troubling.

It ultimately goes to the brutal exercise of US extraterritorial power against any publisher, irrespective of outlet and irrespective of nationality.

While the legal freight and prosecutorial heaviness of the charges was reduced dramatically (62 months is less imposing than 175 years) the measure extracts a pound of flesh from the fourth estate.

It signals that the US can and will seek out those who obtain and publish national security information that they would rather keep under wraps under spurious notions of “harm”. 

Assange’s conviction also shores up the crude narrative adopted from the moment WikiLeaks began publishing US national security and diplomatic files: such activities could not be seen as journalistic, despite their role in informing media commentary, or exposing the venal side of power through leaks.

From the lead prosecuting attorney Gordon Kromberg to British judges such as Vanessa Baraitser, the national security commentariat lodged in the media stable, to any number of politicians, including the late California Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Biden, Assange was not of the fourth estate and he deserved his mobbing.

Assange gave the game away: he pilfered and stole the secrets of empire.

To that end, the plea deal makes a mockery of arguments and declarations that the arrangement is somehow a victory for media freedom.

It suggests the opposite: that anyone publishing US national security information by a leaker or whistleblower is imperilled.

While the point was never tested in court, non-US publishers may be unable to avail themselves of the free speech protections of the First Amendment.

The Espionage Act, for the first time in history, has been given a global reach and weaponised against publishers outside the US, paving the way for future prosecutions.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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