It is hard to believe it, but the United States House Intelligence Committee is on a mission of discovery. Its subject: a Yahoo News report disclosing much material that was already in the public domain on the plot to kidnap or, failing that, poison Julian Assange.
Given that such ideas were aired by officials within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), this struck home. On the Yahoo News Skulduggery podcast, Committee chairman and Democratic Representative Adam Schiff said: “We are seeking information about it now".
Making sure to put himself in the clear of having any knowledge of plans against Assange, Schiff claimed that the committee had sought a response from “the agencies” (the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence) after the publication of the Yahoo News piece. As to whether the agencies had responded, Schiff was not forthcoming. “I can’t comment on what we’ve heard back yet.”
This modest effort might show that Schiff is growing a conscience regarding the US case against the founder of WikiLeaks, centred on charges relating to espionage and computer intrusion. If so, it is a bit late coming, given ample evidence that US intelligence services not only conducted surveillance on Assange while he was in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, but contemplated his potential abduction and assassination.
Had the dozing Schiff cast an eye on last year's extradition hearings mounted by the US Justice Department in Britain, he would have been privy to the efforts of the Spanish private security firm UC Global, hired by US intelligence operatives, to conduct operations against Assange. But such humble representatives should not be expected to keep abreast of the news, even as members of a House Intelligence Committee.
For the rest of us who do, one of the former employees of the Spanish company gave testimony at the Old Bailey claiming that he had been asked to steal “a nappy of a baby which according to the company’s security personnel deployed at the embassy, regularly visited Mr Assange”. As UC Global CEO David Morales, currently the subject of a criminal investigation in Spain, explained, “the Americans wanted to establish paternity”.
Assange’s lengthy stay at the embassy was proving so irritating that the “Americans … had even suggested that more extreme measures should be deployed against the ‘guest’ to put an end to the situation” in December 2017. One way of doing so would be staging an “accident” that “would allow persons to enter from outside the embassy and kidnap the asylee”. Very School of the Americas, that.
Congress has shown some gurgling interest in dropping the case against Assange. House Resolution 1175, sponsored by then Democrat House Representative Tulsi Gabbard, expressed “the sense of the House of Representatives that news gathering activities are protected under the First Amendment, and that the United States should drop all charges against and attempts to extradite Julian Assange". On the Republican side, former US Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin has also become a convert. “I made a mistake some years ago, not supporting Julian Assange — thinking that he was a bad guy.” Since then, she had “learned a lot”. “He deserves a pardon.”
A phalanx of civil society groups are also urging US Attorney General Merrick Garland to stop the prosecution. On October 15, Garland received a letter signed by 25 organisations including the ACLU, PEN America and Human Rights Watch, raising the US intelligence efforts against Assange as imperilling the case. “The Yahoo News story only heightens our concerns about the motivations behind this prosecution and about the dangerous precedent that is being set.” As the joint signatories had stated in a previous letter in February, “News organizations frequently and necessarily publish classified information in order to inform the public of matters of profound significance".
Unfortunately, a good number of the US political classes remain vengefully eager. Many Democrats will never forgive Assange for releasing the Podesta emails and compromising Hillary Clinton’s shoddy electoral campaign in 2016. The former CIA Director and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds up the Republican line, having designated WikiLeaks “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia”.
And no one should forget that the current US President Joe Biden sought the head of WikiLeaks in a manner that was almost childishly enthusiastic while he was the vice president in the Obama administration. “We are looking at that right now,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press in December 2010. “The Justice department is taking a look at that.” Assange exposed and therefore, we depose.
It took some of the more sober individuals in the Barack Obama administration to throw cold water on the effort, arguing that any prosecution of WikiLeaks raised thorny First Amendment issues. You go for this Australian’s scalp, then where do we stop? The editorial staff of the New York Times? The news foragers at the Washington Post? The opportunities were endlessly dangerous.
The US prosecution of Assange, centred on the World War I relic of suppression called the Espionage Act, is about to enter its next phase in what can only be described as torture via procedure. To date, Assange has been refused bail and left to languish in Belmarsh Prison.
In the British High Court, prosecutors are hoping to overturn the findings made by Judge Vanessa Baraitser in her January 4 ruling against extradition, impugning expert evidence on Assange’s mental health and the court’s assessment of it. These grounds are almost criminally flimsy, but then again, so is this entire effort against this daring, revolutionary publisher. Assange’s defence team will have much to work with, though Schiff and his colleagues may be asleep as matters unfold.
[Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]