Wikileaks founder Julian Assange fights extradition to US
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange gestures from the window of a prison van after his arrest in London five years ago. He is now fighting extradition to the U.S. (Photo by Daniel Leal / AFP)

Julian Assange Gave America the Ugly Truth

Biden is thinking of dropping America’s case against the whistleblower. He should.

Filmed above Baghdad, from a U.S. military Apache helicopter, the grainy black-and-white video opens with a voice instructing the pilot to “light ’em all up.” 

Then, there’s open fire: a torrent of bullets flying into a small group of people on the ground. The pilots believed that two of them were carrying weapons over their shoulders.

“Look at those dead bastards,” says one voice.

“Nice, nice shooting,” another exclaims. 

As it turned out, the pilots were mistaken: what they thought were guns were actually cameras, carried by a photojournalist and his assistant. Employees of Reuters, Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen, were among the at least eight civilians killed by this attack in July 2007. That month, the news agency issued a Freedom of Information request for the footage taken from the helicopter, but it was ultimately blocked by the Pentagon. The American public could easily have remained ignorant of what happened that day—if it weren’t for Julian Assange.

The previous year, the Australian hacker had founded Wikileaks as a haven for whistleblowers. It was this U.S. military footage, which Assange decrypted himself and released in 2010—under the title Collateral Murder—that first generated international headlines about the site. But it was only the tip of the iceberg: in total, Wikileaks published over 90,000 confidential documents concerning the Afghanistan war and 400,000 documents relating to the Iraq war, provided by former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. It was the most significant security breach by a whistleblower in American history.

Chelsea Manning was charged with 22 offenses. In 2013, she was convicted of 17 of them and sentenced to 35 years behind bars, but her sentence was commuted by Barack Obama in 2017. As for Assange, tomorrow marks five years since he was arrested in London as part of a U.S. indictment. So far, he has evaded all attempts to move him onto American soil, but a final decision could come any day now. Last month, a UK court ruled that Assange could continue with his extradition appeal if the U.S. government failed to give assurances about his treatment in this country. The deadline for those guarantees is April 16.

If the U.S. finally succeeds, Assange will be tried for endangering national security under the Espionage Act—a rarely used 1917 law designed to punish those who interfere with “the war effort.” He stands accused of 17 counts of espionage and one of computer misuse. If convicted, he could face over 170 years behind bars. 

The case has divided America: some argue Assange is an anarchist, trying to undermine our nation. Others say he is a heroic activist, fighting for a transparent democracy. 

But the truth, actually, lies somewhere in the middle: yes, Assange is a deeply flawed character, and he also does not deserve to spend the rest of his life behind bars. Today, President Biden said he is considering a plea from Assange’s homeland of Australia to drop the case, which is a welcome development. Because if the hacker is convicted, it’s not only journalism that will be weaker—it’s democracy itself.

Democracy depends on whistleblowers. We need people like Chelsea Manning. Or Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency employee who leaked documents in 2013 that revealed a disturbing level of government surveillance. Or Thomas Drake, a high-ranking NSA official who blew the whistle on 9/11 intelligence failures. Or Jamie Reed, a case manager at a gender clinic for children, who revealed in these pages that doctors there too hastily prescribed hormones to young adults with mental health issues.

If politicians truly respect the First Amendment, they must defend the freedom of whistleblowers and investigative journalists to deliver the truth to the public—however ugly it may be. Wikileaks’ revelations about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq were hard for Americans to process. We learned that civilian casualties had been far higher in Afghanistan than had been officially reported, for instance—and that 150 innocent Afghans and Pakistanis were held in Guantanamo Bay for years without charges, despite the government’s assurances that only the “worst of the worst” terrorists were detained there. In short, the U.S. broke its own rules on foreign soil time and time again. 

Public opinion changed in part because of this. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are now widely seen as misadventures. How different would things be if we’d never known the truth about these conflicts?

Assange is far from perfect. He hosted a series on the Kremlin-funded network RT, formerly Russia Today. He is long-standing friends with Israel Shamir, a dictator-sympathizing Holocaust-denier and antisemite. When a reporter working with Assange on a Wikileaks investigation said he worried that not redacting the names of Afghans who had cooperated with the U.S. military might lead to their deaths, Assange is said to have replied, “Well, they’re informants. So if they get killed, they’ve got it coming.” (While Assange denies this account, Wikileaks did publish some unredacted names in its Afghanistan document dump.) And in 2016, Wikileaks was happy to publish Hillary Clinton’s emails, but reportedly refused to publish documents about the Russian government offered to them around the same time. 

But, more importantly, the prosecution of Assange as a publisher—the first time the Espionage Act would be used this way—would effectively criminalize the basic work of obtaining and publishing state secrets. It would make a lot of investigative journalism relating to national security close to impossible. 

Already journalists are being punished for exercising their First Amendment rights. In February, Catherine Herridge was held in contempt of court for refusing to disclose her source for a set of stories about a Chinese American scientist who was investigated by the FBI over alleged ties to the Chinese military. CBS, Herridge’s former employer, said the court’s decision “should be concerning to all Americans who value the role of the free press.”

Assange is not an investigative reporter in the mold of Herridge. But his prosecution would nevertheless devastate the practice of reporting by significantly deterring civilians from exposing information that reflects badly on the government. In judging the case against Assange, we might recycle the words of James Goodale, a First Amendment lawyer who defended The New York Times when it published the Pentagon Papers more than five decades ago—with all its uncomfortable revelations about U.S. military activity in Vietnam.

“If the prosecution succeeds,” he said of the Assange case, “investigative reporting based on classified information will be given a near death blow.”

We will be left with a hazier understanding of our leaders’ decisions and a more fragile democracy. Assange did a public service when he revealed, by releasing Collateral Murder, that American authorities had fatally attacked two journalists. To stand by while he is prosecuted is to allow a fatal attack on journalism itself. 

Rupa Subramanya is a writer for The Free Press. Read her piece “British Police ‘Are Giving in to the Mob’,” and follow her on X, formerly Twitter, @rupasubramanya.

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