by Glenn Greenwald, published on Glenn’s Substack, June 17, 2022
The eleven-year persecution of Julian Assange was extended and escalated on Friday morning. The British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, approved the U.S.’s extradition request to send Julian Assange to Virginia to stand trial on eighteen felony charges under the 1917 Espionage Act and other statutes in connection with the 2010 publication by WikiLeaks of thousands of documents showing widespread corruption, deceit, and war crimes by American and British authorities along with their close dictatorial allies in the Middle East.
This decision is unsurprising — it has been obvious for years that the U.S. and UK are determined to destroy Assange as punishment for his journalism exposing their crimes — yet it nonetheless further highlights the utter sham of American and British sermons about freedom, democracy and a free press. Those performative self-glorifying spectacles are constantly deployed to justify these two countries’ interference in and attacks on other nations, and to allow their citizens to feel a sense of superiority about the nature of their governments. After all, if the U.S. and UK stand for freedom and against tyranny, who could possibly oppose their wars and interventions in the name of advancing such lofty goals and noble values?
Having reported on the Assange case for years, on countless occasions I’ve laid out the detailed background that led Assange and the U.S. to this point. There is thus no need to recount all of that again; those interested can read the granular trajectory of this persecution here or here. Suffice to say, Assange — without having been convicted of any crime other than bail jumping, for which he long ago served out his fifty-week sentence — has been in effective imprisonment for more than a decade.
In 2012, Ecuador granted Assange legal asylum from political persecution. It did so after the Swedish government refused to pledge that it would not exploit the WikiLeaks founder’s travel to Sweden to answer sex assault accusations as a pretext to turn him over to the U.S. Fearing what of course ended up happening — that the U.S. was determined to do everything possible to drag Assange back to U.S. soil despite his not being a U.S. citizen and never having spent more than a few days on U.S. soil, and intending to pressure their long-time-submissive Swedish allies to turn him over once he was on Swedish soil — the government of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa concluded Assange’s core civic rights were being denied and thus gave him refuge in the tiny Ecuadorian Embassy in London: the classic reason political asylum exists.
When Trump officials led by CIA Director Mike Pompeo bullied Correa’s meek successor, ex-President Lenin Moreno, to withdraw that asylum in 2019, the London Police entered the embassy, arrested Assange, and put him in the high-security Belmarsh prison (which the BBC in 2004 dubbed “the British Guantanamo”), where he has remained ever since.
After the lowest-level British court in early 2021 rejected the U.S. extradition request on the ground that Assange’s physical and mental health could not endure the U.S. prison system, Assange has lost every subsequent appeal. Last year, he was permitted to marry his long-time girlfriend, the British human rights lawyer Stella Morris Assange, who is also the mother of their two young children. An extremely unusual unanimity among press freedom and civil liberties groups was formed in early 2021 to urge the Biden administration to cease its prosecution of Assange, but Biden officials — despite spending the Trump years masquerading as press freedom advocates — ignored them (an interview conducted last week with Stella Assange by my husband, the Brazilian Congressman David Miranda, on Brazil’s Press Freedom Day, regarding the latest developments and toll this has taken on the Assange family, can be seen here).
The Home Secretary’s decision this morning — characteristically subservient and obedient of the British when it comes to the demands of the U.S. — does not mean that Assange’s presence on U.S. soil is imminent. Under British law, Assange has the right to pursue a series of appeals contesting the Home Secretary’s decision, and will likely do so. Given that the British judiciary has more or less announced in advance their determination to follow the orders of their American masters, it is difficult to see how these further proceedings will have any effect other than to delay the inevitable.
But putting oneself in Assange’s position, it is easy to see why he is so eager to avoid extradition to the U.S. for as long as possible. The Espionage Act of 1917 is a nasty and repressive piece of legislation. It was designed by Woodrow Wilson and his band of authoritarian progressives to criminalize dissent against Wilson’s decision to involve the U.S. in World War I. It was used primarily to imprison anti-war leftists such as Eugene Debs, as well as anti-war religious leaders such as Joseph Franklin Rutherford for the crime of publishing a book condemning Wilson’s foreign policy.
One of the most insidious despotic innovations of the Obama administration was to repurpose and revitalize the Wilson-era Espionage Act as an all-purpose weapon to punish whistleblowers who denounced Obama’s policies. The Obama Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act of 1917 than all previous administrations combined — in fact, three times as many as all prior presidents combined. One whistleblower charged by Obama officials under that law is NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who in 2013 revealed mass domestic spying of precisely the kind that Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (now of CNN) falsely denied conducting when testifying to the Senate, which led to legislative curbs enacted by the U.S. Congress, and which courts have ruled unconstitutional and illegal.
What makes this law so insidious is that, by design, it is almost impossible for the government to lose. As I detailed in a Washington Post op-ed when the indictment was first revealed — arguing why it poses the greatest threat to press freedoms in the West in years — this 1917 law is written as a “strict liability” statute, meaning that the defendant is not only guilty as soon as there is proof that they disclosed classified information without authorization, but they are also barred from raising a “justification” defense — meaning they cannot argue to the jury of their peers that it was not only permissible but morally necessary to disclose that information because of the serious wrongdoing and criminality it revealed on the part of the nation’s most powerful political officials. That 1917 law, in other words, is written to offer only show trials but not fair trials. No person in their right mind would willingly submit to prosecution and life imprisonment in the harshest American penitentiaries under an indictment brought under this fundamentally corrupted law.
Whatever else one might think of Assange, there is simply no question that he is one of the most consequential, pioneering, and accomplished journalists of his time. One could easily make the case that he occupies the top spot by himself. And that, of course, is precisely why he is in prison: because, just like free speech, “free press” guarantees in the U.S. and UK exist only on a piece of parchment and in theory. Citizens are free to do “journalism” as long as it does not disturb or anger or impede real power centers. Employees of The Washington Post and CNN are “free” to say what they want as long as what they are saying is approved and directed by the CIA or the content of their “reporting” advances the interests of the Pentagon’s sprawling war machine.
Real journalists often face threats of prosecution, imprisonment or even murder, and sometimes even mean tweets. Much of the American corporate media class has ignored Assange’s persecution or even cheered it precisely because he shames them, serving as a vivid mirror to show them what real journalism is and how they are completely bereft of it. And the American and British governments have successfully exploited the petty jealousies and insecurities of their failed, vapid and pointless media servants to get away with imposing the single greatest threat to press freedom in the West without much protest at all.
Free speech and press freedoms do not exist in reality in the U.S. or the UK. They are merely rhetorical instruments to propagandize their domestic population and justify and ennoble the various wars and other forms of subversion they constantly wage in other countries in the name of upholding values they themselves do not support. The Julian Assange persecution is a great personal tragedy, a political travesty and a grave danger to basic civic freedoms. But it is also a bright and enduring monument to the fraud and deceit that lies at the heart of these two governments’ depictions of who and what they are.
*Featured Image: People protest with t-shirts and easter eggs at Largo di Torre Argentina to demand Julian Assange’s freedom against extradition, on April 11, 2022 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Simona Granati – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
Glenn Greenwald is a journalist, constitutional lawyer, and author of four New York Times bestselling books on politics and law. He was among the founders of The Intercept as an alternative publication site, but later left due to strong-arm editorial restrictions on his work. Glenn now publishes on Substack and Rumble.