The 10-year campaign by the US government to criminalise reporting critical of its actions has failed in rather peculiar circumstances, with the unexpected decision by the court in London to reject the US demand for Julian Assange‘s extradition.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser gave as the reason for her decision Assange’s mental health and possible suicide risk, not freedom of expression or evidence of a politically inspired persecution by the Trump administration. If the judge is correct, this must be one of the very few non-political actions of the Trump era in the US.
Assange stays for the moment in the high-security Belmarsh Prison, as the US is likely to appeal against the verdict, but he can make a fresh application for bail.Had the US succeeded in extraditing Assange to face 17 charges under the Espionage Act of 1917, and one charge of computer-hacking, he could have been sentenced to 175 years in prison. His conviction would have had a devastating effect on freedom of the press, because what he was accused of doing is what every journalist and news outlet does or ought to do: find out significant information, which may or may not be labelled secret by self-interested governments, and pass it on to the public so they can reach evidence-based judgments on the world in which they live.
I followed the extradition hearings day-by-day last September, and there was nothing that Assange and WikiLeaks disclosed that I and any other decent reporter would not have revealed.
It is a little too early to say whether the Assange saga, which began when WikiLeaks published a great trove of US government documents in 2010 giving an unprecedented insight into US political, military and diplomatic affairs, is finally over.
At that time, extracts from the US government files were published by The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El Pais. They were described as the greatest scoop of the century, akin to Daniel Ellsberg giving the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971.
The most famous item was film taken by a US military helicopter in Baghdad in 2007 as it opened fire on a dozen Iraqi civilians, including two local journalists working for Reuters, killing them all. The Pentagon claimed that the targets were “terrorists” and had refused to release the video, despite a Freedom of Information Act request. I was in Baghdad at the time and the journalists there suspected what had really happened, but we could not prove it in the face of official denials.
It was the contents of the Apache helicopter video and thousands of other reports that so shocked a US military intelligence analyst called Bradley Manning, who later changed her name and legal gender to Chelsea Manning, that she handed the great cache of classified documents over to WikiLeaks.
Despite claims to the contrary, the electronic files did not contain the deepest secrets of the US government, but they did reveal what it knew about its own activities and that of its allies. This was often deeply embarrassing and wholly contrary to what American governments had been saying to their own people and the world.
A US official explained to me at the time that the files – 251,287 diplomatic cables, over 400,000 classified reports from the Iraq War and 90,000 from the Afghan War – were filed on a system known as Siprnet (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network). This was designed to give wide access to useful information to hundreds of thousands of US government personnel. My diplomatic friend explained that with so many people able to read the files, the US government was not so naïve as to put its deepest secrets in it.
I was surprised 10 years ago by the outrage of the US and allied governments at the disclosures. An early claim that Assange and WikiLeaks had endangered the lives of US agents lost credibility when it was revealed in 2013 that a task force of 120 counterintelligence officers had failed to find a single instance of anybody who had died because of the WikiLeaks disclosures. Nevertheless, this charge was brought up against Assange by the lawyers for the US government at the extradition hearings that began last September.
The anger of the American and allied governments had little to do with the precise level of secrecy of the files that were disclosed. Many of the facts were already known or suspected by journalists. But the keeping of secrets – and their disclosure by the authorities themselves in their own interests – is an instrument of power that those possessing it will fight hard not to lose. Hence the dogged determination with which Assange has been pursued ever since.
The campaign to discredit him had much success. The newspapers that once feted him as the source of their scoops swiftly distanced themselves from him and from WikiLeaks. This had much to do with his status as a rape suspect in Sweden, though these allegations had nothing do with the extradition hearings. I have a sense that the mainline establishment newspapers that had published the files were taken back and intimated by the explosive reaction of the American governments and its allies.
The majority of these publications consequently ignored or played down the Assange extradition hearings. The challenge to the freedom of the press was self-evident, as was the danger to journalists truthfully reporting facts, any one of which might be deemed a secret by the US government. They too could have faced espionage charges on exactly the same basis as Assange.
Yet much of the media remained silent or made nit-picking attacks on Assange’s personality, despite the seriousness of the case. The failure of the attempt to extradite Assange – if confirmed on appeal – gets them off the hook and they will no longer have to take a stand. This is one of the most worrying aspect of the case – the willingness of the media to stand to one side during one of the greatest attacks on press freedom in modern history.