Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, whose extradition to the United States was approved by Britain on Friday, is being charged with espionage in a case that could be an unprecedented legal battle that pits national security against fundamental press freedom rights.
– What charges against Assange?
In 2009, WikiLeaks shocked the world when it released about 750,000 classified US documents and diplomatic telegrams exposing possible war crimes, torture and covert military operations, as well as the often unseemly activities of US diplomacy behind the scenes.
A US military intelligence officer, Chelsea Manning, was arrested and sentenced to prison for leaking the files to WikiLeaks.
US authorities allege that Assange ordered and instigated Manning to steal the files when he tried to help her crack a passcode for a Pentagon computer system.
Based on that, the Department of Justice (DOJ) on April 11, 2019, unlocked the first charges against Assange for conspiracy to break into a classified computer system to obtain “national defense intelligence”, and requested his extradition from Britain. .
Twelve days later, the department issued a replacement indictment, charging him with 17 counts under the US Espionage Act.
It said Assange, a citizen of Australia, had stolen and made public US defense and national security information, endangering the country, its officials and confidential sources.
– Journalist or not? †
The charges under the Espionage Act are particularly troubling to civil liberties defenders and the media.
Assange calls himself a journalist, and while Wikileaks was a new kind of activity when it was founded in 2006 — a website that collected classified documents and published them online for everyone to see, it was no different from the traditional media that published government secrets.
From that angle, Assange’s publishing business could be protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which expressly guarantees freedom of the press.
“The new charges are aimed at receiving and publishing classified material from a government source. That’s something journalists do all the time,” the DailyExpertNews wrote in an editorial on the day the indictment was released.
“This is what the First Amendment is supposed to protect: the ability of publishers to tell the public the truth.”
The administration of Barack Obama, president from 2009-2017, chose not to go after Assange to avoid a constitutional battle over what is journalism and what is not.
But the next administration of Republican President Donald Trump took a hard line, labeling Assange a foreign threat and Wikileaks a “hostile intelligence agency.”
“The department takes the role of journalists in our democracy seriously. But Julian Assange is not a journalist,” Trump’s assistant attorney general, John Demers, said when the charges were revealed.
– What awaits Assange in the US? †
Assange could block any extradition with his appeal in both Britain and the European Court of Human Rights.
But if he is eventually sent to the United States, he will face trial in a federal court in Alexandria, known for his harsh handling of sensitive intelligence and espionage-related cases.
On the original charge of aiding an attempt to break into Pentagon computers, Assange was facing a maximum jail term of five years.
But the charges under the Espionage Act could carry up to 175 years in prison.
Assange’s lawyers in Britain originally blocked extradition last year on the grounds that he risked suicide and would not be safe in poorly run US prisons.
On appeal, US authorities promised British courts that Assange would be closely watched, would not be subjected to solitary confinement and would not be sent to a “supermax” prison that the US reserves for the most dangerous terrorists.
– Political struggle –
If the case goes to court, the issues of what Wikileaks has done and what damage it has caused could be relegated to the issues of national security.
Assange has called it a political persecution and his lawyers will try to portray it as such.
It’s not clear how President Joe Biden’s Justice Department, which inherited the Trump case, views it. Biden was Obama’s vice president.
Much of the US intelligence community wants Assange to be prosecuted. American media and human rights organizations meanwhile are fighting for a struggle based on constitutional principle.
“By extraditing Assange, the Biden DOJ is ignoring the dire warnings from virtually all major civil liberties and human rights organizations in the country that the case will irreparably damage the basic press freedom rights of American reporters,” said executive director Trevor Timm. of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by DailyExpertNews staff and has been published from a syndicated feed.)