US government changes hands but Assange approach will stay the same

Feb 15, 2021

The Australian government’s unwillingness to protect one of its own, coupled with Biden’s contradictory remarks about WikiLeaks, means nothing is likely to stop the wheels of British and American justice grinding towards the predictable result.

Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton were the most aggressive of senior figures in the Obama administration towards Julian Assange. The Secretary of State declared in November 2010 that WikiLeaks had “mounted an attack on the world”. If so, the world has survived the attack for more than a decade, but Assange may not survive the next.

In December 2010, then Senator Biden said WikiLeaks’ publications were more dangerous than those of Daniel Ellsberg. They brought the Australian publisher “closer to being a hi-tech terrorist than the Pentagon papers”, he said of Assange, adding, ‘This guy has done things that have damaged and put in jeopardy the lives and occupations of people in other parts of the world.”

That’s the standard accusation in response to leaks of intelligence. The military suddenly becomes anguished over collateral damage to their informants and agents, but they don’t care and can’t tell us how many people their wars have killed. What really concerns them is evidence of their war crimes, which WikiLeaks produced.

Yet only a day before his ‘high-tech terrorist’ comment, the Vice-President had stated, “I don’t ‘think there’s any substantial damage” from the leaks. He was proved right about that when it was confirmed at the trial of Bradley Manning in July 2013. Retired Brigadier Robert Carr told the military court that his Pentagon investigation found no record of anyone dying as a result of the release of the Afghan and Iraq war logs by WikiLeaks.

The standard response was trotted out again as grounds for extradition of Assange from London in September-October 2020. It failed, but the US Justice Department found other accusations under the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, replacing them one after another at short notice, right up to the day of hearing in the Old Bailey before Judge Vanessa Baraitser. In her January finding, she didn’t throw their arguments out but instead rejected extradition on the grounds of Assange’s mental state, and the risk of his suicide in a high-security US jail.

Here’s where it gets even more contradictory; Assange, accused of nothing, was sent by Baraitser back to Belmarsh, a high-security British prison where, in December, nearly a third of the inmates were found to have Covid-19. This presumably puts him at risk of illness or death from the virus, in addition to death by suicide. In December, too, Time reported that “with over 275,000 infections and 1,700 deaths, Covid-19 has devastated the US prison and jail population”. So it would be equally dangerous for Assange in the US.

Why then, if the British justice system is concerned about his survival, does it not release him, or put him under house arrest while the appeal proceedings take their slow course? This is what Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, appealed to the British authorities to do in December. Evidently, he has not succeeded.

Anticipating the US Justice Department’s decision to proceed with an appeal against Judge Baraitser’s decision, representatives of 24 high-profile American groups wrote a letter on 8 February to the Acting US Attorney-General. Concerned about press freedom, civil liberties and human rights, they reproduced the argument that had worked under Obama, that indictment of Assange represents criminalisation of the normal practices of journalism.

They argued that press freedom is “under threat globally” and that under Trump, abuse of prosecutorial powers became disturbing. Charges against Assange announced in May 2019, they recalled, had been met by “vociferous and nearly universal condemnation” from the American media, even those who had earlier criticised him. But sections of the media are currently hated by both sides of US politics, and that includes WikiLeaks. ‘Press freedom’ may not have the same appeal now.

Given Biden’s previously stated position, and his Administration’s decision to proceed with the appeal in London on 15 February, it seems unlikely that the US appeal on Assange’s extradition will be dropped by Biden’s friend Merrick Garland, who is expected to become Attorney-General.

Recently, the Australian government has been taking the credit for getting Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert out of jail in Iran, working to get Chinese Australians, an academic and a broadcaster, released in China, and protesting about the situation of Alexei Navalny in Russia and Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar.

What are they doing for Assange? He is receiving “normal consular assistance”, which is no more than a standard response from the government and evidently achieving nothing. “He’s being dealt with by the British justice system,” was the complacent response of a Labor shadow minister to me last year. A Parliamentary Friendship Group to ‘Bring Assange Home’ sounds positive, but its impact has been minimal.

So will Australia, so concerned about its citizens imprisoned overseas, lift a finger now for Assange? Not if other dragged-out cases in Canberra, those of David McBride, Bernard Collaery, Witness K and Witness J are any indication. Over them all falls the shroud of ‘national security’, which may not be lifted or peered under.

So much for justice being seen to be done. Biden proposes an association of democracies under American leadership. On current form, both the US and Australia might fail the entry requirements.

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