Just one day after a coalition of prominent civil rights groups made headlines with a letter urging the Biden administration to drop efforts to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States on espionage charges, Washington has announced its intention to continue those efforts.
“Justice Department spokesman Marc Raimondi on Tuesday said the U.S. government will continue to challenge a British judge’s ruling last month that Assange should not be extradited to the United States because of the risk he would commit suicide,” Reuters reports.
“We continue to seek his extradition,” Raimondi said.
Assange’s arrest and subsequent charges under the Espionage Act in 2019, for what amount to standard journalistic practices which exposed US war crimes, marked both a dramatic escalation in the US empire’s war on critical national security journalism and a sharp divergence from the Obama administration’s decision not to pursue such charges in this case. Biden is not just upholding Trump’s assault on press freedoms (far and away the single most egregious attack on journalism in the 45th president’s entire four years in office), he is rejecting the Obama administration’s decision not to charge Assange due to concerns that it would erode the First Amendment.
As the Washington Post reported during Barack Obama’s second term in 2013:
“The Justice Department has all but concluded it will not bring charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for publishing classified documents because government lawyers said they could not do so without also prosecuting U.S. news organizations and journalists, according to U.S. officials.”
“The problem the department has always had in investigating Julian Assange is there is no way to prosecute him for publishing information without the same theory being applied to journalists,” said former Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller. “And if you are not going to prosecute journalists for publishing classified information, which the department is not, then there is no way to prosecute Assange.”
Nothing about this has changed. The Trump administration did not have access to any evidence that the Obama administration did not also have in 2013; it just chose to squint at the law from a different angle and legally interpret Assange’s journalistic activities as a violation of the Espionage Act. There is nothing whatsoever preventing other journalists around the world from facing the same fate under similarly dubious legal interpretations. The US Department of Justice is not going to be using other people’s personal definitions of what constitutes legitimate journalistic activity going forward; it’s going to be using its own.
Biden’s divergence from the Obama administration’s less authoritarian position on the matter should not come as much of a surprise, since he took an absurdly hard line against WikiLeaks after the first publications of the earth-shattering Manning leaks in 2010.
“I would argue it is closer to being a hi-tech terrorist than the Pentagon papers,” Biden said of Assange at the time. “But, look, this guy has done things that have damaged and put in jeopardy the lives and occupations of people in other parts of the world.”
It should also come as no surprise because, all things considered, this administration has not been much different from the previous one in terms of actual policy. The policy of regime change interventionism in Venezuela is the same. The policy of hawkishness toward China is the same. The policy of starvation sanctions against Iran is effectively the same. In a recent CNN interview, Secretary of State Tony Blinken could not speak highly enough of Trump’s more incendiary foreign policy decisions, like moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing the illegally occupied Golan Heights as Israeli territory.
There are far, far more similarities between the Trump administration and the Biden administration than there are differences. As is consistently the case with US presidents, the narratives are different, the campaign platforms are different, the political parties are different, but the actual policies and behaviors remain more or less the same.
None of this means we should stop fighting tooth and claw for Assange’s freedom: the fight is far from over. There is still time for the Biden administration to opt against appealing the UK court decision not to extradite, thereby leaving the entire embarrassing extradition attempt on Trump’s lap.
“The US may submit its Assange appeal filing by Friday to meet its deadline, but one would expect a serious policy decision to be made by the new Attorney General who, once confirmed, can review the incredibly weak case against Assange in full before making a determination,” a statement by the Courage Foundation reads. “Reports are circulating that an interim spokesperson says the Biden admin will continue the Assange case. The incoming DOJ, whose Attorney General is yet to be confirmed, can drop the charges against Assange at any time, including after this Friday’s appeal deadline.”
So we keep pushing. We cannot allow a corrupt and murderous globe-spanning empire to effectively outlaw inconvenient journalism around the world in the way it would by setting the legal precedent it is trying to set with the Assange case. If journalists everywhere know they can be extradited and imprisoned for publishing inconvenient facts about the US-centralized empire, they will largely refrain from doing so. And that is the whole idea.
Through WikiLeaks, Julian Assange has revealed a lot of damning information about the most powerful entities on our planet. But by far the most damning revelation he provided was not a WikiLeaks release at all: it was the revelation that 'free democracies' like the US and the UK will openly imprison and torture a journalist for telling the truth. This has been seen, and it cannot be unseen. We owe him a great debt for bringing such facts into the light. The least we can do is try to get him out of there now.