[Updated below, April 11, 2:55 p.m. ET)
Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange, both the most loved and hated man on the planet, has been arrested by British authorities and taken from the Ecuadoran embassy, where he has been sequestered for nearly seven years.
Now it’s “game on” for the the British and U.S. governments, the latter which has opened a not-so-secret grand jury investigation in the United States against Wikileaks. It is highly probable—and what Assange has feared from the very beginning—that Washington will seek to extradite him, and the UK will be only to happy to let him go.
Assange will likely face a court hearing on the British warrant he failed to show up for (he went to the embassy instead, in 2012). The Swedish authorities, which began it all, have long since dropped their warrant to question him on sexual assault accusations back in Sweden.
Why we should fear today’s developments, however, is his arrest could ultimately lead to his prosecution in the U.S. under the Espionage Act—a charge that lawmakers and officials on both sides of the aisle have been calling for publicly for years. Remember, then-CIA chief Mike Pompeo called Assange a “non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.” And, if he is convicted under the Espionage Act, it would be the first time for a member of the media, setting a most dangerous precedent for the safety of journalists to pursue government corruption and secrecy, and a mighty blow to the ability of the First Amendment to protect free speech and a free press.
[UPDATE: The Eastern District of Virginia U.S. Federal Court released an unsealed indictment Thursday after Assange was arrested. It accuses Assange of offering to help Manning break a DoD password to help access military data anonymously. It does not say whether they did it or succeeded. This would suggest the government is trying to prove Assange and Wikileaks shifted from mere “publisher” with First Amendment rights to “hacker” or “thief.”
The government tried, and failed, to convict Daniel Ellsberg, for leaking The Pentagon Papers to the press. Wikileaks has never been accused of stealing classified information. Then-Pfc. Bradley Manning (now Chelsea) was already charged and convicted with stealing and leaking thousands of military and U.S. government documents to Wikileaks. Documents, by the way, that exposed the “Collateral Murder” video, the Afghanistan war logs, the Iraq war logs, and the Guantanamo files. Without them, we would never know the extent of the secrecy involved in the wars that were being fought in our name—the torture, the civilian deaths, how innocent people were being arrested in the War on Terror and detained en masse at GTMO, and much more.
To think any of this is happening this morning in a vacuum would be folly. As TAC reported earlier this week, Chelsea Manning willingly went back to jail (and a month of solitary confinement) at the beginning of March for refusing to testify in the grand jury. She had already served seven years for her crimes, much of that in solitary confinement. Something was clearly coming to a head.
And Wikileaks reported just yesterday that they were being extorted by a group that has reams of evidence, including documents and videotape, that there was a massive surveillance operation going on against Assange in the embassy, at which he had been a virtual prisoner. Don’t for a minute doubt that the U.S. was putting pressure on the Ecuadorians to make a move. The Ecuadoran government had cut off his internet access last year and had been readying to kick him out, supposedly because he had broken rules; Assange has responded by saying the embassy was violating his rights of asylum. By all reports, his physical and mental health has deteriorated.
Whatever comes of that, the more critical point here is that the U.S. is likely to take over from here. Given the corporate mainstream media’s sneering contempt for Wikileaks and Assange—so much more acute now that he is under suspicion for working with the Russians to publish the stolen Hillary Clinton/DNC emails (which Assange has vehemently denied—expect the hive to believe and promote any propaganda that the Trump Administration wields to turn the American public opinion over to its side.
Undoubtedly, if the Washington Blob has its way, this will not be a case on which the First Amendment is on trial, but a pasty Aussie lawbreaker and Russian dupe who put U.S. personnel and troops at risk in the field for publishing classified documents. Don’t be surprised if they say people were actually killed because of Assange. Just remember, this was all hashed out in the Manning trial, and the government was forced to admit there was no evidence that anyone was harmed by being named in any of the classified documents.
Just be prepared for the PR blitz and the accompanying media complicity in making Assange the villain. Don’t be surprised if they throw him in jail and give him the Manning or Maria Butina treatment.
There are so many legal questions that require serious deliberation now—can they charge an Australian citizen under the Espionage Act? Was publishing classified documents even espionage? Should the media be protected under the First Amendment? If not, are we truly a “free press”? We need to keep our eyes on the ball here, or the playing field may just shift under our feet, forever. As Peter Van Buren said in these very pages, you don’t have to love Julian Assange to fear his prosecution.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is an Executive Editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC