Lock Him Up, for the Right Reasons, Pending a Just Trial
I don’t like Julian Assange. The image he projects of himself in interviews and public statements is arrogant and self-righteous. The possibility that he is indeed a sex criminal makes him much more unlikeable. And in general he comes off as a shady douche.
Yet the personal opinion that I, or anyone, hold(s) of Assange should have no bearing on whether he faces criminal prosecution, or for what he is prosecuted.
Assange spent seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he’d been granted sanctuary. That promise of sanctuary was revoked this year, and Assange was forcibly carried from the embassy like a piece of cheap furniture on the charge of breaching a bail agreement. He has always claimed that the attempts of the Swedish government to extradite him are a pretext that the US government will use to extradite him, so that the US Justice Department can prosecute him for publishing leaked documents on his site Wikileaks. It’s a convoluted story if you haven’t followed it, and one about which you probably don’t give a shit. But you should.
We should all care about whether and what Assange is tried for because dependent on that there will be precedent set with major ramifications to international law and the upholding of the US Constitution.
The US Justice Department has made charges against Assange that, were he convicted, would land him in prison for 170+ years. The basis of their case against him is that he violated the Espionage Act when his site published damning leaked documents, the bulk, if not all, of which documented war crimes, international crimes, and domestic crimes, committed by the US military, US intelligence agencies, the US government.
Wikileaks’ first major scoop in 2010, the publishing of secret military documents leaked by Chelsea Manning, revealed the US military’s complicity in, and cover-up of, war crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were one of several organizations that aided Edward Snowden’s leak of secret NSA documents detailing the agency’s illegal spying practices on US citizens. The site also got much attention in 2016 for publishing documents and emails showing the shady shit that the DNC and the Clinton campaign had been up to, most significantly their rigging the Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton’s more popular adversary Bernie Sanders. The US wants to charge Assange under the Espionage Act for his site publishing information on the illegal things that the US did.
In ineloquent legal gymnastics, the Justice Department claims it seeks to convict Assange not for what he published, which would be a flagrant violation of the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but for methods they claim he used in assisting leakers. Their approach is to charge him for the suspected way he went about getting documents, rather than for actually publishing them. That distinction is important because it circumvents debate over the unconstitutionality of their case, and makes it easier to have news outlets frame it more generously in favor of the US government. This is despite the fact that Assange did nothing provably criminal, nothing different from what’s done by every other news agency. One can split hairs over whether he himself is a journalist, but what his outlet published was absolutely of journalistic importance.
Most important, by my reckoning, is that agencies and individuals of our government committed crimes. Those who reveal crimes, near regardless of means, are not criminals. Whistleblowers are heroes. I consider people like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Daniel Hale, Daniel Ellsberg, all those who risk their livelihoods, their freedom, and their lives to be heroes. To reveal government crimes is not unpatriotic. Those who use our tax dollars and commit crimes in our name are unpatriotic; they’re a systemic cancer in the nation. It is nothing but patriotic to expose the criminality and wrongdoing of public officials and agencies in the interest of improving our nation’s government and working towards ensuring that we actually uphold our self-purported values and ethics.
I won’t say Assange is heroic. I don’t believe he is. But he is brave. Separating bravery from morality, it is brave to stand up to the most powerful empire ever on Earth. We cannot allow anyone, whether we like them or not, to be prosecuted for aiding the efforts of heroic whistleblowers.
Also, Assange is not a US citizen, nor did he commit his alleged crimes in the US. If the US can extradite and prosecute him, there will be little stopping our government doing the same to any other foreigner publishing unfavorable or damaging material. For that matter, it would follow that by the Justice Department’s logic, foreign governments would be justified in extraditing US journalists and publishers to their countries for prosecution. Imagine a US journalist writing a damaging report on, say, Saudi war crimes, then being extradited, with the aid of US officials, to face judgment in Saudi Arabia. That might sound far-fetched, but it’s not not entirely out of the realm of possibility, and analogous to the situation with Assange. It is a dangerous and horrible precedent to set.
Assange should not be extradited or tried for any of this in the US.
By all means, the allegations of sexual assault and rape made against Assange should be investigated, and contingent on evidence and witness testimony he should be tried, and if found guilty he should be prosecuted. These sex crimes are the most serious of any charges made against Assange, the only ones with solid legal footing, and the only ones for which he should be tried.