Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been arrested at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he took refuge seven years ago to avoid extradition to Sweden over a sexual assault case that has since been dropped, but American charges pose the greatest threat to the publisher and raise a specter that journalism is facing a grave risk.
The case has grave implications as a direct threat to freedom of the press, since Wikileaks publishes information that powerful interests, such as banks and governments, want to keep secret.
A Westminster Magistrates’ Court found Assange guilty of failing to surrender to the authorities in response to Swedish charges that have now been dropped but he now faces US federal conspiracy charges related to one of the largest ever leaks of government secrets.
Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno said that his government was withdrawing diplomatic asylum status to the controversial publisher for repeatedly “violating international conventions and protocol of coexistence.”
The UK will decide whether to extradite Assange, in response to allegations by the Department for Justice that he conspired with former US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to download classified databases.
He faces up to five years in US prison if convicted on the charges of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.
Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson said they would be fighting the extradition request. She said it set a “dangerous precedent” where any journalist could face US charges for “publishing truthful information about the United States”.
WikiLeaks published a “Highly Confidential” internal document from the cloud computing provider Amazon, from late 2015 that lists the addresses and some operational details of over one hundred data centers spread across fifteen cities in nine countries.
In 2013, Amazon entered into a $600 million CIA contract, in 2017 the company expanded its capacity for storage of classified data for use by intelligence agencies, and it is currently one of the leading contenders for a $10 billion contract to build a private cloud for the Department of Defense.
U.S. officials have filed charges against Assange for allegedly conspiring to hack into computers in connection with the organizations’ release of classified government cables from former Army private and intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
After Assange had been arrested in London, the Department of Justice announced he may face a federal charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion of a classified U.S. government computer, which carries a five-year maximum sentence.
The seven-page indictment alleges that Assange conspired with others to “knowingly access a computer, without authorization and exceeding authorized access,” to obtain classified information that “could be used to the injury of the United States.”
The indictment, initially filed under seal in March 2018 in the Eastern District of Virginia, alleges that Assange helped Manning crack a password stored on a Defense Department computer that was connected to a U.S. government system used to store classified information.
“Cracking the password would have allowed Manning to log onto the computers under a username that did not belong to her,” the court document reads. “Such a measure would have made it more difficult for investigators to identify Manning as the source of disclosures of classified information.”
Manning, an intelligence analyst with top-secret clearance, allegedly downloaded four nearly complete databases from different U.S. departments and agencies that included sensitive information about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Guantanamo Bay operations and other State Department cables.
According to the court documents, Assange pushed Manning to provide additional leaked information, telling her, “curious eyes never run dry in my experience.”
Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006 and came to international attention in 2010 when it published US military and diplomatic secrets leaked by Chelsea Manning, including the Collateral Murder video, the Afghanistan war logs, the Iraq war logs, and CableGate.
The Collateral Murder video shows a pair of Apache attack helicopters attacking a group of men that included two Iraqi war correspondents working for Reuters, Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen, both of whom died from wounds inflicted by the US Army troops.
The United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights determined that Assange was subjected to different forms of deprivation of liberty by his initial detention in Wandsworth prison, his house arrest and subsequent confinement at the Ecuadorian Embassy.
A UN agency found Assange is entitled to his freedom of movement and to compensation for violations of Articles 9 and 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 7, 9(1), 9(3), 9(4), 10 and 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The effort to extradite and prosecute the WikiLeaks founder threatens the freedom of the media everywhere.
“The charges leveled against Assange stem from the 2010 Manning leaks, which were judged to have been in the public interest by some of the world’s most significant and thoughtful news publishers, who ran some of the revelations in their pages,” said James Ball, a journalist based in London who has worked with Assange. “That material was received from a source who acted in what she perceived to be the public interest, and was not motivated by malice or personal gain.”
Ball also said, “The combination of an ideologically (rather than financially) motivated whistle-blower with firsthand knowledge of the material alongside the editorial judgment of major outlets forms the bedrock of public-interest journalism. Any attempt to swing the needle against that, or to criminalize it by tying it to hacking on a technicality, threatens quality journalism and threatens the free media. More simply than that, while Julian Assange might deserve punishment for other things he is accused of having done in his life, he does not deserve to be punished for what he published in 2010. Barring some new and major revelation, neither extradition nor prosecution over his work with WikiLeaks is merited.”
Among those voicing concern for Assange were Pamela Anderson, Edward Snowden, Vivienne Westwood and Peter Tatchell.
“If you’re a US media star who has spent 2 years claiming to be so concerned about press freedoms over Trump’s mean tweets about your friends, but don’t raise your voice in protest over this grave attack on press freedom, take a hard look in the mirror,” said Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who won both a George Polk Award and a Pulitzer Prize for reports based on classified documents disclosed by Edward Snowden.
“The U.S. government indictment of Julian Assange is an aggressive and potentially chilling legal document for journalists in the U.S. and abroad,” said MSNBC host Ari Melber. “That is a significant issue regardless of one’s view of Assange as a person, or his work, or his politics.”
“Assange has committed journalism with WikiLeaks’ historic exposures of war crimes, diplomatic intrigues & mass surveillance operations,” said Lisa McCormick, a community news publisher and New Jersey Democrat. “He has been the victim of a conspiracy aimed at invalidating his human rights & silencing him as an example to others who would expose truth.”
Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) condemned Assange’s arrest saying: “The arrest of #JulianAssange is meant to send a message to all Americans and journalists: be quiet, behave, toe the line. Or you will pay the price.”
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