Westminster Magistrates’ Court Judge Vanessa Baraitser blocked Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States Monday, on the grounds that psychiatric testimony indicated a “substantial risk” that the WikiLeaks founder would kill himself in response to the harsh conditions he is apt to face in U.S. custody.
Assange has been on remand in Belmarsh prison, South-East London, since 2019 awaiting a hearing for political extradition to the United States. Yesterday’s decision threw out the U.S. government’s request putting an almost final nail in the coffin of the 10-year long campaign by the U.S. government to criminalize reporting critical of its actions. Assange stays for the moment in the high-security Belmarsh Prison, as the U.S. is likely to appeal against the verdict, while he can make a fresh application for bail.
Judge Baraitser ruled that while U.S. prosecutors met Assange’s tests to be extradited for trial, she was discharging him because she found the U.S. was incapable of preventing him from attempting suicide. Thus, she accepted the U.S. Justice Department’s argument that imprisoning someone for publishing information the government does not want the public to see is consistent with freedom of expression. She emphasized that Assange is accused of posting un-redacted documents without regard to the danger that could pose to U.S. informants in Afghanistan, pointing out that the U.S. Justice Department’s case is expressly brought on the basis that “Mr. Assange disclosed materials that no responsible journalist or publisher would have disclosed.”
The 18-count Assange indictment, which the Justice Department unveiled in May 2019, is based on the disclosure of Defense Department files and State Department cables that detailed Guantanamo Bay detainees’ treatment, secret missile attacks in Yemen, and potential war crimes in Iraq. According to the Justice Department, the “disclosure of national defense information,” in counts 9 through 18, is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and applies to anyone who “willfully communicates, delivers, transmits or causes to be communicated” such information to “any person not entitled to receive it.” Assange was also accused of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by helping his source, former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, crack a password.
The revelations in these documents generated massive press coverage by leading news outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. Like the Justice Department, Judge Baraitser made a distinction between “responsible” journalism by those outlets and the less careful kind practiced by Assange. Yet, New York Times national security reporter Charlie Savage noted in 2019: “while the Times did take steps to withhold the names of informants in the subset of the files it published, it is not clear how that is legally different from publishing other classified information.”
Other journalists and commentators have made the case that his conviction would have had a devastating effect on freedom of the press because what he was accused of doing is what every journalist and news outlet does or ought to do—find out significant information, which may or may not be labeled secret by self-interested governments—and pass it on to the public so they can reach evidence-based judgments on the world in which they live.
At the time, the Wikileaks released extracts from government files were described as the greatest scoop of the century, akin to Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers given to the press in 1971. The most famous piece was a video shot by a U.S. military Apache helicopter in Baghdad in 2007 as it opened fire on a dozen Iraqi civilians, including two local journalists, killing them all. The Pentagon claimed that the targets were “terrorists” and had refused to release the video, despite a Freedom of Information Act request.
These contents and thousands of other reports shocked a U.S. military intelligence analyst called Bradley Manning, who later changed her name and legal gender to Chelsea Manning. Hence, she handed the great cache of classified documents over to WikiLeaks.
Despite claims to the contrary, the electronic files did not contain the deepest secrets of the U.S. government, but they did show what it knew about its own activities and its allies. This was embarrassing and counter to what U.S. administrations had been saying to their own people and the world.
A U.S. official explained to Patrick Cockburn of the UK Independent that the files—“251,287 diplomatic cables, over 400,000 classified reports from the Iraq War and 90,000 from the Afghan War—were filed on a system known as SIPRNET (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network). This was used to give access to useful information to hundreds of thousands of U.S. government personnel.” The U.S. official said that with so many people able to read the files, the U.S. government was not so naive as to put its deepest secrets in it.
Nevertheless, this communique reportedly contained the identities of informants, sources, and agents who had been assisting the U.S. in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries. In their unredacted form, U.S. authorities said they presented a de facto hit list of vulnerable targets to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Prior to Christmas, support came from all sides of the political spectrum advocating for President Trump to pardon Assange. Leading figures, like former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and Nobel Prize winners, such as human-rights campaigner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, were calling for his freedom.