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March 2023 Issue [Letter from Washington]

Alternative Facts

How the media failed Julian Assange
Julian Assange, 2015 © Andy Gotts/Camera Press/Redux

Julian Assange, 2015 © Andy Gotts/Camera Press/Redux

[Letter from Washington]

Alternative Facts

How the media failed Julian Assange

Every year on the first of December, the Committee to Protect Journalists publishes its global prison census, documenting the number of journalists behind bars around the world. The 2022 edition set a grim record: 363 jailed journalists. Scanning the list—organized alphabetically by first name—and scrolling down to the J’s, we see that Juan Lorenzo Holmann Chamorro, publisher of the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa, has been locked up since 2021 on charges of money laundering, part of the Ortega dictatorship’s crackdown on independent media. Next is Juret Haji, the director of the Xinjiang Daily, detained since 2018 after a colleague was accused of being “two-faced,” a common Chinese government accusation. Julian Assange would fit neatly between these two names, but he fails to appear, as has been the case since the founder of WikiLeaks was dragged from London’s Ecuadorian Embassy in 2019 and locked in solitary confinement at Belmarsh Prison, dubbed “Britain’s Guantánamo.”

The omission is striking for anyone who recalls the thunderous impact made by Assange’s revelations of U.S. government secrets. But the significance has faded for many, if it ever took hold in the first place. There are few high-profile public demands for an accounting of or prosecution for the crimes exposed through his reporting. In toto, WikiLeaks took away the filters through which we are normally directed to view the world. Without it, we would have little idea of the number of civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during the American invasion, or of the United States’ war crimes, such as the execution of eleven handcuffed people, including five children, in a 2006 raid on a house in Iraq. We would not know that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was fully aware that Saudi Arabia was a source of “critical financial support” for the Taliban and Al Qaeda; or that the British government was misleading the public about its intentions for the former inhabitants of Diego Garcia, many of whom were displaced in the Sixties and Seventies to make way for an American base. How does the CIA approach the business of so-called targeted assassination? WikiLeaks gave us the agency’s inside view, as well as the methods it developed to bug our TVs and take control of our cars. Did the Democratic National Committee maneuver to rig the 2016 primary campaigns? WikiLeaks showed that indeed it did. “It’s an archive of American diplomacy for those years,” said John Goetz, a former reporter for Der Spiegel who worked with Assange to publish documents. “Without WikiLeaks, we wouldn’t know any of that.”

These achievements have cost Assange more than ten years of confinement and imprisonment. From June 2012 to April 2019, he was confined within the tiny Ecuadorian Embassy, where his medical condition started deteriorating sharply. In January 2021, British Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled against his extradition on the grounds that it would be “oppressive” given his mental condition, warning that he might commit suicide to avoid such a fate. The United States then appealed her ruling and won, and Assange’s extradition was approved in June 2022. If convicted in a U.S. court, he could spend the rest of his life in federal prison. Assange’s lawyers have appealed to the British High Court (which has yet to set a date for a hearing as of this writing), as well as to the European Court of Human Rights.

The prospect of Assange’s facing trial under the 1917 Espionage Act—a charge contemplated by Barack Obama, energetically pursued under Donald Trump, and uncontested, so far, by Joe Biden—has generated a slow-growing sense of alarm in the media as an obvious threat to freedom of the press. This was most forcefully demonstrated in a joint statement co-signed in late November by the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, El País, and Der Spiegel, major publications that collaborated with Assange in publishing WikiLeaks scoops. “Holding governments accountable is part of the core mission of a free press in a democracy,” the letter reads, before denouncing the potential criminalization of “obtaining and disclosing sensitive information . . . a core part of the daily work of journalists.” The outlets then call on the U.S. government “to end its prosecution of Julian Assange for publishing secrets. Publishing is not a crime.”

That Assange’s former collaborators have rallied to his defense and, by extension, their own, is an entirely welcome development, spurred in large part by advocacy from James Goodale, the former chief counsel of the New York Times who, half a century ago, masterminded the paper’s legal victory in the Pentagon Papers case—establishing the right of the press to publish classified information, a right now threatened by Assange’s prosecution. (Goodale also wrote about Assange for this magazine before his arrest.) But Assange has been the object of vindictive government attention for many years, even before being threatened with lifetime incarceration in a U.S. supermax dungeon. Why has it taken so long for the mainstream media to take a stand?

When I asked the Committee to Protect Journalists why Assange did not make their list, I was directed to a December 2019 statement: “After extensive research and consideration, CPJ chose not to list Assange as a journalist, in part because his role has just as often been as a source,” it reads, “and because WikiLeaks does not generally perform as a news outlet with an editorial process.” The newspapers that signed the November letter have similarly refused to claim Assange as one of their own. At the same time, other charges and smears have warped the public narrative, obscuring the threats to the First Amendment. Many of the outlets now expressing alarm have ignored or misrepresented key information about his plight along the way. It is crucial to reflect on these misdirections, especially as a blatant assault on press freedom now appears to be on the brink of success.

The central allegation routinely deployed against Assange is that he recklessly released documents without redacting the names of individuals who might suffer harm as a result. While the CPJ statement, for example, includes remarks by former New York Times editor Bill Keller denouncing the prosecution of Assange, Keller still describes him as publishing information “with no sense of responsibility for the consequences, including collateral damage of innocents.” (Keller, however, opposes the espionage charge.) On the occasion of Assange’s 2019 arrest, the Washington Post editorial board proclaimed that “unlike real journalists, WikiLeaks dumped material into the public domain without any effort independently to verify its factuality or give named individuals an opportunity to comment,” and called for his immediate extradition. (Asked whether the Washington Post still stands by that opinion, a spokesperson replied in October 2022 that the paper had “nothing additional to share beyond the editorial.”)

But the public record is replete with evidence that Assange went to considerable lengths to excise names from the documents before publishing them. “We’ve withheld all those,” he told an interviewer who asked him what he was doing about named collaborators during the preparation of the war logs in 2010. Journalists who worked with WikiLeaks, including Goetz and New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager, have described Assange going to great pains to avoid putting individuals at risk. The Pentagon, meanwhile, devoted enormous effort to prove the opposite. Immediately after the release of the Afghan logs, the Defense Intelligence Agency set up an Information Review Task Force under a senior intelligence officer, Robert Carr, that was tasked with assessing damage to the department’s operations. The team, up to 125 people working for ten months, sometimes seven days a week, pored over seven hundred thousand documents, reporting weekly to the highest levels of the Defense Department. Testifying at Chelsea Manning’s 2013 court-martial for leaking the cache to Assange, Carr, who had by then retired, reported that his team had discovered just one individual killed “as a result of the Afghan logs.” His source was none other than the Taliban, and the information was false. When Manning’s defense counsel pressed him, his story quickly fell apart; “the name of the individual that was killed was not in the disclosures,” he admitted.

The most serious and enduring charge against Assange stems from the release of the State Department cables in 2010. After WikiLeaks started publishing the documents, mirror sites, copying the unredacted, encrypted file, emerged elsewhere on the internet; the file itself was accessible only with a key code shared with a few journalists. Two of Assange’s earliest collaborators, David Leigh and Luke Harding of the Guardian, published the password in WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, a 2011 book, later excusing the breach of security by claiming that Assange had told them the key code was “temporary,” a fact disputed by others involved in the process. Several months later, John Young, editor of the American website Cryptome, located the file, which had been unearthed by the German newspaper Der Freitag against Assange’s wishes, and published it using the password revealed by Leigh and Harding. Assange had already called the State Department to warn them that the unredacted documents would imminently be made public. Perhaps alarmed that fake versions of the logs might appear, someone at WikiLeaks published the same entire unredacted file on the site. Years later, under oath, Young said no law enforcement authorities ever asked him to take the file down.

While Leigh is against the extradition, he fanned the flames of Assange’s negative public image in an interview with PBS’s Frontline, claiming that, in a meeting, he had said that people named in the original Afghan documents were “collaborators” who “deserve to die.” This is strongly disputed by Goetz, who recalls working with a team of journalists, including Assange, to discuss the documents’ publication. The pressure was intense, he told me. I asked him why the antipathy toward Assange from some journalists became so vicious. “We were old-school. He was the future,” he observed. “The whole idea of publishing classified documents in this way was new to us. We had no idea about security, or passwords. Without Julian, none of this would have appeared. What he did was enormous.”

Despite multiple court testimonies emphasizing Assange’s careful review of the documents—as well as Carr’s reluctant admission that his massive task force uncovered no deaths resulting from the leaks—the record has largely been left uncorrected in the mainstream media. That is why reporting by the independent journalist Kevin Gosztola has been invaluable. As he explains in his book Guilty of Journalism, a meticulous and comprehensive account of the pursuit of Julian Assange that was published in February, he was one of the few reporters to cover the trial of Chelsea Manning on a day-to-day basis; colleagues from the establishment media, he writes, seemed to find the proceedings either too complex or too boring. (He recalls hearing that a CNN producer assigned to the story spent much of his time asleep in the media center.)

Gosztola was again one of the few producing detailed reporting on Assange’s 2020 extradition hearings. Neither the New York Times nor other mainstream outlets reported on testimony rebutting the accusation that Assange assisted Manning in cracking the classified files. Patrick Eller, a digital forensic expert and former criminal investigator for the U.S. Army, testified as an expert witness that instant messages between Assange and Manning were unlikely to have helped Manning leak classified documents or cover her tracks. By the time of their exchange, Manning not only already had authorized access, but had downloaded most of the material she would give to WikiLeaks.

Assange’s public image has been warped by far more than the fallout from the war logs and the State Department cables. An investigation into a suspected rape in Sweden, which sparked the long legal drama that ended in his current incarceration, lasted nearly ten years. One external investigator who reviewed the accusation was the Swiss lawyer Nils Melzer. As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Melzer investigated the Assange case; but as he confessed in his book The Trial of Julian Assange, released last year, he had initially ignored a 2018 appeal from Assange’s legal team to take up the case, thanks to “a host of disparaging thoughts and almost reflexive feelings of rejection” induced by the Australian journalist’s reputation as a “shady hacker.” Only some months later, following a fresh and more urgent appeal by the lawyers, did he reconsider.

According to Melzer’s reporting, the Swedish prosecutors based the case on the statements of two women who had slept with Assange in August 2010. The women had gone to a Stockholm police station to seek help in persuading Assange to take an HIV test, after he allegedly tampered with a condom with one of the women, and allegedly began having unprotected sex with the other while she was “half-asleep.” Initially, they made no mention of rape. A police inspector decided that the situation mandated a rape investigation, which led to a public prosecutor issuing a warrant for Assange’s arrest; news of the arrest warrant was quickly leaked to the media, as were, eventually, the names of the women.

The rape investigation, as documented by Melzer, showed the evident determination of Swedish authorities to pursue a case against Assange despite numerous aberrations—including the chief prosecutor of Stockholm’s decision to drop the rape investigation because, in her words, “the suspicion of rape no longer exists.” But the case was promptly reopened. Assange returned to London, where he offered to be interviewed about the investigation, a normal procedure in such cases. He also agreed to return to Sweden on the condition that he would not be extradited to the United States, but the Swedes refused; British courts ordered his extradition to Sweden. Assange skipped bail in June 2012 and sought diplomatic asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy. In 2017, the Swedes finally gave up and discontinued the case. Assange still faced British charges for jumping bail, and remained in the embassy.

Meanwhile, the charges that he faced in the United States were clouded by resentments from powerful forces, including media outlets convinced that he had somehow aided in electing Donald Trump. In 2016, WikiLeaks obtained and released an enormous cache of email correspondence from the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. The documents detailed, in part, plans within the party apparatus to derail the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, prompting the resignation of DNC chair, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Outraged, the Clinton campaign swiftly ascribed the leaks to Vladimir Putin’s intelligence apparatus as part of an operation to secure Trump’s victory. The accusation was fueled by forensic analysis from the DNC’s cybersecurity consultants, from CrowdStrike, detailing the potential links between the leaks and the Russian government. Special counsel Robert Mueller reported that the material had been “exfiltrated” by Russian agents and “disseminated through” WikiLeaks.

Assange’s declaration that the material did not come from a “state party,” meanwhile, was given short shrift. (Given that the documents were newsworthy, he would have been justified in publishing them even if they had come from Putin’s regime.) In April 2019, however, the New York Times referred to “the central role that WikiLeaks played in the Russian campaign to undermine Mrs. Clinton’s presidential chances and help elect President Trump”; the Guardian, a few months earlier, had also referenced “sources” reporting that the Trump emissary Paul Manafort had “held secret talks with Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy”—a story that has been cast in doubt given a lack of direct evidence. Nevertheless, the Guardian has not retracted the story.

The idea that Assange had been acting on behalf of both Putin and Trump inescapably damned him in the eyes of the Democratic establishment. But amid the uproar—as figures on the right tried to pin the leaks on a DNC employee who had been murdered in an apparent street robbery—significant information was withheld from the public by the House Committee on Intelligence. Testifying under oath in a closed-door session before the committee in 2017, CrowdStrike’s chief security officer Shawn Henry admitted that he had no “concrete evidence” that the Russians had stolen the emails, or indeed that anyone had hacked the DNC’s system. This crucial interview remained locked away until 2020. The press did little to acknowledge it; the testimony failed to attract even a passing mention in the New York Times, the Guardian, or any other mainstream outlet that had previously charted the Russian hacking story.

In 2017, while Assange was sequestered in the cramped confines of a small room in the Ecuadorian Embassy, WikiLeaks unveiled in successive batches the CIA material collectively known as Vault 7, laying bare the agency’s interest in taking control of people’s cars, televisions, web browsers, and smartphones. This enormous scoop—“the largest data loss in CIA history,” according to an internal assessment—reportedly ignited furor, most of it coming from Michael Pompeo, the former Kansas congressman who had been appointed CIA director by Trump. On April 13, 2017, in one of his first appearances in a public forum as director, Pompeo spoke at the heavyweight think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies to declare war on WikiLeaks. “It’s time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is,” he proclaimed, “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.”

Despite Pompeo’s vehemence, there was a conspicuous lack of media interest in his next moves against Assange. The press largely expressed relief when, in April 2019, the United States finally unveiled an indictment charging Assange with conspiring, alongside Manning, to hack into a computer to obtain classified information; with the charge apparently posing no threat to press freedom, perhaps they considered themselves off the hook. Charlie Savage in the New York Times opined that “the case significantly reduces such concerns because it is outside traditional investigative journalism to help sources . . . illegally hack into government computers”—this despite Savage having covered parts of the Manning trial, in which the charge was called into question. Others went so far as to cheer the indictment. The Economist, for example, implied that Assange was getting what he deserved:

The central charge—computer hacking—is an indefensible violation of the law. Neither journalists nor activists, like Mr. Assange, have carte blanche to break the law in exercising their First Amendment rights. They are entitled to publish freely; not to break and enter, physically or digitally, to do so.

In 2021, Yahoo News published the results of a stunning investigation. Citing interviews with more than thirty anonymous former U.S. officials, including those who had worked in the CIA and in the Trump White House, the story described how Pompeo and his senior officials discussed plans to kidnap Assange from his embassy refuge, even exploring options to kill him. “It was going to be like a prison break movie!” one former senior Trump official told the Yahoo team. The operations under discussion were so extreme, as well as potentially illegal, that some officials grew concerned and briefed certain congressmembers on Pompeo’s dangerous schemes. Yet again, the establishment press evinced scant interest. Michael Isikoff, one of the Yahoo reporters, told me he got no calls from journalists interested in probing further, as might normally be the case with a major story, even when Pompeo, responding to a rare follow-up from Megyn Kelly on her eponymous show, stated that the officials who spoke to the Yahoo team “should all be prosecuted for speaking about classified activity” and that there are “pieces of [the story] that are true.”

While Pompeo’s supposed plans did not come to fruition, Assange was subjected to another spying operation, in which the embassy’s security mounted round-the-clock surveillance, even recording Assange’s conversations, according to witnesses. Visitors, including lawyers, were required to hand over their phones upon arrival, whereupon data was allegedly covertly stripped and sent to the CIA. (Two lawyers and two journalists, including Goetz, are now suing the CIA and Pompeo in the Southern District of New York.) The operation finally ended on April 11, 2019, when the British police marched into the embassy and dragged Assange out. By then, the Ecuadorian government had changed hands and sent new diplomats; they had cut off Assange’s phone and internet contact with the outside world, even confiscating his shaving equipment, according to Assange, so that the image presented to the cameras upon his exit was that of a disheveled figure, derided in the British press. He was jailed in Belmarsh for fifty weeks for jumping bail, then left there pending extradition to the United States on the initial conspiracy to hack charge, which was augmented by additional charges under the draconian Espionage Act. A third, “superseding” indictment followed, broadening the allegations with dubious evidence, it later transpired, supplied by a former WikiLeaks volunteer who later admitted to the Icelandic press that he had lied to investigators.

While other publications noted these updates in Assange’s case, Melzer began to draw public attention to the details of his confinement after the British, American, Swedish, and Ecuadorian governments refused to cooperate with his investigation. “The progressively severe suffering inflicted on Mr. Assange, as a result of his prolonged solitary confinement, amounts not only to arbitrary detention,” a 2020 UN report read, “but also to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” He suggested in another report that “wilful ignorance enables officials and judges, but also journalists and ordinary citizens, to deny the occurrence of torture or ill-treatment . . . even when faced with compelling evidence.”

In 2020, in appearances separated by some months due to the pandemic, Assange finally had his days in court, where he was sequestered from his lawyers behind a transparent screen. The hearings were notoriously hard to follow, with some press following as best they could over unreliable closed-circuit television in an adjoining room; later, others tuned in via video. Little more than sporadic attention was paid by papers such as the New York Times and the Guardian; once again, consistent reporting fell largely to Gosztola.

While the ominous implications of the espionage charges are now exciting some alarm in the mainstream media, this does not change the hostile conditions whistleblowers have faced since the beginning of Assange’s plight. The Obama Administration launched twice as many leak prosecutions using the Espionage Act as all previous administrations combined. Most notably, former CIA officer John Kiriakou was imprisoned—ostensibly for confirming the name of a CIA covert agent to a reporter—not long after he blew the whistle on the agency’s torture program. Jeffrey Sterling suffered a similar fate, having been convicted for revealing classified information about a CIA operation looking into Iran’s nuclear weapons. Prosecutors devastated the life of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, ruining him financially before finally extracting a guilty plea on a misdemeanor charge. After the State Department cables were published, Obama’s attorney general Eric Holder said that he had personally directed officials to take unspecified but “significant” measures toward prosecuting Assange.

While Obama’s Justice Department balked at charging Assange with espionage—on the grounds that it would pose a legal challenge to journalists—Trump’s had no such inhibitions. Nor, it would seem, do Joe Biden and his attorney general Merrick Garland, who have yet to drop the charge. Garland, for his part, earned himself favorable press by announcing new guidelines on limiting law enforcement intrusion into reporters’ records, earlier proclaiming that “a free and independent press is vital to the functioning of our democracy.” Queried by the Guardian about Garland’s intentions vis-à-vis the Assange prosecution, an anonymous Justice Department official offered journalists the not entirely reassuring comment that Garland “has made clear that he will follow the law wherever it leads.”

The United States intends to try Assange in the Eastern District of Virginia, nicknamed the “Espionage Court,” notorious for the likelihood of its jury pool to include citizens linked by employment or other means to the government’s national security apparatus. The press will quite possibly, at last, pay attention to the facts of the case, and examine allegations that, as Melzer put it, “have already been disproved in court.” In his view, the joint newspaper statement released in November was “a tame and bloodless attempt to get on the right side of history . . . simply too little, too late.”

 is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. His most recent book is The Spoils of War.

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