12 years after Julian Assange unleashed a trove of leaked diplomatic cables, top international media outlets are rallying to his defense.
In “An Open Letter from Editors and Publishers: Publishing is Not a Crime,” the mandarins of the international press corp came to the defense of Julian Assange this week.
“Twelve years ago, on November 28th 2010, our five international media outlets — The New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, El Pais and DER SPIEGEL — published a series of revelations in cooperation with Wikileaks that made the headlines around the globe,” the letter began, modestly. “‘Cable gate’, a set of 251,000 confidential cables from the US State Department disclosed corruption, diplomatic scandals and spy affairs on an international scale.”
Assange, who is still facing extradition after over a decade of running from U.S. authorities desperate to prosecute the intrepid publisher for exposing sensitive data, may, at last, be reaching the end of his legal tether.
“For Julian Assange, publisher of Wikileaks, the publication of ‘Cable gate’ and several other related leaks had the most severe consequences,” acknowledged the editors and publishers of The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, DER SPIEGEL, and El Pais in the open letter.
“On April 12th, 2019, Assange was arrested in London on a US arrest warrant, and has now been held for three and a half years in a high security British prison usually used for terrorists and members of organized crime groups,” they wrote. “He faces extradition to the US and a sentence of up to 175 years in an American maximum security prison.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that major media outlets are choosing now to be outspoken about the ultimate fate of Julian Assange.
After exhausting all legal options, Assange is at last about to be reeled in by U.S. government agencies who have been longing to get their hands on the Wikileaks purveyor since the Obama Administration.
“The Obama-Biden Administration, in office during the Wikileaks publication in 2010, refrained from indicting Assange, explaining that they would have had to indict journalists from major news outlets too,” explained the letter’s writers. “Their position placed a premium on press freedom, despite its uncomfortable consequences.”
“Under Donald Trump however, the position changed,” the letter went on. “The DOJ relied on an old law, the Espionage Act of 1917 (designed to prosecute potential spies during World War 1), which has never been used to prosecute a publisher or broadcaster.”
While the Obama Administration may not have gone out of its way to extradite Assange, at least compared to the Trump Administration, President Obama didn’t exactly do Julian Assange any favors.
Likewise, Edward Snowden.
Like Assange, Snowden was charged under the 1917 Espionage Act for his role in leaking classified U.S. secrets about NSA domestic spying and data collection.
Snowden made his big revelation to journalists gathered in Hong Kong in June of 2013. By June 21, 2013, Snowden was wanted by the U.S. government for revealing classified secrets.
Fearing extradition to the United States, Snowden left Hong Kong two days later to begin a journey that was to deliver him safely into Ecuador or Bolivia via safe passage through Cuba. Snowden was scheduled to change planes in Moscow.
Only he never left Moscow.
In 2013, the Obama Administration used the fact that Snowden fled the U.S. — ostensibly for Russia — as evidence of his true motivations in exposing the secrets of the U.S. government.
It was only many years later, when former Obama Admin official Ben Rhodes wrote a book, that the truth — perhaps accidentally — slipped out.
“The only reason Snowden is in Russia is because of the actions of Rhodes and his fellow Obama officials to deliberately trap him there: first by invalidating his passport so that he could not board any international flights, and then by threatening the Cuban government that any chance for normalization with the U.S. would be permanently destroyed unless they withdrew their guarantee to Snowden of safe passage through Havana, which they then did,” fumed journalist Glenn Greenwald in 2021, who was one of the lucky few to whom Snowden originally confided his NSA scoop.
Greenwald is correct: Rhodes, perhaps forgetting the 2013 official line or thinking the statute of limitations up on that particular bit of bureaucratic skullduggery, openly bragged about trapping Snowden in Russia in his book, “The World as It Is”:
“Around the time of our second meeting, Edward Snowden was stuck in the Moscow airport, trying to find someone who would take him in. Reportedly, he wanted to go to Venezuela, transiting through Havana, but I knew that if the Cubans aided Snowden, any rapprochement between our countries would prove impossible.”
“I pulled Alejandro Castro aside and said I had a message that came from President Obama. I reminded him that the Cubans had said they wanted to give Obama “political space” so that he could take steps to improve relations. “If you take in Snowden,” I said, “that political space will be gone.”
“I never spoke to the Cubans about this issue again. A few days later, back in Washington, I woke up to a news report: “Former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden got stuck in the transit zone of a Moscow airport because Havana said it would not let him fly from Russia to Cuba, a Russian newspaper reported.” I took it as a message: The Cubans were serious about improving relations.”
With his passport revoked, and under threat of extradition, Snowden was left with nowhere to go but where he happened to be: Russia.
Julian Assange has, like Snowden, been the target of various smear campaigns over the years. Foremost, was blaming the publisher of Wikileaks data — Assange — for the theft of that data.
In this, media outlets who ought to have known better were willingly compliant.
“This group of editors and publishers, all of whom had worked with Assange, felt the need to publicly criticize his conduct in 2011 when unredacted copies of the cables were released, and some of us are concerned about the allegations in the indictment that he attempted to aid in computer intrusion of a classified database,” wrote those same outlets this week. “But we come together now to express our grave concerns about the continued prosecution of Julian Assange for obtaining and publishing classified materials.”
The changed tune is obvious, as is the reason for it.
“This indictment sets a dangerous precedent and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press,” admits this hardcore of journalists now. “Holding governments accountable is part of the core mission of a free press in a democracy.”
“Obtaining and disclosing sensitive information when necessary in the public interest is a core part of the daily work of journalists,” they concluded, if belatedly. “If that work is criminalised, our public discourse and our democracies are made significantly weaker.”
“Twelve years after the publication of ‘Cable gate’, it is time for the U.S. government to end its prosecution of Julian Assange for publishing secrets,” the world’s top newspapers said in conclusion. “Publishing is not a crime.”
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)