Julian Assange | Enemy of the state

The WikiLeaks founder is fighting extradition to the U.S. in a British court

Updated - October 04, 2020 01:05 pm IST

Published - October 03, 2020 09:26 pm IST

Illustration: J.A. Premkumar

Illustration: J.A. Premkumar

On April 5, 2010, a 39-minute video was released by a website, called wikileaks.org, that showed gun-sight footage of two U.S. AH-64 Apache helicopters in action during the Iraqi insurgency against the U.S. occupation in 2007. The video showed the helicopter crew firing indiscriminately and killing civilians and two Reuters war correspondents. For nearly three years, Reuters had sought access to this video that would have shed light on the killing of its correspondents, via the U.S.’ Freedom of Information Act but had failed.

The release of the video by WikiLeaks was made possible by the leak of nearly 400,000 documents called the Iraq War Logs from the U.S. Department of Defense databases by the intelligence analyst Bradley Manning (who later referred herself as Chelsea), who acted as a whistle-blower. Ms. Manning had copied these files into a CD-ROM and uploaded them onto a WikiLeaks dropbox.

WikiLeaks promptly went on to release the war logs which were published by a host of media organisations and went on to expose human rights abuses by occupation forces besides the increased fatality counts in Iraq.

The War Logs’ release was followed by the publication of several news stories based on thousands of leaked diplomatic cables that were also released by Ms. Manning, leading to significant public exposure of the ways, lifestyles and attitudes of the elite in various countries. The WikiLeaks model — using crytographic tools to protect sources and allowing for anonymous “leaks” of sensitive information (that could also be in public interest) to be published — suddenly bought forth a new model of extensive investigative journalism into areas that were relatively shielded from the public eye. It is difficult not to associate WikiLeaks with the efforts of one individual — Julian Assange, the 49-year-old Australian by birth and who personified and organised it, even if the portal was maintained and sustained by hundreds of volunteers across the globe.

Asylum in Embassy

Ten years since the release of the Iraq War Logs, Mr. Assange is undergoing trial in the U.K. on whether he should be extradited to the U.S. to face charges related to the leaking of classified documents that exposed U.S. war crimes. Seven of those years were spent in asylum in the small Ecuador Embassy in London, after Mr. Assange refused extradition to Sweden to face charges of rape, which were later dismissed by Swedish prosecutors. The then Ecuador President Rafael Correa had extended asylum to Mr. Assange, but he could not guarantee safe passage for travel as British authorities threatened arrest as soon as he left the Embassy premises. Mr. Assange had always indicated that extradition to Sweden was a ploy for him to be handed over to the U.S., where Ms. Manning was convicted by court martial in July 2013 for violating the Espionage Act and underwent rigorous imprisonment before her sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama in January 2017. The Obama administration, however, concluded that it will not pursue criminal charges against Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks for publishing classified information as it would be inconsistent with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech of the press.

Mr. Assange continued to front the activities of WikiLeaks even during his refuge in the Ecuador Embassy. WikiLeaks published emails sent and received by U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and went on to release Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails that were obtained allegedly by Russian intelligence agency hackers. The DNC email releases hinted at bias by the committee against the other presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Mr. Assange denied that the source of the hack was Russian agencies. The CIA later told U.S. legislators that the intelligence community had concluded that Russia had conducted operations during the 2016 elections to prevent Ms. Clinton from winning the presidency.

Ms. Clinton’s Republican opponent and later U.S. President Donald Trump revealed in the email controversy that the WikiLeaks’ published emails had got Ms. Clinton into as he even said during the campaign, “I love WikiLeaks”. Later, however, during the Trump administration, his former Attorney-General Jeff Sessions and then CIA director Mike Pompeo sought to prosecute Mr. Assange over espionage charges. In April 2017, the Trump administration’s Justice Department had charged him in a sealed indictment. On May 23, 2019, 18 federal criminal charges under the Espionage Age of 1917 were brought by the Justice Department against Mr. Assange for his involvement in “computer intrusion” and leaking of classified information. In June 2020, the charges were further expanded for conspiracy with hacker groups.

Before the trial in the U.K. that began in September 2020, Mr Assange underwent imprisonment for 50 weeks for bail violations during his refuge in the Ecuador Embassy. His arrest also occurred after new President Lenin Moreno revoked his asylum and his citizenship (granted in 2018) on April 11, 2019, following disputes with Ecuador authorities.

Mr. Assange’s lawyers have sought to block the U.S. extradition request saying the leaks have led to exposure of war crimes and grave violations of laws. The lawyer appearing for the U.S. authorities has, however, claimed that the U.S. charges relate to the publication of names of informants in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Assange, in his younger days, was a prodigious teenage hacker who was charged and later let off for activities related to invasion into private computers. He later went onto become a “cypherpunk” — an activist who uses cryptography and privacy-enhancing technologies to promote social and political change — a path that led him to found WikiLeaks. The site went on to become a key outlet for whistleblowers, the most prominent of whom was Ms. Manning who threw open a window into the functioning of the defence and diplomatic arms of the world’s lone superpower. This propelled him into becoming a “global hacktivist” of sorts but his ploy to use WikiLeaks as a means to influence the bipolar U.S. politics has complicated his public image.

It remains to be seen whether the U.K. court will consider his plea not to be extradited on merits of his role as a publisher of sensitive information, something that has been performed by news organisations the world over.

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