The slow but sure process of extraditing Julian Assange, co-founder of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks from the U.K. to the U.S. took a firm step on Friday when the British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, gave the go-ahead to the move. WikiLeaks promptly released a statement promising another legal battle to appeal the decision.
Mr. Assange is wanted in the U.S. for criminal charges, including breaking the Espionage Act for WikiLeaks’ actions of leaking thousands of secret U.S. files in 2010. He could face punishment ranging up to 175 years in prison for violations of the Espionage Act. On the same day, the Assange Defense Committee, a U.S.-based coalition of media rights and human rights groups, released a statement through its co-chairs, which include the renowned linguist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky and former U.S. military analyst and whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, that said the decision “was a sad day for western democracy”. It added: “U.S. government argues that its venerated Constitution does not protect journalism the government dislikes and that publishing truthful information in public interest is a subversive, criminal act. This argument is a threat not only to journalism, but to democracy itself.”
These were strong words in favour of a man who has been held in the U.K.’s Belmarsh prison ever since the Ecuador Embassy revoked his asylum and citizenship after he stayed for seven years on its premises in London. Mr. Assange initially underwent imprisonment for bail violations during his stay in the Ecuador Embassy and got a reprieve from a U.K district judge, Vanessa Baraitser, in January 2021, when she ruled that he could not be extradited to the U.S. because of concerns about his mental health and the possibility of suicide in a U.S prison with strict incarceration conditions.
U.S. prosecutors later filed an appeal, and the British High Court, this time in December 2021, ruled in favour of the U.S. following the Joe Biden administration’s assurances on the terms of Mr. Assange’s possible incarceration — that it would not hold him at the highest security prison facility (ADX Florence in Colorado, which houses terrorists, drug traffickers, and high-profile criminals) and that if he were convicted, he could serve his sentence in his native Australia if he requested it. Mr. Assange moved the British Supreme Court against the verdict, but on March 14, the Court refused permission to appeal.
Mr. Assange’s travails have mirrored those of the WikiLeaks organisation itself. In February 2022, on WikiLeaks’ website, the submission system for files (by whistleblowers, ‘hacktivists’, etc.) and its email server went completely offline, months after the organisation’s secure chat services had stopped working in October 2021. This was no surprise.
The organisation has been inevitably linked to its co-founder, who still remains a director. Ever since his incarceration, the release of whistleblower documents have only been few and far between and much less in consequence compared to what the organisation managed to achieve between 2010 and 2019.
Origins and impact
WikiLeaks’ journey began in 2006 when the website was first established and its domain name registered by Mr. Assange. While initially the website began as a disclosure portal on the lines of the Wikipedia model, with anonymous submissions being put up and edited by volunteers, it soon became a repository of anonymously sourced material. News and classified information could be uploaded on it using the anonymity software Tor, which protects the uploader’s identity from being eavesdropped on any network and even by WikiLeaks itself.
Internal dissension and wrangling between WikiLeaks employees had resulted in problems with the submission system, which resulted in its suspension in 2010, but WikiLeaks relaunched the site in 2015.
One of the earliest revelations by Wikileaks was on how the U.S. government had been deploying practices at the Guantanamo Bay facility holding terror suspects, that were in violation of the Geneva Convention protocols.
Some of the most consequential leaks during the period when the site’s anonymised submission system still remained active included the millions of classified files from the U.S. Defence Department on the Iraq and the Afghan invasions, besides lakhs of State Department communiques — both were released by former U.S. soldier Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning. These leaks began with a 39-minute video released on April 5, 2010 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 via the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, but had failed.
WikiLeaks promptly released the war logs, which were published by a host of media organisations and exposed 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, including by The Hindu, 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 cryptographic tools to protect sources and allowing for anonymous “leaks” of sensitive information (that could also be in public interest) to be published — suddenly brought forth a new model of extensive investigative journalism into areas that were relatively shielded from the public eye, such as the functioning of the deep state in democratic societies and the operation of power agencies in autocracies.
While initially the cables were released to five newspapers that undertook the exercise of redacting sensitive information before reporting on them and published them over a year from late 2010 to 2011, the leak of the encryption key of the full cache of files (of what was then termed “Cablegate”), resulted in the release of unredacted material, an action that was condemned by many media outlets.
The lack of an anonymised submission system between 2010 and 2015 did not deter it from publishing other files that were obtained from other hackers such as the Stratfor email leaks. Later, WikiLeaks also published then presidential candidate (and former Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton’s aide John Podesta’s emails before the 2016 presidential elections. This action invited severe critique of WikiLeaks from activists and media personnel, who likened these leaks to an effort to intervene in the 2016 elections with Mr. Assange having been quoted as saying he wanted to “harm” HIllary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency and accusing WikiLeaks of obtaining this information from Russian intelligence agency hackers, something Wikileaks denied.
Later, it emerged that someone from WikiLeaks had conversed with Clinton’s presidential opponent, Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., seeking to promote the leaks and even asking for favours for Mr. Assange in Twitter DM conversations.
Probe in the U.S.
Wikileaks’ releases, meanwhile, resulted in reprisals from the U.S. government. The Barack Obama administration began investigation of the Manning leaks, and Ms. Manning was convicted by court martial in July 2013 for violating the Espionage Act and underwent rigorous imprisonment before her sentence was commuted in January 2017 by the President. However, the administration concluded that it would not pursue criminal charges against Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks.
The U.S. Justice Department under former President Donald Trump, however, charged Mr. Assange with collaborating in a conspiracy with Ms. Manning to crack a password on a Defense Department network to publish classified documents and communications on WikiLeaks in a sealed indictment in April 2017. These charges were unsealed in 2019.
Later, the Trump administration further charged Mr. Assange with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 — he was indicted on 17 new charges related to the Act at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. In June 2020, the charges were further expanded for conspiracy with hacker groups. The Biden administration has made no attempt to reverse these charges.
How the legal case against Mr. Assange will play out will determine the future of investigative journalism of the kind that WikiLeaks represents and will also serve as a litmus test for free expression laws that allow for unhindered journalism in countries like the U.S.. While the organisation is now a shell of what it was a decade ago, its ability to harness the act of whistleblowing to shine a light on the inner workings of those in power transformed investigative journalism, even as its decisions to intervene in the U.S. polity complicated its legacy.