The year Assange walks free? Why there are cautious hopes

On a steamy summer night last August, the trendiest place to be in New York was the Brooklyn nightclub Elsewhere. The star of the event, performing as a DJ for the first time in 15 years, was better known as one of history’s most famous and controversial whistleblowers.

In 2010, Chelsea Manning used her position as a United States Army intelligence analyst to copy hundreds of thousands of documents related to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, saving them on a CD labelled “Lady Gaga” as a disguise. Manning then sent the files to WikiLeaks, including the famous Collateral Murder video showing US troops laughing after shooting dead a group of Iraqi men, including two journalists. (All the men were civilians but some were armed.) Manning was later sentenced to 35 years in jail for America’s largest-ever leak of classified information.

Illustration: John ShakespeareCredit:John Shakespeare

Today, Manning is a free woman and celebrated transgender icon who recently published a memoir and spins tracks ranging from Britney Spears to a remix of the Succession theme song for Brooklyn ravers in her spare time. Barack Obama commuted Manning’s remaining jail time on compassionate grounds in one of his last acts in office, allowing her to return to civilian life in 2017.

Meanwhile, the man who published Manning’s leaked documents, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, is languishing in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison, surrounded by notorious murderers and rapists. For the past four years, the US Justice Department has been attempting to extradite the Australian to face trial on 17 counts of breaching the Espionage Act plus a separate hacking-related charge. It’s the first time the act has ever been used against someone who received and published classified information, as opposed to leaking it.

Assange suffered a stroke in 2021 and his mental health has been battered by extended periods of isolation. His family fears he may not survive the extradition process. “He’s in a gradual decline both physically and mentally,” Assange’s brother Gabriel Shipton tells me. “It’s very oppressive and is clearly taking a toll on him.”

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is facing extradition to the US to face espionage charges.Credit:AP

Yet Assange’s supporters begin the year with more hope than ever that the US will end its extradition efforts, allowing him to return to Australia. “We can feel that the momentum is building,” Shipton says.

Lawyer Greg Barns, an adviser to the Australian Assange campaign, says: “The planets are aligning pretty well.”

Earlier this week, ABC global affairs editor John Lyons heightened anticipation by declaring on air: “My expectation is that within the next two months or so Julian Assange will be released.” Lyons’ prediction caused a frisson not just because of its definitive timeframe but because it was made by one of the country’s most experienced journalists. Lyons previously served as editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, as the ABC’s head of current affairs and investigations and as executive producer of Nine’s Sunday program.

The main reason for the growing optimism is that Australia has a prime minister actively working to try to secure Assange’s release, even if it requires spending diplomatic capital with our most important ally. The Morrison government took a hands-off approach on the grounds Assange’s case should be allowed to play out in the British and US legal systems.

In opposition, Albanese said he believed Assange’s case had dragged on too long and needed to come to an end. During his early months as prime minister, he kept quiet about the issue, vowing not to pursue “megaphone diplomacy”. That changed in November when he gave a strikingly forthright response to a question by independent MP Monique Ryan.

“I have raised this personally with representatives of the United States government,” Albanese told parliament. “My position is clear and has been made clear to the US administration. I will continue to advocate, as I did recently in meetings that I have held.”

Albanese was essentially confirming he had raised the issue directly with Biden, given the pair met for 45 minutes just a fortnight earlier in Phnom Penh.

Then came Albanese’s decision, just before Christmas, to appoint former prime minister Kevin Rudd as Australia’s ambassador to the US. As far back as 2010, when WikiLeaks published the war cables, Rudd has repeatedly insisted the US government and Manning should be held responsible for the disclosure of secret material rather than Assange.

In June, when Priti Patel, then the British home secretary, certified Assange’s extradition to the US, Rudd tweeted: “I disagree with this decision. I do not support Assange’s actions and his reckless disregard for classified security information. But if Assange is guilty, then so too are the dozens of newspaper editors who happily published his material.”

Assange’s supporters also see promising signs in the American media, where his case has received surprisingly little attention despite his high-profile and controversial past. In a joint open letter published in late November, The New York Times and four European news outlets called on the US government to drop the charges because the prosecution “sets a dangerous precedent” that threatens to undermine freedom of the press.

“Obtaining and disclosing sensitive information when necessary in the public interest is a core part of the daily work of journalists,” the letter said. “If that work is criminalised, our public discourse and our democracies are made significantly weaker.”

Soon after, Ari Melber – a prominent host on left-leaning cable network MSNBC – devoted a 12-minute monologue to arguing for Assange to be let free.

Since founding WikiLeaks, Assange has done some questionable – even despicable – things. Robert Mueller’s report into the 2016 US election found Assange fuelled dangerous conspiracy theories by falsely suggesting that murdered Democratic Party employee Seth Rich, rather than Russian hackers, had leaked damaging information about Hillary Clinton’s campaign to WikiLeaks. Brad Bauman, a former spokesman for the Rich family, said at the time the report showed Assange was a “monster, not a journalist”.

But you don’t have to consider Assange a noble figure – or even a journalist – to support his release after so many years in captivity.

“It is very easy for people to understand the hypocrisy of this,” Shipton says. “Why is the Australian publisher being held in prison while the US whistleblower walks free? It doesn’t pass the pub test.”

There’s no indication that Biden, or his attorney-general Merrick Garland, are invested in Assange being punished. The charges against him are a holdover from the Trump administration. The Obama-era Justice Department declined to prosecute Assange because of the precedent it could set of jailing journalists for doing their jobs.

Still, the notion that asking Biden to drop the extradition would take nothing more than a simple phone call needs to be tempered with reality.

“This is not simple, stroke-of-a-pen stuff,” a senior government source says, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The idea that Biden can just wave a magic wand on this is nonsense. This is hard and complicated.”

One of Trump’s litany of sins during his time in office was trying to reshape the Department of Justice into his defacto personal legal firm. Biden has said that one of his priorities as president is to “re-establish the reputation and integrity” of the Justice Department, which he argues was “corrupted” by Trump.

Biden had to speedily backtrack in October after saying he wanted to see individuals prosecuted for defying subpoenas from the House committee investigating the January 6 Capitol riots. “I did not, have not and will not pick up the phone and call the attorney-general and tell him what he should or should not do in terms of who he should prosecute,” Biden insisted.

Instructing Garland to drop the charges against Assange would be a clear breach of this vow. A more realistic hope is that Garland quietly takes another look at the case and decides it is taking up resources that could be better used elsewhere.

The Justice Department prides itself on its independence, as spokesman Anthony Coley made clear in October: “The Department of Justice will make its own independent decisions in all prosecutions based solely on the facts and the law. Period. Full stop.”

Importantly, the judicial process had already run its course when Obama granted clemency to Manning; it’s an entirely different story with Assange. Figures inside the US national security establishment – who contend Assange’s behaviour, including allegedly conspiring with hackers, went beyond normal journalist practice – want him to be held accountable. And many Democrats still regard Assange with disdain for his role in elevating Donald Trump to power by publishing Hillary Clinton’s emails in the 2016 campaign.

The argument for the charges against Assange to be dropped has always been powerful on press freedom grounds. It only becomes more compelling as time passes. He’s suffered in jail long enough.

Albanese should be commended for working to secure his release. Achieving this goal, however, will take subtlety and patience. If Assange is a free man by the end of the year, let alone the next two months, it will be a foreign policy triumph.

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