If extradited, Julian Assange faces up to 175 years in prison under the Espionage Act – a draconian sentence intended to deter other journalists and truthtellers from revealing the long shadow of the American empire. On Saturday, October 8, DRAD joined hundreds of people traveling from across the country for the Hands Off Assange rally. Speakers at the protest highlighted the contributions of WikiLeaks to public debate, protest, and defiance of American imperialism – and underlined how a successful prosecution of Assange would silence future truthtellers.
In his speech, DRAD Policy Director Chip Gibbons drew parallels between the prosecution of Assange under the Espionage Act and the law’s long legacy of repressing political dissidents, especially those daring to defy the war machine and American empire.
“There is clearly a throughline between Eugene Debs saying – and these are the words that landed him in jail – ‘if war is right, let it be declared by the people,’ and a journalist who believes that if wars can be started by lies, then peace can be brought by truth,” Gibbons argued.
The World War I era crackdown on anti-war dissidents provoked a public movement rebuking the misapplication of the Espionage Act and the suppression of free speech. While courts rejected the First Amendment claims of Debs and other war dissenters, eventually they would adopt a First Amendment jurisprudence in line with what the nascent civil liberties movement advocated..
While prosecutions like those against Debs are now unthinkable, the Espionage Act remains as a weapon against whistleblowers and journalists.. The ghosts of political repression surfaced in the decision to indict Assange under the Espionage Act. Gibbons drew a clear line between the two eras:
“For over 105 years, the Espionage Act has cast a shadow over our society. It may sound like a law that is aimed at spies and saboteurs, but it is a law that has silenced, censored, and chilled opposition to US foreign policy, whistleblowing and journalism.”
Other speakers, too, drew attention to how WikiLeaks laid bare the lies underpinning the American empire. Like any good journalist, Assange spoke truth to power, which generated constructive public debate, contributed to the marketplace of ideas, and empowered resistance to American imperialism abroad.
Among the information revealed by Julian Assange were the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, which exposed the brutality of American occupation, including allegations of routine torture and callous disregard for civilian life. Anti-war activist Medea Benjamin testified as to the importance of these revelations:
“We were lied to every damn day for 20 years about the war in Afghanistan and how victory was around the corner. We were lied to every day for 20 years about the invasion of Iraq. What the US was doing there, how well we were received by the Iraqis…We were lied to about the invasion of Libya. We were lied to about the US role in Syria…We are constantly lied to by our government, and that is why truth is so essential to us. That is why the work of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange were so important when we were trying to learn what our government was doing…So that we could do our job: get up and protest.”
In the darkness, there is no counterweight to the national security state narrative. Assange’s prosecution serves as a clear warning to journalists courageous enough to resist the Pentagon line, and wrenches evidence away from the activists fighting in the streets to end foreign wars and militarism.
WikiLeaks disclosures weren’t solely related to war crimes; they also exposed the bones of the American economic empire. Journalist Kevin Gosztola explained that Assange’s WikiLeaks disclosures revealed that, far from taking steps to mitigate climate change, the American government planned to take advantage of melting sea ice to extract oil and gas from the arctic. Author and radio host Esther Iverem discussed how WikiLeaks shone light onto collusion between the US Embassy and American clothing corporations to block increases in the minimum wage in Haiti. Iverem stated elegantly, “WikiLeaks is an antidote for imperialist psychosis.”
Speakers emphasizing the contributions of Assange’s publishing and journalism to public knowledge expressed concern about a world where outlets like WikiLeaks are prosecuted into silence. AntiWar.com Editor Dave DeCamp worried aloud about the prospect of entering nuclear brinkmanship with Russia absent the type of countervailing voice Assange and WikiLeaks provided. DeCamp stated, “Julian Assange is a journalist. He has done no crimes, he has only exposed them.” With Assange in prison – and other journalists potentially deterred by the indictment – activists, the public, and lawmakers are left with incomplete information, hindering the very essence of democratic debate.
As much as mainstream news outlets claim that Assange is a source, not a journalist, the legal logic used to indict Assange analogizes comfortably into the prosecution of any news outlet handling classified material. So comfortably, in fact, that the Obama administration refused to prosecute Assange due to the “New York Times problem.” Ben & Jerry’s cofounder Ben Cohen summarized the issue succinctly: “Here’s the thing. There’s no democracy without freedom of the press. And there’s no free press without a free Assange.”
The press freedom ramifications of the Assange prosecution clearly weighed heavy on the mind of human trafficking survivor and advocate Eliza Bleu. Musing that the crowd probably wondered why a human trafficking survivor would opt to attend the Assange rally over the nearby Women’s March, Bleu said:
“The truth is, without a free press, there will be no one to cover women’s issues…I couldn’t look my fellow survivors in the eye and tell them I’d done everything I could for them if I didn’t advocate for Julian Assange when it mattered. This is the beginning, but it’s coming for all of us. We have to fight for our freedom, for our right to speak freely.”
Concluding, Bleu said simply, “I think I get so passionate about freedom because I know what it’s like to lose it.”
Julian Assange was indicted for publishing truthful information. As Chip Gibbons voiced at the Hands Off Assange rally,
“Julian Assange was the first person ever indicted under the Espionage Act for publishing truthful information. And we want to make sure he’s the last person indicted for publishing truthful information.”
Journalist Chris Hedges concluded the rally, laying bare the stakes of Assange’s prosecution:
“The engine driving the lynching of Julian is not here on Pennsylvania Avenue. It is in Langley, Virginia, located at a complex we will never be allowed to surround: the Central Intelligence Agency. It is driven by a secretive inner state, one where we do not count in the mad pursuit of empire and ruthless exploitation. Because the machine of this modern leviathan was exposed by Julian and WikiLeaks, the machine demands revenge.”
As long as truthtellers are in prison, the national security state wins by default. Access to information – especially when that information is embarrassing to our government or alters the course of public debate – forms the lifeblood of democracy. The stakes of Assange’s prosecution are clear. It’s time for the Biden administration to stand up to the national security state and defend the people’s right to know.