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U.S. Lawmakers Form Unlikely Alliance in Favour of Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange

Updated: May 23

In 2019, The United States formally asked Britain to extradite Assange to face charges that he conspired to hack U.S. government computers and violated the U.S. Espionage Act. However, this past week, a bipartisan group of 16 congressional Trumpist Republicans and Far-Left Progressive Democrats sent a letter to President Joe Biden requesting the withdrawal of the prosecutorial extradition of controversial Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. The group includes left-wing champion Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) and chair of the Democratic progressive caucus Pramila Jayapal (WA-7), libertarian Republican senator Rand Paul (KY) and pro-Trump congresswoman Marjorie Taylor-Greene (GA-14). The petition was approved in June 2022 after a significant delay due to Covid-19.

The U.S. is seeking to extradite Assange to face 17 counts of breaching the U.S. Espionage Act, including a separate hacking-related charge stemming from the 2010 Wikileaks reveal of roughly half a million classified documents leaked by former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. The coalition argues that the extradition and prosecution of Assange would damage the US-Australia alliance and significantly weaken First Amendment press freedom. They also highlighted that the espionage charges would be unprecedented in pitting national security against press freedoms.

Assange is an Australian-born computer programmer, hacker, and founder of Wikileaks. According to Assange, he created Wikileaks to act as a journalistic "clearinghouse" for leaked sensitive and classified documents. In November of 2010, Wikileaks began publishing an estimated 250,000 classified documents of confidential U.S. diplomatic cables dated between 2007-2010. Many of these documents are related mainly to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, they also covered wide-ranging topics of behind-the-scenes efforts to politically and economically isolate Iran, primarily over fears of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme. The publication of these documents drew widespread condemnation from Western national security apparatuses, particularly the U.S., who quickly called for his arrest and prosecution.  

In 2011, Assange faced prosecution in Sweden, where he was wanted in connection with sexual assault charges. Assange was arrested in London in December 2010 and held without bond, pending possible extradition to Sweden. He was eventually released on bail, and in February 2011, a British judge ruled that the extradition should proceed. In December 2011, the British High Court found that Assange's extradition case was "of general public importance" and recommended that the Supreme Court hear it. This decision allowed Assange to petition the Supreme Court directly for a final hearing. In June 2012, after his extradition appeal was denied, Assange sought refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy. He applied for asylum on the grounds that extradition to Sweden could lead to eventual prosecution in the United States. Assange claimed that such a trial would be politically motivated and potentially result in capital punishment. Although this request was ultimately granted, he remained confined within the embassy. 

In August 2015, Swedish prosecutors dropped their investigation of three of the allegations, as they had been unable to interview him before the expiration of a five-year statute of limitations. Swedish authorities continued to pursue an investigation into the outstanding allegation of rape, however, and Assange remained confined to the embassy. In May 2017, as Assange approached his fifth year under de facto house arrest in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Swedish prosecutors announced that they had discontinued their investigation.

However, in April 2019, Assange was arrested after Ecuador revoked his asylum. He was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for skipping bail. He completed the sentence early but remained jailed pending extradition hearings. U.S. authorities allege that Assange directed and abetted Manning in stealing the files when he tried to help her break a passcode to a Pentagon computer system. On that basis, the Department of Justice unsealed initial charges against Assange for conspiracy to break into a classified computer system to obtain "national defence information" and requested his extradition.

In 2013, Assange and others in Wikileaks allegedly helped whistleblower Edward Snowden flee from U.S. law enforcement. After the U.S. cancelled Snowden's passport, stranding him in Russia, they considered transporting him to Latin America on the presidential jet of a sympathetic Latin American leader. To throw the U.S. off the scent, they spoke about the jet of the Bolivian president Evo Morales instead of the jet they were considering. In July 2013, Morales's jet was forced to land in Austria after the U.S. pressured Italy, France, and Spain to deny the jet access to their airspace over false rumours Snowden was on board. Assange reportedly then advised Snowden that he would be safest in Russia, which could better protect its borders than Venezuela, Brazil or Ecuador.

In 2016, Assange became an active player in the U.S. presidential race when WikiLeaks began publishing internal communications from the Democratic Party and the campaign of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, seeking to harm Clinton's campaign. Independent and U.S. cybersecurity experts confirmed that Russian state hackers had obtained the data. Assange denied this. In January 2017, a declassified U.S. intelligence report stated Assange and WikiLeaks had been critical to a sophisticated hybrid warfare campaign orchestrated by Russia. A campaign which entailed wide-ranging election misinformation across social media, most notably Facebook, also implicating British firm Cambridge Analytica (reportedly closely associated with the Trump campaign).

The charges against Assange under the U.S. Espionage Act are troubling to a slew of groups from across the political spectrum. Politicians, civil liberties defenders, journalists, First Amendment activists, and everyday citizens find the precedent of charging a journalist such as Assange unsettling, despite the controversial nature of the content he acquired and produced through Wikileaks. However, under U.S. Presidents Barack Obama, Trump, and now Biden, there has been no indication of leniency for Assange. Biden's eventual decision to prosecute Assange will likely lead to a very public trial and continuation of this debate. All eyes are on the President as Assange rides the line between hero and villain. 

Image: Cancillería del Ecuador

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