On June 16, 1918, a sickly and frail man climbed the steps to the bandstand at the Stark County Workhouse in Canton, Ohio to make a speech. For more than two hours, he railed against America’s recent entry into World War I. “Do not worry over the charge of treason to your masters,” he said. “Be true to yourself and you cannot be a traitor to any good cause on earth.”
Two weeks later, the man was seized by US marshals and charged with ten counts of violating the Espionage and Sedition Act for his statements in his speech in Canton. A jury found him guilty on three of the ten counts, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The mainstream media rejoiced over the sentence. The reaction of The Washington Post was typical. “His activities in opposition to the war preparation were dangerous … His conviction … serves notice to all that disloyalty and sedition, even though masquerading under the guise of free speech, will not be tolerated.”
Eugene Debs, the defendant in this case, was a five-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America. And while I hardly agree with his socialist views, he had every right to speak his mind on that long-ago summer day. After all, the First Amendment to the Constitution reads:
Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.
Fast-forward 101 years to 2019. In May, US prosecutors unsealed another indictment detailing 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act. (The Sedition Act was repealed in 1920.) Once again, the defendant wasn’t a spy or someone who sold military secrets for a profit to a country at war with the US. It was a journalist: Julian Assange.
Like Eugene Debs, Assange has long been a thorn in the side of the rich and powerful. When Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006, he declared its primary objective would be to publish information the powerful would prefer to keep secret.
And Assange made good on his promise. In 2007, WikiLeaks released a secret manual written for prison guards at the US detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. At the time, hundreds of suspected terrorists had been detained there without being accused of any crime. The manual instructed guards to “exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee.” For instance, guards were instructed to forbid visits by the Red Cross. The manual also revealed the rules for permissible types of torture to be used against detainees.
Three years later, in 2010, WikiLeaks published top-secret materials supplied by Army intelligence analyst Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning. Among them was a video taken from a US helicopter gunship in which at least 12 Iraqi civilians were deliberately slaughtered. The leaked files also revealed that 66,000 civilians had been killed by US forces in Iraq and that thousands of prisoners had been tortured by Iraqi forces.
American politicians and pundits were quick to condemn Assange and WikiLeaks. Former Republican Congressman Paul Ryan called Assange “a sycophant for Russia.” Former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin wrote on Facebook, “He is an anti-American operative with blood on his hands.” Tom Flanagan, a former aide to the Canadian prime minister, even called for Assange’s assassination.
Assange had powerful enemies; it was inevitable that the powers-that-be would eventually strike back against him. And only a few months after WikiLeaks published the sensational revelations about US military atrocities, Sweden announced a criminal investigation against Assange for sexual assault. Assange, then in London, turned himself in to British authorities and was released on bail pending an extradition hearing.
After a series of appeals, the British Supreme Court ruled in May 2012 that Assange could be extradited to Sweden. But Assange believed the Swedish investigation was merely a pretext to extradite him to the US. To avoid extradition, Assange went to the Ecuadoran embassy and asked for political asylum.
His asylum request was granted, and for nearly seven years, Assange lived in the embassy. But in April 2019, following the approval of a $4.2 billion loan package to Ecuador by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the embassy kicked him out. (Not coincidentally, the US is the largest shareholder in the IMF.) Assange was promptly arrested by British police for violating the terms of his bail and was sentenced to a 12-month jail term.
Once Assange was in British custody, Uncle Sam’s gloves came off. Federal prosecutors first charged Assange with helping Manning break into a military computer system, a crime punishable by five years imprisonment. Then in May, they indicted him on 17 espionage charges. Simultaneously, the US issued an extradition request for Assange under the US-UK extradition treaty.
All told, Assange faces 175 years in an American prison. Prosecutors are effectively accusing Assange as acting as a spy for foreign power by releasing embarrassing facts about US actions in Cuba, Afghanistan, and Iraq. But while the indictment alleges that Assange’s actions “risked serious harm to US national security,” a report from the Australian Defence Taskforce concluded that the disclosures “did not cause any real harm to US interests.”
In other words, the indictment has nothing to do with holding Assange accountable for his alleged crimes. Its real purpose is to show anyone who might be inclined to publish embarrassing facts about Uncle Sam what could happen if they do.
Uncle Sam has never indicted a journalist under the Espionage Act, although some journalists claim that Assange isn’t a real journalist. For instance, in the April 13 Sydney Morning Herald, Australian journalist Peter Greste wrote an article entitled “Assange is no journalist and his arrest isn’t about press freedom.”
And while it’s true that Assange doesn’t write articles, the methods he used to acquire information and disseminate it on WikiLeaks are functionally identical to the techniques a reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald might employ. Indeed, in 2011, Assange won the Walkley Award for “Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism.” The Walkley Award is the Australian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. The fact that it was awarded to Assange, an Australian citizen, should dispel any doubts whatsoever about his journalistic credentials.
A UK judge has now approved the US extradition request for Assange to be transferred to the US to be tried for computer hacking and espionage. While Assange will certainly appeal that decision all the way to the British Supreme Court, it seems likely that he will eventually be remanded into US custody.
Julian Assange is not an especially likable man. But every American should thank him for revealing the truth about the brutal methods Uncle Sam uses to fight its secret wars. He deserves commendation – not a lifetime prison sentence.