Julian Assange, the internationally controversial editor-in-chief of whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, evidently can’t be silenced. Since mid-April he’s hosted a half-hour TV news-interview show, the latest two with a president who couldn’t be overthrown-Rafael Correa, the chief executive of the Republic of Ecuador-followed this past week with leaders of the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London movements.
The U.S. and other western governments have longed to quell Assange’s activities, particularly since 2010 when WikiLeaks posted online hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents on the Iraqi and Afghan invasions, and individual State Department cables.
The Obama administration had considered trying Assange under the Espionage Act, and may still want to. But the Congressional Research Service issued a 2011 report citing problems, including Assange not being a U.S. citizen, and also his classification as a journalist, and freedom of the press.
Obama might like to see him swept away in the dead of night to one of the military’s secret foreign prisons, but Assange’s international profile, journalistic standing, and being located in England would make that a sticky wicket. Also, Assange has been staying at a mansion outside of London, indicating he has connections (and is situated in a location too politically sensitive and farfetched for a drone strike-even though Congress and Obama now will allow drones throughout America’s airways).
So the West seems to have formulated a multi-national effort to legally corral Assange. A Swedish prosecutor-not a judge-in 2010 issued a rape-molestation warrant for Assange and is seeking his extradition from England. This led last week to the British high court finally ruling that Assange could be extradited, only then to grant Assange’s attorney a delay.
The U.K. Guardian this weekend published a column by Democracy Now‘s Amy Goodman in which she considers that once Assange ends up in Sweden, he’ll then be extradited to the United States for an espionage trial.
All this political maneuvering while, in the meantime, Assange has been under house arrest just outside of London for nearly two years without being charged with a crime. Powers that be seem to have figured this would freeze him and silence him.
But Assange has refused to remain mute. He landed the news-interview broadcasts with RT, Russia Today, the Russian television network which is broadcast even in the U.S.-with offices in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. His shows have been taped primarily at his residence, and aired on Tuesday nights. He’s conducted his interviews either by Skype, or in person at his residence. His subjects have included international newsmakers, ranging from his premiere interview with the head of Hezbollah, Sayyid Nasrallah, to the leaders mentioned above. He actually interviewed the Occupy movement mainstays in London.
Assange’s news show represents a savvy legal and professional maneuver.
The Legal Angle
First, it solidifies his international standing as a journalist. He’s talking to newsmakers well known outside the U.S., but basically shunned by the conglomerate-controlled major media. And this position as a working international journalist should help him in his legal stance if extradited to America.
Peculiar Progressive, in a column published in The Clyde Fitch Report last year, reviewed the Congressional Research Service report on Assange and the espionage law. The CRS report noted that government precedent has been not to prosecute anyone in Assange’s journalistic position for having leaked classified information publicly.
“Leaks of classified information to the press have only rarely been punished as crimes, and we are aware of no case in which a publisher of information obtained through unauthorized disclosure by a government employee has been prosecuted for publishing it,” explains legislative attorney Jennifer K. Elsea in her Sept. 8, 2011 CRS report, “Criminal Prohibitions on the Publication of Classified Defense Information.” “There may be First Amendment implications that would make such a prosecution difficult, not to mention political ramifications based on concerns about government censorship.”
Assange’s attorney has the CRS report and more to present, should the U.S. extradite Assange:
The New York Times reporter Elizabeth Bumiller wrote in October 2010 that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had sent an Aug. 16, 2010 letter to Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, diffusing the threat of the WikiLeaks Pentagon-document revelations. In his letter, Gates told Levin, “…the review to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by this disclosure.”
Times blogger Robert Mackey recapped the Bumiller report in his Jan. 19, 2011 post where he wrote about the State Department also judging WikiLeaks’ other mass release of diplomatic cables as basically unharmful to U.S. security. Mackey wrote that an unnamed Congressional aide told Reuters the leak “was embarrassing but not damaging.”
Those two news reports would seem to dampen Obama Administration efforts in court. When added to precedence cited by attorney Elsea in her CRS review, a government case would seem even weaker.
The Professional Angle
Through the lengthy TV news interviews, Assange is proving himself a knowledgeable journalist, and one respected by his interviewees. He opens to an international TV audience the philosophies and experiences of the likes of two prominent Arab Spring figures, Egypt’s Alaa Abd El-Fattah and Bahrain’s Nabeel Rajab. They spoke about fighting against oppressive regimes and what should come in their place. On another show, Tunisia’s new president Moncef Marzouki has vowed to protect human rights in the “new” Tunisia.
The presidents of Ecuador and Tunisia don’t sit in front of a Skype lens for half an hour unless they value the interviewer and the medium. That should be clear to any audience.
And you can bet Assange and his subjects know the audience is vast, and can be lasting. Vast because RT is broadcast through 22 satellite and 230 cable operators throughout the world. Lasting because it can spread and be filed, particularly by the younger generation, through YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and the other social media nets.
That’s a hefty audience for Assange to reach, and one that can respond politically to his treatment by the world’s governments.
That’s something, no doubt, Obama will be paying close attention to. He may want to punish Assange for forcing transparency on America and the West. But he’s also facing election in November. And it’s tight.
ABC News reported this week, “Obama still beats Romney in favorable ratings overall, by an 11-point margin, 52 vs. 41 percent. But that’s down from 21 points last month, giving Romney the better trajectory. And both get only even divisions among registered voters, marking the closeness of the race between them.”
A CNN poll released June 1 listed Obama leading by only three percentage points.
Those types of numbers should have Obama weighing whether he wants to challenge Assange and risk further alienating his voter base, to which he had promised increased transparency, along with a vow that he would honor the Constitution. Its Bill of Rights, of course, includes freedom of the press, which is also covered in the CRS report on Assange.
Or Obama may want to move ahead with extradition and prosecution of Assange, hoping to endear himself more to the right, where he’s leaned more and more in his suppressive administration.
Amy Goodman’s Guardian column on Assange:
The New York Times’ topics article on Assange:
Congressional Research Service Report on publishing classified information:
Article on Secretary Gates to Sen. Levin:
Robert Mackey blog on WikiLeaks:
RT’s articles on the Julian Assange Show:
Assange’s television news-interview shows:
ABC’s Obama-Romney poll: