PETER HITCHENS: Extraditing Julian Assange threatens press freedom
My defence of Julian Assange – a man I abhor. It ended badly the time they met yet PETER HITCHENS argues extraditing the WikiLeaks boss to the US violates British sovereignty, threatens press freedom and is nothing less than a politically motivated kidnap
I can’t stand Julian Assange. He is almost everything I do not like. I doubt we would get along if we spent an evening together. I have evidence of this.
Some years ago, we clashed rather nastily at a London drugs legalisation debate in which we disagreed totally and, as I recall, he abused me and I was quite rude back.
His world is not my world, and his people are not my people. I think he did a grave wrong by jumping bail. Among other things, this left a lot of his friends, who had trusted him, having to forfeit money they couldn’t afford which they had put up as surety.
The growth of an imperious, iron-bound security state in Washington DC has been one of the most dispiriting developments in this fast-darkening world. Mr Assange’s revelations exposed many of these bad things, plainly in the hope of stopping them – injustice, brutality, secret imprisonment, torture and rendition
And now I have said that, I wish to add that I am wholly, furiously against the attempt by the United States government to extradite Mr Assange from this country, now under way at the Old Bailey. I think it is wrong in principle. I think it is clearly a political case and should be rejected on those grounds alone, if there were no others available.
Extradition on political grounds is expressly prohibited by Article 4 (1) of the 2003 Anglo-US Extradition Treaty. But despite such protections, that treaty, agreed in the Blair era, was, like so much of that government’s actions towards Washington, weak, servile and unfair. And the courts have not done very much to defend British national sovereignty when it has been invoked.
I can’t stand Julian Assange. He is almost everything I do not like. I doubt we would get along if we spent an evening together. I have evidence of this, writes Peter Hitchens, pictured above
Astonishingly, it allows the US to demand extradition of UK citizens and others for offences allegedly committed against US law. This is so even though the supposed offence may have been committed in the UK by a person living in the UK.
Do we really want the hand of a foreign power to be able to reach into our national territory at will and pluck out anyone it wants to punish? Are we still even an independent country if we allow this? The Americans would certainly not let us treat them in this way.
It is unimaginable that the US would hand over to us any of its citizens who had been accused of leaking British secret documents. Yet if Mr Assange is sent to face trial in the US, any British journalist who comes into possession of classified material from the US, though he has committed no crime according to our own law, faces the same danger.
This is a basic violation of our national sovereignty, and a major threat to our own press freedom. I think that no English court should accept this demand. And if the courts fail in their duty, then I think that any self-respecting Home Secretary should overrule them.
For this extradition is a lawless kidnap. I love the rule of law, one of the main guarantees of freedom in the world. I used to think that this was one of the things that made the US a great country. But I have watched the decline of their legal system in dismay, worse even than the decay of our own.
The growth of an imperious, iron-bound security state in Washington DC has been one of the most dispiriting developments in this fast-darkening world.
Mr Assange’s revelations exposed many of these bad things, plainly in the hope of stopping them – injustice, brutality, secret imprisonment, torture and rendition.
The prevention of these things is not some wild revolutionary cause. It is the duty of Christians and conservatives to oppose such wrongs as much as it is the duty of anybody. If not more so.
Let me explain why this extradition is wrong. First, the actions of Mr Assange, in publishing huge numbers of confidential US government files, are not a crime. He was acting under the protection of US law as a journalist, publishing information he had received.
If he were a US citizen, he would without doubt be protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution which declares: ‘Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.’
Knowing this, Mike Pompeo, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said on April 13, 2017, of Mr Assange and his WikiLeaks colleagues: ‘They have pretended that America’s First Amendment freedoms shield them from justice. They may have believed that, but they are wrong.’
He also said: ‘Julian Assange has no First Amendment freedoms. He’s sitting in an embassy in London. He’s not a US citizen.’
It is not clear quite how even the CIA director could make that judgment. He also made a long and excoriating personal denunciation of Mr Assange and WikiLeaks. Mr Pompeo has since been promoted by Donald Trump to the still more important post of Secretary of State.
If any British official or Minister of similar standing had made these statements about a person accused of a crime in a UK court, the trial would have to be stopped on the grounds that it had been hopelessly prejudiced.
It is hard to see, in this case, how an English court could place Mr Assange into the hands of a justice system where the equivalent of a Cabinet Minister can freely denounce the accused before a jury has even been sworn in.
Interestingly, a very similar event has happened before. During the Vietnam War, almost 50 years ago, the courageous and principled Daniel Ellsberg, a former lieutenant in the US Marines, did much the same. He supplied the so-called ‘Pentagon Papers’ to the New York Times. Eventually every court, of law and of public opinion and of history, concluded that Mr Ellsberg – a US citizen operating in the US – was not only innocent but justified in his actions.
They also concluded that the US authorities of the time had behaved atrociously. Thugs hired by the White House even broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, looking for dirt on him (and failed to find any). The US government tried to prosecute him under that country’s Espionage Act, though he plainly was not a spy, just as Mr Assange is not a spy.
The documents were of no military value to an enemy. But they were deeply embarrassing to the US government, showing that they had systematically lied to the American people and to Congress about the disastrous Vietnam adventure.
Almost everyone now accepts that Ellsberg’s action did America a favour, and hastened the end of this futile and bloody episode.
You can certainly argue that the WikiLeaks papers could have had a similar effect on the Iraq War and many other questionable foreign policies and actions. They were deeply inconvenient to many of the more worrying parts of the American state. That, not alleged espionage, is why the US government is now so angry with Mr Assange. Significantly, Daniel Ellsberg himself is now one of Mr Assange’s foremost supporters.
The other powerful evidence that this is a political extradition, and not a genuine criminal case, is its extraordinary timing. The leaks took place in 2010. Around the same time, in a TV interview, Donald Trump said WikiLeaks was ‘disgraceful’ and suggested there be a ‘death penalty’ for its actions.
But prosecutors working for the Obama administration (2009-2017) decided, for legal reasons, not to prosecute Mr Assange almost seven years ago. They concluded that charging Assange would have meant they would then have to prosecute any journalist who published information alleged to endanger national security. That would have violated the US constitution.
A former spokesman for the Department of Justice, Matthew Miller, told the Washington Post in November 2013: ‘If you are not going to prosecute journalists for publishing classified information, which the Department is not, then there is no way to prosecute Assange.’
But by April 2017, with Donald Trump in the White House, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions had completely reversed this position. He announced at a press conference in El Paso, Texas, that the arrest of Mr Assange was now a ‘priority’. Mr Trump has, in fact, veered wildly on the issue.
When WikiLeaks published emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Trump and his campaign gleefully seized on them.
Mr Trump at one point even said ‘I love WikiLeaks’ and rejoiced that the source was ‘like a treasure trove’. But his love quickly faded once he was in the White House and increasingly reliant on Washington’s security and military apparatus.
Then things became even odder. Mr Assange’s supporters say that in August 2017, a US Congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, visited Mr Assange in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, accompanied by a Trump associate called Charles Johnson.
The Assange campaign say this strange delegation offered Mr Assange a pardon. In return he would have to say Russia was not involved in leaking the Democratic National Committee emails which Mr Trump had made such effective use of in the election campaign.
Mr Trump has, unsurprisingly, denied that Mr Rohrabacher made any such offer on his behalf. Mr Rohrabacher was quick to back up the President. But what if this astonishing thing is true, along with the Assange team’s claims of surveillance and break-ins against them?
By April 2017, with Donald Trump in the White House, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions had completely reversed this position. He announced at a press conference in El Paso, Texas, that the arrest of Mr Assange was now a ‘priority’. Mr Trump has, in fact, veered wildly on the issue
A non-political criminal prosecution would not have been subject to such wild political veering and switching. Nor would it have been openly supported by senior government figures.
There is a final part of this which is deeply alarming. If the UK gives Mr Assange to the US Federal authorities, he passes for ever into a prison system quite different from ours. You may think, and I would agree with you, that our penal system has a lot wrong with it. But the USA’s has different faults. It can be astonishingly cruel to unconvicted defendants, placing them under special measures that mean they are almost wholly cut off from normal human society.
If Mr Assange is then convicted by a US court, and this is statistically very likely, he could face decades in a modern dungeon such as the notorious ‘Supermax’ prison at Florence, Colorado, more or less buried alive with little hope of ever seeing freedom again. He is far from well at the moment. Those who know him fear that this might be more than he could bear.
Mr Assange is not a terrorist, a spy or a killer. There is as far as I know no evidence that any of his disclosures has, in fact, led to any harm being done to anyone.
WikiLeaks redacted documents to avoid such harm, and tried to prevent unredacted publication of material in its possession. The idea that he should face the strong possibility of being entombed alongside terrorist killers does not really meet any test of justice.
Like me, you do not have to like him, or agree with him, to see this. It is easy to defend those we like and approve of. But it is in my view far more important to protect those we dislike and disapprove of, if they face injustice.
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