A group of seven progressive House members called on Attorney General Merrick Garland Tuesday to drop all charges against Australian journalist Julian Assange, who is currently facing extradition from Britain to the United States over alleged violations of a World War I-era anti-spying law.
“The prosecution of Mr. Assange marks the first time in U.S. history that a publisher of truthful information has been indicted under the Espionage Act,” the lawmakers, led by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), wrote in an open letter. “The prosecution of Mr. Assange, if successful, not only sets a legal precedent whereby journalists or publishers can be prosecuted, but a political one as well.”
The U.S. case against Assange stems from his work at WikiLeaks, where his team published a wide range of classified documents that revealed details about human rights abuses committed during America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other notable leaks include documents related to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign as well as the U.S. Army’s manual for its policies at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba.
Assange has fought extradition since being arrested in London in April 2019. He faces numerous espionage charges for alleged improprieties in how WikiLeaks got a hold of classified documents as well as three further charges for publishing information that could put U.S. government sources in danger.
Many of the world’s leading newspapers and press freedom groups have called for Assange’s release, citing fears that his conviction would serve as a dangerous precedent for journalists.
As the lawmakers note, “[m]uch of this information was published by mainstream newspapers, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, who often worked with Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks directly in doing so.”
“Based on the legal logic of this indictment, any of those newspapers could be prosecuted for engaging in those reporting activities,” they argue.
Other signatories include Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), and Greg Casar (D-Texas).
The letter sparked a deluge of harsh responses from those in the U.S. national security community who view Assange as an ally of America’s adversaries abroad. “This is absurd,” tweeted Alexander Vindman, a former national security official whose testimony helped lead to President Donald Trump’s impeachment in 2019. “Assange was a tool of the Russian state and broadcast United States secrets that endangered Americans.”
For their part, the lawmakers argued that prosecuting Assange will damage American interests by weakening Washington’s claim to being a protector of free press around the world.
“The prosecution of Julian Assange for carrying out journalistic activities greatly diminishes America’s credibility as a defender of these values, undermining the United States’ moral standing on the world stage, and effectively granting cover to authoritarian governments who can (and do) point to Assange’s prosecution to reject evidence-based criticisms of their human rights records and as a precedent that justifies the criminalization of reporting on their activities,” they wrote.