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Rachel Marsden
Rachel Marsdenhttp://www.rachelmarsden.com/
Rachel Marsden is a columnist, political strategist and host of an independently produced French-language program that airs on Sputnik France.

Julian Assange once told me his secret to surviving impossible odds

Julian Assange opinion
Image – @Stella_Assange, X.

One particular personal exchange with the WikiLeaks co-founder during his stay in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London spoke volumes about his mindset.

“Never let the bastards grind you down,” Julian Assange told me after I published something that elicited the usual wrath of warmongering neocons. “Outlast.”

In that moment, I understood that if anyone could actually survive the insurmountable odds of being targeted as enemy number one by the most powerful people in the most powerful government on the planet, it was Julian. Always businesslike, laser-focused on the issues and fighting for a better, more peaceful world.

Before it became nearly impossible to communicate with him, we did so online, on a regular basis. It was always about work. As journalists, we’re constantly looking for historical context to fully flesh out any acute event, because nothing ever happens in a vacuum, or just out of the blue without any run-up. And that’s where WikiLeaks and its database of diplomatic cables, emails, and other raw data was a goldmine.

Virtually any event, from the Western-backed wars in Syria and Libya to Hillary Clinton’s victory over Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries was more easily understood as the result of backdoor shenanigans laid out in exchanges between relevant parties and published in searchable WikiLeaks databases. And our media audience was wiser for it.

Julian’s vision of journalism as a science, driven by raw data, is ideal for transparency, and a nightmare for those who thrive in the shadows and depend on the average citizen not knowing about things to which they’d most likely object. When journalistic ambition runs up against state secrets, far too often subjected to abusive classification to hide wrongdoing, it sets public accountability efforts on a collision course with the government itself, with the journalist caught in the middle. Until WikiLeaks came along in the rise of the independent online publishing era of the mid-00s, government officials could at least pressure mainstream newspaper brass to lay off, citing national security considerations. With Assange, they had zero control beyond brandishing the long, swinging stick of American law.

Despite his eventual efforts to work with newspapers such as The Guardian, and mitigate any risks to himself, it seemed to be too little, too late. Assange was already seen as a threat after initially releasing raw footage of American forces in Baghdad opening fire from a helicopter on Reuters journalists in 2007, and eventually ended up being hit by Washington with 18 espionage related charges and a potential 175 years in prison. It’s not like Assange’s publications hurt intelligence sources. The judge at his plea hearing even underscored the US government’s admission that there was no “personal victim” of Assange’s actions.

In the end, he’s walked free. But without the endless fundraising resources, activist support, team of lawyers, and constant media and celebrity attention, he probably wouldn’t have. Washington was struggling to convince the British court handling the US request to extradite Assange that his basic rights would be protected and that he wouldn’t face the death penalty — as a foreign citizen, whose rights Washington doesn’t give a damn about. Also, it was pretty tough to prove that they’d protect his well-being in their custody when it was revealed by Yahoo News back in 2021 that the former CIA director under President Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, had requested some options drawn up to kidnap or assassinate Assange. But how many people have faced the long arm of extrajudicial American law and lost? Just ask the French executives of the energy section of the French multinational, Alstom, who were jailed, tried, and convicted when targeted by the Department of Justice under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, had the US government ask that they become informants for the FBI inside their company, only for top US Defense contractor General Electric to end up buying the company and getting its hands on France’s nuclear know-how. How many others don’t have Julian’s ironclad resolve and legal team, or French nuclear power secrets to offer Uncle Sam? The fact that a threat of 175 years in prison has now just simply vanished, and that they ultimately couldn’t defend themselves to the letter of the law when faced with enough legal will and resources to do so, should have the average American clamoring for system reform.

The precedent set by the Assange case in obtaining a guilty plea from a practitioner of journalism for “conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense information” is downright terrifying. And ironic. Because when other governments accuse American journalists of doing the same thing, Washington routinely qualifies the charges as bogus or trumped-up. In the Assange plea, the US government is straight-up validating the very same argument used against American journalists abroad. And there weren’t even any assertions presented in US court documents that Assange was working for any foreign intelligence service — unlike, for example, in the case of American Wall Street Journalist, Evan Gershkovich, now facing trial in Russia on charges of working for the CIA to obtain classified defense production information during wartime using journalistic cover. How can US politicians now claim that a rule applied by another country in an even more seemingly egregious case is invalid when they’re just proven to be avid fans of it themselves?

“From at least 2009 and continuing through at least 2011, in an offense begun and committed outside of the jurisdiction of any particular state or district of the United States, the defendant… knowingly and unlawfully conspired with Chelsea Manning to commit the following offenses against the United States… of receiving and obtaining national defense documents, and willfully communicating them.” In journalism, that’s called… journalism. Communicating with a source, asking them for more details or clarification, or more proof, then publishing it for consumption by people who aren’t supposed to be seeing it because it’s above their pay grade is literally the definition of Pulitzer Prize-winning public service journalism. Just ask the team who won it for covering NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations.

This precedent will have a chilling effect on independent journalists who don’t have the backing of a powerful publication to go to bat for them if they end up being targeted for disclosing facts that Uncle Sam considers too inconvenient. But then would any powerful publications these days even be sufficiently willing to take on the establishment? Or would they be more likely to quash any such story?

And it’s not just the US that’s concerned. In the wake of a French government complaint to anti-terrorism officials, French investigative journalists for Disclose, an NGO, were hauled in and intimidated by French domestic intelligence (the DGSI) in 2019, after publicly detailing France’s involvement in the deadly civil war eradicating civilians in Yemen, with the use of French weapons sold to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Rather than the onus being on these Western governments to be transparent and honest with their own citizens about the use of taxpayer resources for war that they probably don’t even want and that largely just benefits special interests, it’s now increasingly falling on journalists to ensure that they can fight the inevitable legal backlash if they dare to even expose it.

It should give major cause for pause that the US government considered this very clear, concise, and abhorrent precedent to be valuable enough to ultimately hostage-trade for Assange’s freedom.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of DTNZ.

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