• Analysis

The real threat to democracy isn’t Julian Assange — it’s the espionage case against him

As the Yes Men, we have complicated feelings about Assange. But prosecuting him under the Espionage Act would be a disaster for journalism and democracy.

Beginning in 2010, we, the Yes Men, developed a friendship with Julian Assange and a collaboration with Wikileaks. In 2015, we made this short video about it, originally for inclusion in our third film, “The Yes Men Are Revolting, but it didn’t quite fit. We think it shows a charming, funny and thoughtful side of the man, and so — despite our more complicated feelings about him after 2016 — we’re making it available now, given the dire threats facing Assange and free speech more broadly.

Assange is currently facing extradition to the United States from London, for allegedly violating the U.S. Espionage Act — marking the first time the act has been used to prosecute the publishing of information. If the extradition is successful, he’ll face trial in a Virginia “espionage court” that has never once absolved a national security defendant.  Allowing the Virginia court to try (and most likely convict) him would be a disaster for democracy — something even Obama’s Justice Department believed in 2013, when they determined that indicting Assange would mean having to prosecute any news organization or writer who publishes classified material. (They called it “the New York Times problem.”)

Assange’s extradition hearing began in February 2020, with the second part delayed from May until Sept. 7 because of COVID-19. In its apparent eagerness to extradite Assange, the court has committed some egregious abuses — such as introducing new charges in June that Assange couldn’t respond to — that are mentioned in this summary by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and this short film by Wikileaks collaborator Juan Passarelli. 

Meeting the mastermind

We first met Assange in the summer of 2010, in an awkward English manor/organic farm. He was under house arrest as he awaited a hearing for extradition to Sweden, where authorities wanted to question him on allegations of sex crimes. (The case was later dropped.) From Sweden, he would have been vulnerable to extradition to the United States, where he might have been subject to torture or worse; all things considered, he seemed pretty calm, not to mention funny and thoughtful, as we hope our little film shows. 

A screenshot of the landing page for Wikileaks’ release of Stratfor’s internal emails, called The Global Intelligence Files. (WNV/The Yes Men)

We saw Julian again in February of 2011. Wikileaks had received thousands of internal emails from corporate spy agency Stratfor; a few dozen emails showed that Dow Chemical had hired Stratfor to spy on us, which was flattering to say the least. 

In 2015, we shared a delicious rotisserie chicken and bottle of wine at London’s Ecuadorian embassy, where Julian was receiving diplomatic protection from Ecuador’s left-wing government.

Angry at the DNC, angry at Wikileaks

Our feelings about Julian got more complicated when, a year later — not long before the disastrous U.S. election of 2016 — Wikileaks released a trove of private emails showing the Democratic National Committee had conspired with the Clinton campaign against Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. The first group of emails came just before the summer congress of the DNC, and the second, more directly linked to Clinton, a week before the election.

Of course, the DNC’s actions against its own party’s populist leanings were loathsome, not to mention myopic and stupid. Forty years of bipartisan neoliberalism had left millions expecting nothing from government, laying the groundwork for the rise of a right-wing populist like Donald Trump. Now, the DNC was squelching the only thing that could have countered him: a left-wing populist like Bernie Sanders, offering much-needed popular solutions based in reality rather than hatred. 

Without Sanders in the mix, millions faced a choice between the same old neoliberal shit they’d been offered for decades, and a brand new kind of shit, untested and unproven. Many chose Trump, who became far and away the worst and most dangerous president in American history.

Still, for as much as we’ve mainly blamed Democrats for the horrible outcome of the 2016 election — see our 2017 #DNCTakeBack intervention — we’re also angry that Wikileaks chose to release the DNC emails, especially the second batch, when they did. The timing undoubtedly helped an unhinged authoritarian, in charge of an unhinged party, to win the election. Had Trump been more competent, we could easily be looking at the end of any sort of democracy in America; a Clinton presidency could have been many things, but not that.

Wikileaks claims that releasing the DNC emails when they did was a matter of “journalistic integrity.” But “journalistic integrity” could also have justified not releasing them at that time, considering the widely-supported possibility that the emails came from a concerted foreign campaign against Clinton. (Assange continues to insist they were not from a “state actor,” but it’s hard to see how that could be strictly ruled out.) It also seems that “journalistic integrity” could have meant releasing the emails after the election was over, rather than give the advantage to a scoundrel known to have even worse skeletons in the closet (that were known then but not publicized until later). 

Also, “journalistic integrity” would have probably precluded talking to Donald Trump Jr. about what they could do for each other.

The real reasons?

We don’t believe that “journalistic integrity” was Julian’s main reason for releasing those emails at the moments he did. There was also his abiding hatred of at least two things Hillary Clinton represented: her hawkishness and her neoliberalism. 

While Clinton had supported the Iraq war, Wikileaks shined a light on U.S. abuses there with its “Collateral Murder” videos. (Among the revelations for which Assange is on trial is Wikileaks’ release of the Army’s rules of engagement, which it used to prove that such drone strikes on civilians are in fact murder.) According to leaked online chats, Assange seems to have believed that Clinton’s hawkish tendencies would only worsen if she became president.

Wikileaks has published a lot of crucial information and revolutionized the idea of what journalism can do, whether or not we like all its results.

And while Clinton was the most prominent champion of the neoliberal consensus — which helped lead to Trump — Assange had long fought that consensus and the financialization it led to. (Financialization, the increase in size and influence of financial institutions and markets, was why Visa, MasterCard, Paypal and others were able to cut off contributions to Wikileaks following its release of the “Collateral Murder” videos, effectively censoring the organization with no legislative recourse to speak of.)

It’s also possible that Julian, like some others on the left, thought a Trump presidency would put a dent in U.S. power abroad, both militarily and economically. But when strongmen succeed the results are predictable — just look at China, Russia or, yes, Germany in the 1930s. Luckily, Trump was too incompetent to succeed, even if he did directly and profoundly affect millions of Americans, including the hundreds of thousands who’ve unnecessarily died of COVID-19. You just can’t tell an American that the gambit was worth it. 

Now what?

We intensely regret that Julian acted as he did in 2016, whether it was out of “journalistic integrity,” hatred for Clintonite warmongering or other policies, or a desire to see American power fail. 

But we even more intensely believe that extraditing Julian to the United States to face trial under the Espionage Act would be a disaster for journalism and democracy worldwide. Wikileaks is a media organization, and an incredibly effective one at that. It has published a lot of crucial information and revolutionized the idea of what journalism can do, whether or not we like all its results.

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To continue persecuting Julian is to persecute journalism. If Democrats keep squelching their own best ideas, fascism may take over — but without journalism, without a free press, democracy fails for sure. 

More than ever these days, the left needs to support, not destroy, the small groups that are part of the “forces of light,” as Julian calls them near the end of our film — even when they get things a bit wrong. For one thing, we’ll need every force of light imaginable to pressure our president-elect into doing what America needs, much as other movements did with LBJ, FDR and Lincoln

Should we fail in that project, we’ll have mainly ourselves to blame when a smarter Trump comes to power in 2024 — no matter what steps or missteps, aided or not by a foreign power, lead to that outcome.

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