The upcoming month will prove fateful for Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks The journalist will stand trial in the United Kingdom for an extradition request to the United States, where he could face 175 years in prison for violating the Espionage Act and other computer-related crimes.
Assange was accused of aiding Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning in 2010 when Manning provided WikiLeaks with an explosive batch of classified information that implicated the U.S. in various war crimes. Manning would later languish in prison for seven years before the former Army Private First class had her sentence commuted by then-President Barack Obama.
Although the Manning drama has receded, for the time being, the US government continues to work diligently to persecute Assange for doing journalistic work many members of the Fourth Estate refuse to do. Assange was slapped with at least 18 charges by the US Justice Department for illegally acquiring and disclosing classified information that allegedly undermined US national security interests.
For example, some of these leaks included the journalist’s efforts to shine a light on US military behavior that would normally be classified as war crimes, a CIA mass surveillance program (Vault7), and political corruption within the Democratic National Committee, among other legally questionable behavior the so-called Deep States has been involved in.
The punishment that awaits Assange could set a chilling precedent for any journalist doing real work to expose criminality in the highest echelons of government. The American government, which is more than eager to lay the smackdown on Assange, is simply circumventing the First Amendment by claiming Assange’s activities do not fit journalistic criteria.
There’s a strong bipartisan consensus in Washington regarding investigative activities that uncover the national security state’s improprieties. In the foreign policy apparatchiks’ view, such behavior merits state persecution. Let’s not fall for the theatrics seen during political debates. Both parties in America view Assange as an existential threat and will do everything possible to criminalize journalists like him when their journalistic endeavors threaten their interests.
Previously as CIA director, current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described WikiLeaks as a "hostile intelligence service" that Russia supports and asserted Assange made "common cause with dictators." Similarly, Hillary Clinton accused Assange of being a "tool of Russian intelligence" for his damning leaks that gave the American public a glimpse at the level of corruption festering inside of the Democratic National Committee.
WikiLeaks was a constant thorn in Clinton’s side throughout the 2016 campaign trial and became a useful scapegoat for rationalizing her defeat. In 2019, following the arrest of Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Clinton was gleeful about the prospects of Assange facing punishment for doing routine journalism. She declared, Assange must "answer for what he has done." There may be surface-level differences between the two parties, but on the issues that matter – free speech, in this instance – they hold the same positions.
This suffocating, Tweedledee and Tweedledum attitude to foreign affairs is what initially enabled an outsider such as Donald Trump to make a splash in 2016. In many respects, Trump indirectly benefited from Assange’s leaks, which knocked down Clinton a peg throughout the campaign trail. The constant barrage of damaging leaks combined with Trump’s general skepticism of America’s overseas adventures gave many antiwar and surveillance state critics some hope his administration may actually be different.
However, as we can see with the administration’s incoherent withdrawal policies and general maintenance of the D.C. supremacist foreign policy status quo, the Trump administration continues to advance much of the foreign policy Blob’s agenda, albeit with a different aesthetic. A successful extradition of Assange to the US coupled with a harsh prison sentence for the WikiLeaks founder will further dash any hopes of the Trump administration being any different than its predecessors on foreign policy affairs.
Politics is the art of the possible though. Pardoning Assange could send a strong message to the establishment that there’s a new path forward for foreign policy. Journalists who bring to light foreign policy malfeasances can rest easy knowing their activities will be protected, as set forth by First Amendment safeguards.
If polls are to be taken seriously, Trump has a tight re-election campaign in front of him. His opponent Joe Biden, described Julian Assange as "a high-tech terrorist" during his stint as Vice President, which puts him well in line with the foreign policy hive mind. To the Trump administration’s credit, it has shaken things up a bit by nominating solid skeptics of interventionism such as William Ruger and Douglas Macgregor to ambassador positions. At an instinctive level, Trump understands the unpopularity of perpetual military conflicts.
Yet, Trump can do more. He can set himself apart from his Democratic rival by standing up for journalism and pardoning Julian Assange. It’s the least he could do for a man who played a key role in exposing Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton in the 2016 elections. Whether Trump follows through is a different story. Assange getting the book thrown at him would represent yet another disappointing chapter of President Trump being engulfed by the very swamp he originally set out to drain.