The unflinching US effort to extradite and prosecute Julian Assange for 18 charges, 17 of which are chillingly based upon the Espionage Act of 1917, has not always stirred much interest in the publisher’s home country. Previous governments have been lukewarm at best, preferring to mention little in terms of what was being done to convince Washington to change course in dealing with Assange.
Before coming to power, Australia’s current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese had made mention of wishing to conclude the Assange affair. In December 2019, before a gathering at the Chifley Research Centre, he described the publisher as a journalist, accepting that such figures should not be prosecuted for “doing their job”. The following year, he also expressed the view that the “ongoing pursuit of Mr Assange” served no evident “purpose” – “enough is enough”.
The same point has been reiterated by a number of crossbenchers in Australia’s parliament, represented with much distinction by the independent MP from Tasmania, Andrew Wilkie. In a speech given earlier this year to a gathering outside Parliament House, the Member for Clark wondered if the UK and Australia had placed their relations with Washington at a premium so high as to doom Assange. “The US wants to get even and for so long the UK and Australia have been happy to go along for the ride because they’ve put bilateral relationships with Washington ahead of the rights of a decent man.”
The new Australian government initially gave troubling indications that a tardy, wait-and-see approach had been adopted. “My position,” Albanese told journalists soon after assuming office, “is that not all foreign affairs is best done with the loudhailer.”
Documents obtained under freedom of information also showed an acknowledgment by the Albanese government of assurances made by the United States that the WikiLeaks founder would have the chance to serve the balance of any prison sentence in Australia. But anybody half-versed in the wiles and ways of realpolitik should know that the international prisoner transfer scheme is subordinate to the wishes of the relevant department granting it. The US Department of Justice can receive the request from Assange, but there is nothing to say, as history shows, that the request will be agreed to.
Amidst all this, the campaign favouring Assange would not stall. Human rights and press organisations globally have persistently urged his release from captivity and the cessation of the prosecution. On November 28, The New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel published a joint open letter titled, “Publishing is not a Crime.”
The five outlets who initially worked closely with WikiLeaks in publishing US State Department cables 12 years ago have not always been sympathetic to Assange. Indeed, they admit to having criticised him for releasing the unredacted trove in 2011 and even expressed concern about his “attempt to aid in computer intrusion of a classified database.”
Had the editors bothered to follow daily trial proceedings of the extradition case in 2020, they would have noted that the Guardian’s own journalists muddied matters by publishing the key to the encrypted files in a book on WikiLeaks. A mortified Assange warned the State Department of this fact. Cryptome duly uploaded the cables before WikiLeaks did. The computer intrusion charge also withers before scrutiny, given that Chelsea Manning already had prior authorisation to access military servers without the need to hack the system.
But on this occasion, the publishers and editors were clear. “Cablegate”, with its 251,000 State Department cables, “disclosed corruption, diplomatic scandals and spy affairs on an international scale.” They had “come together now to express [their] grave concerns about the continued prosecution of Julian Assange for obtaining and publishing classified materials.”
Very mindful of their own circumstances, the media outlets expressed their grave concerns about the use of the Espionage Act “which has never been used to prosecute a publisher or broadcaster.” Such an indictment set “a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press.”
The same day of the letter’s publication, Brazil’s President-elect Lula da Silva also added his voice to the encouraging chorus. He did so on the occasion of meeting the WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson and Joseph Farrell, an associate of the organisation, and expressed wishes that “Assange will be freed from his unjust imprisonment.”
The stage was now set for Albanese to make his intervention. In addressing parliament on November 30 in response to a question from independent MP Monique Ryan, Albanese publicly revealed that he had, in fact, been lobbying the Biden administration for a cessation of proceedings against Assange. “I have raised this personally with the representatives of the US government.”
The Australian PM was hardly going to muck in on the issue of the WikiLeaks agenda. Australia remains one of the most secretive of liberal democracies, and agents of radical transparency are hardly appreciated. (Witness, at present, a number of venal prosecutions against whistleblowers that have not been abandoned even with a change of government in May.)
Albanese drew a parallel with Chelsea Manning, the key figure who furnished WikiLeaks with classified military documents, received a stiff sentence for doing so, but had her sentence commuted by President Barack Obama. “She is now able to participate freely in society.” He openly questioned “the point of continuing this legal action, which could be caught up now for many years, into the future.”
For some years now, the plight of Assange could only be resolved politically. In her address to the National Press Club in Canberra delivered in October this year, Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson acknowledged as much. “This case needs an urgent political solution. Julian does not have another decade to wait for a legal fix.” This point was reiterated by Ryan in her remarks addressed to the prime minister.
The telling question here is whether Albanese will get any purchase with the Washington set. While enjoying a reputation as a pragmatic negotiator able to reach agreements in tight circumstances, the pull of the US national security establishment may prove too strong. “We now get to see Australia’s standing in Washington, valued ally or not,” was the guarded response of Assange’s father John Shipton.