Betty Medsger: US Officials plotted to assassinate Julian Assange.

The U.S. government’s effort to extradite WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange to the U.S. is moving toward a final decision in London. If those efforts succeed, Assange would be tried under the Espionage Act of 1917, a draconian World War I law intended for use against spies, not journalists.
In addition to making a fair trial impossible by charging him under this law, Trump administration’s actions against Assange also demonstrate a desire to destroy him. While Trump’s high ranking CIA officials developed a plan to assassinate Assange, they also planned on kidnapping him, causing a shootout on the streets of London and shooting the tires of another country’s airplane if it took off from London with Assange onboard.
In addition to making a fair trial impossible by charging him under this law, Trump administration’s actions against Assange also demonstrate a desire to destroy him. While Trump’s high ranking CIA officials developed a plan to assassinate Assange, they also planned on kidnapping him, causing a shootout on the streets of London and shooting the tires of another country’s airplane if it took off from London with Assange onboard.

This piece originally appeared in The Internationalist, our weekly newsletter featuring essays, analysis, interviews, and artwork from across our global network.

His crime, it is important to remember, is publishing some of the most important revelations of crimes committed by the U.S. and its allies, including major war crimes. While the people who committed these crimes, that he made known, have not been charged, whistleblowers like Assange have been persecuted and are now serving time in prison.

 “There has been no greater threat to press freedom than United States v. Julian Assange,” said Ben Wizner, ACLU lawyer, in a recent testimony at the Belmarsh Tribunal in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court had established the journalists’ right to publish government secrets fifty years ago when the Nixon administration lost its bid to suppress publication of the Pentagon Papers.

This is the first time, Wizner continued, that the government has used the century-old Espionage Act to charge a journalist with criminal conspiracy. 

Already the mere existence of the indictment against Assange has had a chilling effect in newsrooms in the U.S., according to Wizner. “Lawyers for publications are already assessing the risks of publishing certain information in a way they never had before.” 

But a successful prosecution in this case, he said, would affect journalists everywhere, not just in the U.S. “That’s because the United States is advancing…the extraordinary claim that it can impose the U.S. criminal secrecy laws on a foreign publisher who is publishing outside the United States….That opens an incredible Pandora’s box. Every country has secrecy laws. Some countries have very draconian secrecy laws. If those countries try to extradite New York Times reporters and publishers to those countries for publishing their secrets, we would cry foul, and rightly so. Does this administration want to be the first to establish the global precedent that countries can demand the extradition of foreign reporters and publishers for violating their own laws? I truly hope not.”

If Assange is extradited and stands trial, it would be in the federal court in Alexandria, VA. His lawyers would not be permitted to argue on his behalf that he published the files in the public interest and that the law was not intended to be used against journalists who receive classified information. Nor could a jury hear how the published information has benefited the public. Under the severely limited defense that is possible, it is not surprising that every person who has been tried under the Espionage Act in recent times has been convicted and served time in prison.

The Obama administration used the Espionage Act to go after government whistleblowers more than all other presidents combined. Still, it refused to use it against Assange, reasoning that it was inappropriate to suppress the reporter or publisher of government secrets, as opposed to punishing those who supplied these secrets to journalists. 

But the Trump administration went far beyond indicting Assange. Pompeo and other top CIA officials proposed a series of plans to destroy Assange, even a plan to assassinate him. This desire for extrajudicial revenge was fueled by WikiLeaks publication in March 2017 - along with its mainstream publishing partners - of the CIA’s hacking arsenal. It was, the CIA admitted, “the largest data loss in CIA history.” 

The files revealed the existence of the agency’s cyberweapons, the software programs the agency uses to hack its targets’ computers, telephones, electronic devices, computer networks and some models of Samsung televisions, all in order to steal information and conduct massive surveillance. They also revealed the agency’s planting of malicious software, or malware, against its targets.

According to Stefania Maurizi, who, as a journalist then for la Repubblica, a partner with WikiLeaks, wrote about these CIA files that became known as the Vault 7 files, “Before publication, WikiLeaks redacted the files and, to prevent them from being used by foreign powers and criminal organizations, did not release the actual cyberweapons.”

Pompeo announced in a speech in April 2017, soon after he became CIA director, that the agency considered WikiLeaks to be a “non-state hostile intelligence service,” not a journalism organization. That new designation, he assumed, gave the agency the power to take far more aggressive action against Assange and his fellow WikiLeaks journalists. American intelligence agents were convinced in late 2017 that Assange was about to be given diplomatic status by the Ecuadorian government as part of a scheme that would make it possible for him to be removed from the embassy by Russians and flown to Russia, where he would serve in Ecuador’s Russian mission.

This inspired a series of extreme options planned by the CIA: gun battles with Russian operatives on London streets as they drove away from the embassy with Assange in their car; crashing a car into a Russian vehicle carrying Assange, and then grabbing him; shooting out the tires of a Russian plane carrying Assange before it could take off. In addition to the critical legal issues involved in these schemes, there was a major problem: Assange, when told of the plan to have him represent Ecuador in Moscow, refused to go to Russia.

Pompeo’s desire for revenge against Assange prompted an “all-out war against” Assange at the highest levels of the CIA and the Trump administration. The extreme CIA plots against Assange were described in a deeply reported September 2021 story based on interviews with more than 30 U.S. government officials by three Yahoo News reporters. 

The plots against Assange are very similar to those revealed in 1975 at the Senate’s Church Committee’s historic first congressional investigation of the CIA and all intelligence agencies. Plots revealed included the ones to assassinate democratically elected leaders. They also are reminiscent of the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations that included helping Chicago police murder Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and other operations designed by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to destroy individuals and organizations whose political opinions he opposed. 

Then and now, the CIA assumed it was free to murder targets of its choice. A former official told Yahoo News that the CIA often makes these decisions internally based on interpretations of so-called “common law” passed down in secret within the agency’s legal corps. “I don’t think people realize how much [the] CIA can do…..and how there is minimal oversight of it,” the former official said. 

Those who opposed kidnapping and killing Assange finally prevailed when they pointed out that this highly illegal approach would jeopardize the Justice Department’s plans to indict and extradite Assange.

Throughout Assange’s confinement at the Ecuadorian embassy since June 2012 and, beginning in April 2019, in Belmarsh Prison in London, he has been smeared with various accusations, including the claim that WikiLeaks does not redact information that could seriously damage individuals. In probably the best-known smear against Assange, he was accused of raping two women in Sweden. He never was charged with rape, the women did not claim he had raped them and, after nine years, the Swedish government announced that there was insufficient evidence to charge him. 

For many journalists, the claim that he failed to redact possibly life-threatening information has been the most concerning claim against Assange. Maurizi says that in her experience, WikiLeaks insisted on such redactions. In addition, government agencies have admitted that no harm has come to individuals due to WikiLeaks’ revelations.

The publishers of the major mainstream news organizations that collaborated with WikiLeaks, beginning twelve years ago, called on the Biden administration in November to drop its prosecution of Assange. 

In an open letter, the publishers of The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El Pais urged the Biden administration to understand that “publishing is not a crime.” 

The U.S. government, they wrote, should end its prosecution of Julian Assange for publishing secrets.” As The New York Times has written, they pointed out, the documents on which the five newspapers had collaborated with WikiLeaks -- revelations known as “Cablegate” -- told “the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money.” 

“Obtaining and disclosing sensitive information when necessary in the public interest is a core part of the daily work of journalists. If that work is criminalized, our public discourse and our democracies are significantly weaker,” the publishers wrote. “….It is time for the US government to end its prosecution of Julian Assange for publishing secrets.”

Perhaps Wizner put it best. In his remarks at the Belmarsh Tribunal, he concluded with this warning:

“A country in which a publisher has been extradited and imprisoned for publishing truthful information will be a very different country than the one we have lived in our whole lives. And let’s make sure that we do everything possible to make sure that we don’t become that country.”

It’s now up to the Biden administration to make that decision. It is time for them to reconsider this extreme injustice set in motion by the Trump administration and end it by stopping the prosecution of Julian Assange. 

If you share that view, please consider writing to Attorney General Merrick Garland and President Joe Biden to urge them to stop this prosecution that could seriously damage freedom of the press throughout the world.

Betty Medsger is an American journalist and author known for her investigative reporting and coverage of politics and social justice issues. Medsger began her career in journalism as a reporter for the Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia, where she worked from 1961 to 1970. In 1971, she joined the staff of The Washington Post as a national reporter, covering politics and social issues. In 1974, she broke one of the most significant stories in American journalism history when she received and published documents from an anonymous source that revealed the existence of the FBI's COINTELPRO program.

She has written several books, including "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI" (2014), which tells the full story of the anonymous activists who stole the FBI documents that Medsger wrote about in 1971.

Throughout her career, Medsger has been recognized for her contributions to journalism and her commitment to civil liberties. In 1972, she won a George Polk Award for her reporting on the COINTELPRO program, and in 2014, she received the Ridenhour Courage Prize for exposing government surveillance.

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