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Julian Assange and the Criminalization of Journalism

by | Jun 25, 2024

The US government cannot tolerate journalists who expose its criminal activities. Hence its longtime persecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who was freed from prison in the UK yesterday under a plea agreement with American prosecutors.

On April 5, 2010, for example, WikiLeaks published a video under the title of “Collateral Murder” showing a US Apache helicopter in July 2007 indiscriminately massacring Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters journalists, and wounding two children.

On July 25, 2010, WikiLeaks published leaked documents covering the US war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010, which were called the “Afghan War Diary” and revealed, among other things, how civilians killed by US forces were being misclassified as “insurgents”.

On October 22, 2010, WikiLeaks published additional leaked documents about the US war in Afghanistan, called the “Afghan War Logs”, as well as documents about the US war in Iraq, or the “Iraq War Logs”. Covering the years 2004 to 2009, the document troves were also called the “The War Diaries”.

The documents were made available to the New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, each of which published revelations from the leaked materials on the grounds that it was in the public interest. The documents showed, among other things, how US forces were turning a blind eye to the torture of prisoners by allied Iraqi security forces and that the number of civilian deaths in Iraq was probably much higher than the US government was claiming.

(I reported in October 2010 how the documents revealed little evidence of Iranian backing of Iraqi insurgents despite mainstream media headlines to the contrary.)

It was later revealed that the documents were leaked by Army Private first class Chelsea Manning (then known as “Bradley”), a 22-year-old intelligence analyst who was sentenced in 2013 to 35 years in prison after being convicted of violating the Espionage Act.

Manning was released in 2017 after President Barack Obama commuted her sentence. In March 2019, she was fined $256,000 and jailed for contempt for heroically refusing to testify against Julian Assange before a grand jury as part of a federal investigation against the WikiLeaks founder. She was ordered released by a federal judge on March 12, 2020.

As another example of why Assange has been persecuted by the US government, on November 28, 2010, WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of US embassy diplomatic cables under a collection dubbed “Cablegate”. The documents were shared with and reported on by the newspapers New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and El País.

A number of illustrative revelations from the leaked cables are included in my book Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

On the first page of chapter one, “The Rise of Hamas in Gaza”, I cite a 1989 US State Department cable observing how “some Israeli occupation officials indicated that Hamas served as a useful counter to the secular organizations loyal to the PLO”, and as a result, “Israeli forces may be turning a blind eye to Hamas activities”.

(To learn more about that, see my article for the Libertarian Institute last month titled “How Israel Supported Hamas Against the PLO”. Institute director Scott Horton and I also discussed it on his show.)

On page 18 of the same chapter and again on page 233 in the chapter “Murder on the High Seas”, I cite a November 2008 State Department cable stating that “Israeli officials have confirmed to econoffs [US Embassy economic officers] on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis.”

Describing a policy that was being supported by the US, the cable reiterated that Israeli policymakers “intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge”.

(I also reported in September 2013 how diplomatic cables provided no evidence of Syria amassing chemical weapons from Iraq despite mainstream media headlines to the contrary.)

In April 2011, WikiLeaks published the “Guantanamo Files” containing information about the treatment of prisoners of the US “war on terrorism” being held in the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (“Gitmo” for short).

As a result of WikiLeaks’ exposure of criminal US government policies and actions, the government began investigating Julian Assange for ostensibly violating the Espionage Act. In the UK in 2012, fearing that he would be arrested and extradited to the US, Assange sought and was given asylum by the government of Ecuador in its London embassy.

An April 2019, Assange was expelled from the embassy and arrested by British authorities while the US unsealed an indictment charging him with violating the Espionage Act. He had remained imprisoned at the Belmarsh maximum security prison in southeast London while fighting the US government’s attempts to have him extradited.

Upon his release yesterday, Assange boarded a flight for Australia to be reunited with his wife, Stella Assange, and their children. In a statement about his release posted to X, WikiLeaks reminded,

WikiLeaks published groundbreaking stories of government corruption and human rights abuses, holding the powerful accountable for their actions. As editor-in-chief, Julian paid severely for these principles, and for the people’s right to know.

A video posted by Stella Assange showed him signing paperwork and boarding the plane unrestrained and without any visible security escort.

A court document filed by US attorney Shawn Anderson in the district of the Northern Mariana Islands indicates that Assange agreed to plead guilty to the charge of having “knowingly and unlawfully conspired with Chelsea Manning” to obtain classified documents related to US “national defense”. According to the New York Times, the US agreed to drop other charges from its indictment.

According to a report from,

He had faced 18 counts from a 2019 indictment for his alleged role in the breach that carried a max of up to 175 years in prison.

The United States will seek a 62-month sentence to reflect the amount of time that Assange has served in a high-security prison in London while he fought extradition to the US.

The deal would then credit that time served, allowing Assange to immediately return home to Australia.

Thus, while the release of Julian Assange from prison is great news, this turn of events still represents a serious blow to press freedom. As the New York Times also notes,

Mr. Assange and his supporters have long argued that his efforts to obtain and publicly release sensitive national security information was in the public interest, and deserved the same First Amendment protections afforded to investigative journalists.

Many supporters renewed those concerns even as they expressed relief that he would be released.

“The United States has now, for the first time in the more than 100-year history of the Espionage Act, obtained an Espionage Act conviction for basic journalistic acts,” said David Greene, head of civil liberties at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit focused on First Amendment issues.

“These charges should never have been brought,” he said.

In 2021, a coalition of civil-liberties and human-rights groups urged the Biden administration to drop its efforts to extradite him from Britain and prosecute him, calling the case “a grave threat” to press freedom.

Much of the conduct he is accused of is what “journalists engage in routinely,” the group contended. “News organizations frequently and necessarily publish classified information in order to inform the public of matters of profound public significance.”

The US government has maintained that Assange’s actions put US “national security” at risk, which is an accusation reminiscent of how the 1971 publication by the New York Times of the Pentagon Papers leaked by Defense Department consultant Daniel Ellsberg resulted in the accusation that this was a “betrayal of national secrets.”

That leak played a significant role in the shift in public opinion that ultimately brought an end to the US government’s criminal war in Vietnam.

Julian Assange was persecuted for over a decade for heroically exposing the criminal organization in Washington, DC. His crime was doing journalism.

Cross-posted from

Jeremy R. Hammond

Jeremy R. Hammond

Jeremy R. Hammond is an independent journalist and a Research Fellow at The Libertarian Institute whose work focuses on exposing deceitful mainstream propaganda that serves to manufacture consent for criminal government policies. He has written about a broad range of topics, including US foreign policy, economics and the role of the Federal Reserve, and public health policies. He is the author of several books, including Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Ron Paul vs. Paul Krugman: Austrian vs. Keynesian Economics in the Financial Crisis, and The War on Informed Consent. Find more of his articles and sign up to receive his email newsletters at

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