I expect the trial of the year will be United States of America v. Julian Assange. Of course, Assange has not yet been charged. He is not even in the country. But the United States will find a way to bring him here, a sort of reverse rendition that will place the Australian hacker within the jurisdiction of the United States.
Assange will be tried under the Espionage Act, legislation passed in 1917 making it a crime to take information from the government and use it to interfere with the operation or success of the armed forces of the United States or to promote the success of our enemies. The poet E.E. Cummings, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and Daniel Ellsberg were all charged under the act.
The forthcoming prosecution arises from Assange’s work on behalf of Wikileaks. In the past few years, Wikileaks has published the “Collateral Murder” video on YouTube, showing American gunners mowing down Iraqis for no apparent reason other than the thrill of the kill. Assange and Wikileaks also arranged the publication of thousands of confidential documents regarding the U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the release of confidential diplomatic cables, in cooperation with newspapers around the world.
Assange did not find these documents buried under a rock. The U.S. Government believes that the documents were given to Assange by a disgruntled American soldier, Bradley Manning. Manning has been subjected to isolation and psychological abuse during more than a year of captivity in American military custody. The abuse is undoubtedly intended to break Manning, to get him to portray Assange as an active participant in the effort to obtain confidential documents. On the government’s theory, Assange provided Manning with computer equipment making the downloading, processing and removal of the information from secure U.S. computers possible. There is little or no proof that this allegation is true.
If the government can prove that Assange was more than a passive recipient of the documents, it will seek to claim that he was a conspirator with Manning in violation of the Espionage Act. No press organization has ever been successfully prosecuted under the act. Assange must be made to be more than a purveyor of information; he must be transformed into an electronic thief. A good part of the recent preliminary hearings in the military proceedings against Mr. Manning last month seemed designed to persuade that Assange was no journalist, but was, in fact, the legal equivalent of a spy, a spy serving no state, but simply the public’s right to know.
Assange is controversial not just because of his role as the Gutenberg of the Internet, making once secret and occult truths accessible to all. He is an eccentric, seemingly rootless, living a peripatetic, wandering sort of life. At least he lived such a life before his arrest in London and his confinement to the estate of an supporter on house arrest as he challenges extradition to Sweden to face trumped up charges of sexual assault with two groupies. He has placed himself at the center of storm, simultaneously alienating and attracting others who support transparency and the opening of secret government archives and files to the world.
If you’ve not had a chance yet to view Judith Ehrlich’s and Rick Goldsmith’s documentary on Daniel Ellsburg, do so. I found my copy on Amazon. It’s called The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. The film was nominated for an Academy Award in 2010. What’s striking about the film is the government’s hatred of Ellsberg for leaking the secret history of our failed war in Vietnam to American newspapers. The government raided his psychiatrist’s office without a warrant to look for dirt to smear Ellsberg with; the burglars who performed that mission went on to get caught raiding Democratic Party offices at the Watergate, an event that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Assange is similarly hated. Politicians have called for stern and prompt action against him, some even going so far as to call for his assassination. I hope someone will someday be able to leak to the world the diplomatic efforts underway to get Assange out of England, and into our custody.
The case against Ellsberg was ultimately dismissed as a result of government misconduct. That was an era in which the judiciary would from time to time hold the government accountable for violating the rights of ordinary people. TImes have changed. I expect that if Assange is brought to the United States to face trial, significant parts of the government’s efforts to bring him to trial will be kept from public view on “national security” grounds.
Assange and Wikileaks deserve a Nobel Peace Prize, not prosecution. It ought not to be a crime to disclose government lies and deception. Global communications by way of the Internet pose a challenge to traditional power structures as significant, perhaps more significant, than that posed by the emergence of the printing press.
The Assange trial will be wedded to efforts to bring the Internet under the control of government. Expect 2012 to a year of concerted attempts to make it harder to expose secrets. We the people just can’t be trusted to know what our government is doing.