In 2010, Chelsea Manning shocked the world with leaked documents that exposed abuses and crimes committed by the United States military in Iraq. These revelations also made the publisher of those documents, Julian Assange, and his organization, WikiLeaks, household names.
Kevin Gosztola was one of the few reporters to cover the U.S. military court-martial against Manning. Gosztola was at Fort Meade in Maryland for each phase, including the trial, and became a go-to resource for both the public and the media (PBS’s “Frontline” noted his critical role in the coverage). Since then, he has reported on the unfolding saga of Assange with equal tenacity and focus.
In his new book, Guilty of Journalism: The Political Case Against Julian Assange, Gosztola meticulously documents how state and private actors have colluded to punish a journalist fiercely committed to transparency, truth-telling and uncovering the secrets of the powerful. In this interview, Gosztola provides updates on the case against Assange and discusses the potential threats to press freedom in the U.S.
Peter Handel: Tell us about your background covering Assange and give us the latest on this case.
Kevin Gosztola: I have closely followed Assange and WikiLeaks since 2010-2011, when the media organization published documents from United States Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning. At the time, I was an intern for The Nation magazine. I went on to write a column called “The Dissenter” for Firedoglake (now a newsletter at TheDissenter.org). While working for Firedoglake, I regularly traveled to Fort Meade in 2012 and 2013 to report on the military court-martial against Manning. I was recognized as one of a small number of journalists to cover the entire proceedings.
After Manning’s trial, I expanded my focus to the wider war on whistleblowers under President Barack Obama. I co-founded Shadowproof in 2015, which spun off from Firedoglake. Through Shadowproof, I covered what unfolded with Assange and WikiLeaks in 2016, when they published emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. And in early 2019, when Manning was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions revived, I knew Assange would be charged soon and committed myself to producing the same kind of thorough reporting that I had done on Manning.
In January, you were a delegate on the Belmarsh Tribunal, where a variety of experts gave testimony regarding the case against Julian Assange. Tell us about what transpired there.
At the Belmarsh Tribunal, prominent individuals — including Jeremy Corbyn, Daniel Ellsberg and Betty Medsger — came together for an event inspired by the Russell-Sartre Tribunals of the Vietnam War. Delegates were gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to make the case for freeing Julian Assange while presenting evidence of attacks on freedom of the press.
It was the fourth Belmarsh Tribunal, and by bringing the Belmarsh Tribunal to the nation’s capital, Progressive International confronted members of Congress and journalists in the D.C. press, who should be paying this case much more attention.
We also detailed some of the crimes committed by the U.S. government that officials are trying to cover up by prosecuting Assange: We highlighted some of the torture and war crimes committed in Iraq, Afghanistan and the wider global “war on terrorism.” That, along with the systematic privacy violations that occurred as a result of the alleged CIA-backed spying operation, helped to illustrate why U.S. intelligence and the military do not want the Department of Justice to abandon this prosecution.
In your book, Guilty of Journalism, you discuss the implications of the government charging Assange — a publisher — with violating the Espionage Act. What does this mean both for Assange’s ability to defend himself and for the future of journalism?
Under the Espionage Act, one does not have the ability to make a public interest defense. We have seen what that means for whistleblowers. They are blocked from describing in court why they did what they did. All prosecutors have to do is show that a whistleblower possessed documents or transferred “national defense information” to a member of the press who does not have a security clearance. That is enough to secure a conviction, which is why they often accept plea agreements and do not proceed to trial.
Assange would have just as much difficulty defending himself in a U.S. court, especially since prosecutors have crafted allegations that cast him as more of a malicious hacker to justify their case. So, there would be quite a battle over whether he is a journalist during trial, and that would weigh against his legal team severely.
Damage has already been done, but the future of journalism is in further jeopardy if the U.S. government holds a trial against Assange, convicts him, and shows the world that it has the final say over who is and is not a journalist.
You document the extent to which UC Global, a private security company hired to guard Assange when he was in the Ecuadorean embassy, engaged in spying on him and then lied about it. What did you find most alarming?
I find it alarming that this is not more of a scandal. Journalists, attorneys and doctors, including Americans, visited Assange in the embassy. They were forced to hand over their passports, electronic devices and other property. UC Global contractors copied the contents of their devices and created dossiers about them.
Lots of evidence from the Spanish newspaper El País and Yahoo! News points to CIA support for what UC Global did. And yet, for the most part, press freedom groups in the United States are quiet. What UC Global did has not garnered the kind of outrage that should occur in a society that supposedly prizes its freedoms.
To be clear: Julian, his wife Stella, his kid Daniel, and his legal team, along with others, were essentially terrorized by a pressure campaign that involved targeted surveillance of their actions in order to hopefully force Julian to leave the embassy. It is as troubling as what UC Global did to visitors under the guise of “security.”
The U.S. government refuses to consider Assange a journalist. What does this mean for its ability to prosecute him, and what could it mean for future cases like his?
Assange is a journalist; however, under the Espionage Act, it may make no difference. U.S. prosecutors have charged him just as they have charged whistleblowers for committing unauthorized disclosures. Since they do not meaningfully distinguish past whistleblowers from Assange, the risk to journalists is that the U.S. Justice Department may succeed in establishing a clear precedent in U.S. courts that makes it a crime to publish classified information. Journalists around the world would be vulnerable to potential charges if they published documents, particularly those related to national security or military affairs.
The claim that Assange was a foreign agent often surfaced as part the “Russiagate” narrative. Now that many of the claims about Russian interference in the 2016 election have been proven false, what impact do you think this will have on Assange’s defense?
Claiming that Assange and WikiLeaks were part of some Russian intelligence operation to bring down the United States was always intended to discredit the work of a media organization despised by U.S. officials. It worked, and as far as Assange’s defense is concerned, U.S. prosecutors may continue to lie about Assange during opening and closing argument if there is a trial. However, during the evidentiary portion of the trial, prosecutors would have to put forward proof of a connection to Russia to bring it up in court. Since the claims have nothing to do with the allegations in the indictment, I don’t think “Russiagate” will play too much of a role in proceedings.
Initially, corporate media championed Assange’s cause, but they eventually turned on him. Why?
I disagree. I don’t believe the corporate media ever championed Assange’s cause. They turned on Assange the moment that the Pentagon started baselessly claiming that WikiLeaks had blood on its hands for publishing documents on the Afghanistan War.
There was an attitude among the “prestige media,” as I refer to them in the book, that they needed to play the role of gatekeeper or else the rise of WikiLeaks could mean some of the mutual understandings they had with officials in power that allowed them to carry out their work regularly could be in jeopardy. So, for example, The Washington Post Editorial Board was willing to state unequivocally in their view that WikiLeaks was not journalism to protect their access.
Now, what is true is that all these media organizations benefited from publishing documents from WikiLeaks, even as they approached Assange with deep-seated contempt. They have used the U.S. State Embassy cables — all 251,000 of them — to help the public better understand U.S. foreign policy and global events. Yet they remain guarded in their protests against the U.S. Justice Department as the prosecution of Assange plods forward.
One of the most shocking stories to come out recently was about how highly placed government officials plotted to kill Assange. Tell us about this.
This links back to UC Global. It came from Yahoo! News, and the public learned that CIA Director Mike Pompeo and other officials sketched plans to target Assange that included poisoning or kidnapping him. This, along with the disruption campaign against WikiLeaks, represented the CIA’s all-out war against a dissident media organization. The agency went so far as to redefine the organization as a “non-state hostile intelligence service” to carry out operations that it could never get away with against a group of journalists.
It should be the subject of an intense investigation in Congress, and the Justice Department should be dropping the charges after publicly conceding that the CIA’s actions mean Assange could never have a fair trial. But here we are, with Assange still in indefinite detention in Belmarsh prison in London. There is no end in sight, and the punishment chisels away at the mind and body of Assange every day.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
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