The Department of Justice (DOJ) under former President Donald Trump had aggressively pursued the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — and it appears, now that President Joe Biden has taken office, that policy won’t be changing anytime soon.
The DOJ announced on Wednesday that it would seek to appeal a recent court ruling in the United Kingdom last month that blocked an extradition request from the Trump administration. The DOJ under Trump had alleged that Assange had violated federal crimes in publishing documents obtained by Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010.
Those documents were published online when former President Barack Obama was still in office, and when Biden was serving as vice president. At the time, the Obama administration had thoroughly investigated and considered placing charges against Assange but ultimately decided not to pursue any, citing his First Amendment protections. Under Trump, however, Assange was charged with violating the Espionage Act.
The Biden administration’s decision to continue seeking to extradite Assange has been criticized by a number of civil liberties organizations, who joined together this week in an open letter calling for the president to drop the appeal on the basis that Assange had a right to publish the material obtained by Manning. That letter was organized by The Freedom of the Press Foundation, and included other signers, such as Amnesty International USA, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders.
“The indictment of Mr. Assange threatens press freedom because much of the conduct described in the indictment is conduct that journalists engage in routinely — and that they must engage in in order to do the work the public needs them to do,” the letter stated. “News organizations frequently and necessarily publish classified information in order to inform the public of matters of profound public significance.”
The documents Assange published (obtained by Manning) were indeed damning, shining a light on a number of the U.S. military’s controversial actions and atrocities — such as the 2007 “Collateral Murder” video, which showed an Army helicopter and members of the U.S. military targeting and firing upon unarmed citizens in Baghdad, including two Reuters journalists.
A U.K. judge blocked an extradition request from the DOJ early last month. While that ruling was hailed by journalists and civil liberties groups, it was also criticized in part because it did not block extradition on the basis of Assange’s political rights, but rather because of the WikiLeaks founder’s mental health status, and the belief that he could be harmed further by being placed in the U.S. prison system for an indefinite period of time.
The U.S. indicated after the ruling that it would pursue an appeal of the decision. Stella Morris, Assange’s fiancée, blasted their decision to do so.
“We are extremely concerned that the U.S. government has decided to appeal this decision and continues to want to punish Julian and make him disappear into the deepest darkest hole of the U.S. prison system for the rest of his life,” Morris said at the time.
Marjorie Cohn, deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, was also critical of the decision, and of the DOJ’s continued pursuance of Assange.
“This is the first time a journalist has been indicted under the Espionage Act for publishing truthful information,” Cohn noted in an op-ed for Truthout last month. “Journalists are allowed to publish material illegally obtained by a third person if it is a matter of public concern. The U.S. government has never prosecuted a journalist or newspaper for publishing classified information.”