Julian Assange Is Free, but Justice Has Not Been Served

After a nearly 15-year ordeal, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is free. It’s a victory worth celebrating. But the message has been sent: when it comes to exposing the wrongdoing of powerful governments and corporations, no good deed goes unpunished.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves the US courthouse on June 26, 2024 in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands. (Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images)

On June 24, 2024, Julian Assange left Belmarsh Prison in London and boarded a plane for Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands. Upon reaching the US territory the next day, the journalist was taken to a federal courthouse. Inside, Assange pled guilty to conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act.

When asked to explain his crime, Assange told the judge, “Working as a journalist I encouraged my source to provide information that was said to be classified in order to publish that information. I believe that the First Amendment protected that activity. I believe the First Amendment and the Espionage Act are in contradiction with each other, but I accept that it would be difficult to win such a case given all these circumstances.”

As part of the plea deal, Assange was sentenced to time served. During the sentencing, Chief US District Judge Ramona V. Manglona said, “The government has indicated there is no personal victim here. That tells me the dissemination of this information did not result in any known physical injury.” After setting the journalist free, the judge noted that the following week was Assange’s birthday, saying, “It’s apparently an early happy birthday to you.”

Assange entered the courthouse one of the most visible political prisoners in the world. He left a free man for the first time in over a decade.

There is zero question that Assange going free is cause for celebration. Assange is a journalist who exposed US war crimes. As a result of this work, he has suffered vicious and relentless persecution at the hands of the US government. Yet Assange’s freedom was attained in a bittersweet victory. Until the very end, the US government refused to drop its claim that basic journalism can constitute a violation of the Espionage Act. A plea deal does not set a legal precedent, but the steep price extracted from Assange will undeniably have a chilling effect on journalism.

Truth Against War

Assange’s plea in a Saipan courthouse — he refused to travel to the continental US — was the final surprise in a protracted saga filled with twists and turns. In 2006, Assange helped to found WikiLeaks. The innovative news outlet provided a platform for whistleblowers to anonymously turn over primary source documents to the media. Today, the technology behind WikiLeaks is commonplace in newsrooms across the globe, but at the time it was revolutionary.

Unsurprisingly, WikiLeaks quickly made enemies with the governments and corporations whose secrets it was exposing. But things dramatically escalated after whistleblower Chelsea Manning turned over a massive cache of US government secrets to WikiLeaks. Manning was a private in the US Army who became disturbed by the violence carried out as part of the United States’ Middle East wars. Believing the public had a right to know, and that the truth about the wars would spark a meaningful public debate, Manning turned over secret files detailing state criminality and abuses of power to WikiLeaks.

From 2010 to 2011, WikiLeaks worked with a range of journalistic partners across the globe, including some of the world’s leading mainstream news outlets, to publish groundbreaking stories based on Manning’s revelations. Assange’s partners in the mainstream media needed WikiLeaks in order to publish these stories, but they quickly turned on Assange. Much of the excitement about WikiLeaks stemmed from the utter failures of legacy media during the run-up to the Iraq War, when many journalists willfully acted as stenographers for an administration clearly lying to launch a war of aggression.

WikiLeaks, on the other hand, clearly saw journalism as a tool to challenge entrenched power. Assange would tell antiwar activists, “If wars can be started by lies, peace can be started by truth.” His view of journalism follows in the proud tradition of figures like I. F. Stone, but it was at sharp odds with a media industry that often seemed to be more interested in chumming it up with figures in the national security establishment than challenging them.

Backstabbing in the media was the least of WikiLeaks’s problems. The decision to take on the US empire and expose its secrets sparked a dramatic retaliatory backlash from the US government. Manning was arrested, tortured, and given an unprecedented prison sentence. Assange feared he was next and was granted asylum by Ecuador. Assange never made it out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He lived there for seven years. Using a number of legal pretexts — such as a Swedish investigation into sexual misconduct that failed to produce criminal charges, and a UK bail skipping charge brought at the request of the White House — UK police surrounded the embassy and pledged to arrest Assange should he ever set foot outside.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention condemned these actions as an arbitrary and unlawful deprivation of Assange’s liberty. The United Nations special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment would find Assange was subjected to psychological torture. It would later be revealed that following WikiLeaks’ publishing of secret CIA hacking tools, the CIA would consider kidnapping and even assassinating Assange. Questions still remain about the extent of the CIA’s surveillance of Assange, his lawyers, his doctor, and journalists who visited him, which remains the subject of both a US lawsuit and a Spanish criminal investigation.

Barack Obama’s administration, which had ruthlessly prosecuted whistleblowers, decided prosecuting a publisher like Assange was a bridge too far. Its reasoning was not out of sympathy for Assange, but because in prosecuting the WikiLeaks publisher they would set a precedent that could be used to prosecute mainstream publications like the New York Times. Donald Trump’s administration reversed course and brought a series of indictments against Assange. London police were granted permission to enter the Ecuadorian embassy and arrest the journalist. He was then held in Belmarsh Prison, a harsh maximum-security prison, for over five years.

All of the charges stem from his work to publish the Manning revelations. The United States was criminalizing the acts of journalism, exposing war crimes, and investigating human rights abuses. It was a shocking indictment that spawned the unanimous condemnation of organizations concerned with civil liberties, press freedom, and human rights, as well as the news outlets that worked with WikiLeaks.

Conspiracy to Commit Journalism

Assange would ultimately face eighteen counts, carrying a maximum 175 years in prison. Seventeen of the counts were brought under the Espionage Act, with the remaining charge being conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Three of the charges brought against Assange were unprecedented pure publication charges. In other words, the crime in question was nothing more than publishing information on the WikiLeaks website. In addition to being charged with publishing national defense information, Assange also faced four counts under the Espionage Act for having received the information to begin with. Of course, a journalist cannot publish information from a source without receiving it.

Assange was also alleged to have conspired with Manning to violate the Espionage and Computer Fraud and Abuse Acts, two statutes under which Manning was convicted by a military court. The remaining charges all sought to impose liability on Assange for the “crime” whistleblower Manning committed by giving the documents to Assange by alleging Assange had aided and abetted Manning. Prosecuting a whistleblower for giving information to the media is an affront to democracy; prosecuting a journalist for the whistleblower’s decision to give him the information is Kafkaesque.

Apologists for the US government’s efforts to imprison one of its most impactful critics fixate on the claims that Assange assisted Manning. They cite this as proof that the indictment was not for mere journalism. Particular attention is given to the US government’s allegations that Manning asked Assange to help her to crack a “password hash” so that she could cover her tracks when accessing secret documents. This claim remains unproven and widely criticized.

During a February extradition hearing, UK lawyers representing the US government wasted only a few words on password hashes. Instead, they made clear the bulk of the US’s theory was that by operating a website that would publish information from whistleblowers, Assange was soliciting others to commit hacking and “steal” national defense information. The conspiracy and aiding and abetting charges, like all the charges against Assange, were the US government’s attempt to criminalize journalism.

In the end, Assange pled guilty to a single count of violating the Espionage Act’s conspiracy provision. The “criminal information,” the government’s narrative of the crime, made zero mentions of hacking. Instead, it alleged that between 2010 and 2011 Manning and Assange were in a criminal conspiracy together. As part of that conspiracy, they violated three provisions of the Espionage Act. The criminal acts were: Manning, who had lawful possession of national defense information, gave it to Assange who was not authorized to receive it; Manning, who had unauthorized possession of national defense information, gave it to Assange who was not authorized to receive it; and that Assange received national defense information from Manning. In short, a whistleblower gave information about abuses of power to a journalist and the journalist accepted it.

The US government calls this “conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense information,” but there’s another word for it: journalism.

A Loaded Gun

In taking a plea deal, Assange has set no legal precedent. But in ruthlessly seeking to destroy Assange and insisting that journalism is a crime under the Espionage Act, the US government has set a chilling political precedent.

WikiLeaks didn’t only publish Manning’s revelations. For a brief period, whether you were a corporation or government, it seemed if you tried to exploit the public and hide behind secrecy, WikiLeaks would expose you. It’s this experiment in radical transparency that the US government has so viciously sought to snuff out.

The world is a better place because of the whistleblowing of Manning and the journalism of Assange and WikiLeaks. And it is a worse place because of the US government’s decision to intimidate future truthtellers by ruthlessly seeking to destroy those involved.

Assange is free. Given that there were serious questions whether Assange would even survive this ordeal, that is an incredible victory worth celebrating. But the Espionage Act remains a loaded gun to be used against journalists, whistleblowers, and the public’s right to know. Even in finally letting go, the security state has made clear they will fire that gun. It is our duty now to disarm them once and for all.