Stephen Lemons Column

Mueller Report Aside, Julian Assange's Arrest Is a Danger to Us All

Lefties loved them some Julian Assange before 2016, now not so much.
Lefties loved them some Julian Assange before 2016, now not so much. New Media Days/Peter Erichsen

Ever since the British cops dragged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's scraggly, hirsute ass kicking and screaming from the Ecuadorian embassy in London on April 11, lefties have been bathing in schadenfreude, damning him as a Russian asset who helped Donald Trump and the Russians steal the 2016 election from Hillary Clinton.

The release Thursday of the much-awaited Mueller Report should give those baying for Assange's blood more reason to howl.

The heavily redacted document confirms what most of us knew already, or presumed: Russian military intelligence hacked the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, stealing "hundreds of thousands of documents," which the Russians funneled to the public via the online personas DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, as well as through WikiLeaks.

"The release of the documents was designed and timed to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election and undermine the Clinton campaign," the report states.

Mueller's 448-page doorstop notes that WikiLeaks had direct contact with Donald Trump Jr., during the campaign, a fact first reported on by The Atlantic's Julia Ioffe in 2017.

In some astounding private Twitter messages published by the magazine, WikiLeaks suggested to Don Jr., that the senior Trump not concede if he lost the election. WikiLeaks even asked Don Jr., if his dad could propose, half-jokingly, that Australia appoint its native son, Assange, as ambassador to the U.S.

The Atlantic said that the correspondence was one-sided, and that Don Jr. didn't respond to most of WikiLeaks' cockamamie scheming.

Assange hated Clinton and saw her as a warmonger and a personal enemy. I'm not sure how many people actually believed Assange when he said in a statement released on Election Day 2016 that WikiLeaks' pro-Trump activities were "not due to a personal desire to influence the outcome of the election."

Fox News could hardly have been more partisan. But Assange's efforts were far from dispositive. The material that WikiLeaks released embarrassed the Clinton campaign, but it exposed no criminal wrongdoing.

No, Clinton lost and Trump won for a large number of reasons that have been hashed and rehashed since Trump captured America's Iron Throne. Laying HRC's defeat at WikiLeaks' door ignores all of Clinton's faults and the Democrats' mistakes.

I mean, Trump triumphed in 2016 even after the release of the Access Hollywood tape. Podesta's emails are weak beer by comparison.

Nevertheless, lefties remain in full "lock him up" mode. It's as if the world began in 2016, and all that matters is that Assange was in the wrong camp. Never mind that the purported reason that U.S. authorities want Assange extradited to the States has nada to do with the Mueller investigation, though at least hypothetically, that could change.

No, the national security state wants Assange's head on a pike because of the damage Assange did to it. It wants him for the war secrets WikiLeaks divulged, for the troves of documents from the CIA, the U.S. State Department, and the Department of Defense that he put on public display.

Which is the aim of the indictment, originally filed in March 2018. In it, Assange is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion with Chelsea Manning, the U.S. Army whistleblower who in 2010 passed on whole databases of classified docs to WikiLeaks, which in turn published most of them.

From these leaks came the Iraq war logs, the Afghanistan war logs, and a massive tranche of U.S. diplomatic cables. All told, they revealed 15,000 previously undisclosed civilian deaths in Iraq, a long-running stalemate in Afghanistan, America's allies engaging in torture, and the U.S. spying on diplomats at the United Nations and on our allies abroad.

The most damaging part of the release was the infamous "Collateral Murder" tape — gunship video from a 2007 U.S. helicopter attack on a group of Iraqis in the streets of Baghdad. Around 18 Iraqis were killed, including two journalists from Reuters. Two children also were seriously wounded.

Reuters had requested that footage under the Freedom of Information Act, but the Pentagon blocked the request. No wonder. The audio of the soldiers' voices first pleading with their supervisors to let them shoot and later tut-tutting the wounded kids serves as a chilling reminder of the horrors of war.

Manning was caught, court-martialed, and sentenced to 35 years in prison. In 2017, President Obama commuted her sentence to the seven she served in custody.

She spent nearly a year in solitary confinement, during which she was stripped naked at night save for a smock. The U.N. called Manning's treatment "cruel, inhuman and degrading." Manning twice attempted suicide in prison.

Now Manning is behind bars again for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury about WikiLeaks — the same grand jury that indicted Assange.

Assange's detractors argue that Assange was charged with conspiracy to help Manning hack into a computer — a bright line that a real reporter would never cross.

That argument, like the complaint itself, is a red herring fatter than a walrus.

Both the indictment, and a recently unsealed FBI affidavit, talk about Assange offering to help Manning crack a password so she could access certain files and cover her tracks.

The FBI affidavit states that there is "no evidence that the password ... was obtained."

Indeed, by the time this so-called "conspiracy" was hatched, Manning had transmitted the bulk of the classified documents to Assange.

The indictment also alleges that Assange "encouraged Manning" to leak the docs.

So what? If egging on a source to leak privileged information is a crime, jails will be full of journalists. Which is Donald Trump's wet dream.

None of this is new. The Obama administration had the same information, but declined to indict Assange because it couldn't find a way around the First Amendment.

Surprisingly, the Trump administration signaled that it would bring Assange to justice in an April 2017 speech given by then CIA director (now Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In it, Pompeo referred to WikiLeaks as a "non-state hostile intelligence service," which needed to be eradicated.

He also scoffed at the notion that First Amendment protects Assange and WikiLeaks.

But the First Amendment does shield Assange. Since the 1971 Pentagon Papers case, it's been well-established that the First Amendment protects the right of a news outlet to publish even stolen, classified material without prior restraint.

One man in Assange's corner is Daniel Ellsberg. Nearly 50 years ago, the former military analyst leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War that he helped write, first to the New York Times and then to the Washington Post.

The Nixon administration wanted Ellsberg prosecuted for violations of the Espionage Act, but when it was exposed that Nixon's henchmen illegally broke into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office looking for dirt, the case was dismissed.

Ellsberg dodged a possible 115-year sentence.

I can almost assure you that if Assange is handed over to the U.S., he will be charged under the Espionage Act as well.

Liberals who blame Assange for Hillary's defeat may cheer that result. If so, they are cheering the silencing of an outlet that once shook the foundations of power.

That's not to say that I can defend Assange's often sleazy behavior. After all, he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy to evade deportation to Sweden to face sexual assault allegations. And the Mueller report recounts how Assange peddled conspiracy theories over the murder of Democratic staffer Seth Rich to cover for the Russians.

Yet, Assange was capable of great deeds, such as aiding Edward Snowden in his flight from American authorities, or when WikiLeaks exposed corruption that toppled governments in Tunisia and Kenya.

The day after the Brits collared Assange, his mentor Ellsberg fired off a tweet, claiming that Trump's war on the free press had "escalated to a new and dangerous height."

Assange, Ellsberg said, was being persecuted for the "crime of committing unauthorized journalism."

And Ellsberg should know. 
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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons