Consider these two events. The first happened in April 2019. Six suited men flanked by several uniformed police – one of whom tried to block someone holding up a mobile phone – carried a shackled Julian Assange out of a doorway, across a London pavement and into one of two large police vans before whisking him away to prison. The whole event was over in seconds.
The second was last week. Fresh from the front line, Ukrainian president Volodimir Zelensky was welcomed into the main chamber of the US Congress with a two-minute standing ovation. In a dramatic half-hour speech broken with frequent applause he heaped praise on his host nation for its legendary defence of freedom.
It is easy to admire, as I did last week, the United States that brought Zelensky out of his war-ravaged country into its hallowed legislative chamber to speak to the world. It is that generous, open America which makes the treatment of Julian Assange so hard to swallow.
Assange is living proof that exposing secrets of governments, no matter how democratic they are, puts you in danger. This seems especially true when the secrets exposed are from the land of the free, the United States of America.
A decade after this enigmatic Australian took refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy followed by years in a high-security UK jail, where he remains, his story has become a foul stew of official secrecy, arcane diplomatic, legal and political manoeuvres, sabre-rattling nationalism and various opposing notions of freedom.
We’re all a bit wary of people who abuse power, but Assange made it his lifelong vocation, aided by a keen analytical brain and advanced computing skills. In 2006 he and others established Wikileaks, a transnational, non-profit organisation set up to put government and corporate secrets online for all to see.
In October 2010 a short, grainy, blood-chilling snippet of video made Wikileaks a household name. From the gun camera of a US army helicopter, it showed the slaying of civilians in a Baghdad street in 2007.
That video is the tiny tip of a giant iceberg. Among the millions of items published by Wikileaks have been US military reports from Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, US diplomatic cables, government files from Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey, and various dumps of corporate files. Concerned that the lives of American and other operatives had been put at risk, the Obama administration looked into prosecuting Assange, but held off on the basis that this could threaten US press freedom.
Then in 2016 Wikileaks released emails embarrassing to the Democratic Party and its leading candidate, Hillary Clinton. Assange spoke out against Clinton, even when it became clear that the emails could be a factor in electing Donald Trump. It was a huge misstep; an ungrateful Trump administration promptly went after him for espionage.
Now, with no sign that Joe Biden’s government will end his ordeal, and with UK appeal avenues almost exhausted, Assange faces a lifetime in a US jail. His one hope seems to be prime minister Anthony Albanese’s stated belief that his long confinement to this point is enough punishment.
But in the wake of Trump’s coup attempt, US self-interest may also work in his favour. Early this month five major media outlets including The Guardian and The New York Times warned in an open letter that an Assange indictment would set a “dangerous precedent” by criminalising “a core part of the daily work of journalists”.
Ten days ago MSNBC legal presenter Ari Melber told his television audience that in an era of authoritarian politics and attacks on press freedom, the continued pursuit of Assange by Attorney-General Merrick Garland risked the future of US democracy.
The Assange case revolves around what motivates him. He is no longer a simple hacker, and can’t be a spy because he makes public the information he acquires. That surely makes him a publisher. Because he publishes information governments would rather we didn’t see, he also gets called a terrorist, though that says more about the accuser than Assange.
Whatever he is, his writings and interviews have suggested a strong antipathy to anything American, so it’s no surprise that people in power there want to punish him. But to do so in the name of democracy and freedom reeks of hypocrisy.
More than ever, the world needs people who expose government misdeeds. But it also needs, more than ever, a democratic, vibrant, out-there United States, something we took for granted until the actions of a would-be dictator in Washington and an actual dictator in Moscow called for a re-think of everything.
Pursuing Assange any further is an act of petty revenge unbecoming this great democracy. America is better than this.