On Contact: Kristinn Hrafnsson of WikiLeaks
Chris Hedges discusses the US extradition request for Julian Assange with WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson.
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CH: Welcome to On Contact. Today we discuss the attempt by the US government to extradite Julian Assange, with WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson.
KH: It will have a chilling effect and will mean that attack on journalists who are covering national security issues will be attacked. And it's already started. We saw that in San Francisco recently, against a journalist who was raided and was working with a source. We saw that in Australia only a week ago, where the offices of News Corp journalists and then a flock of federal agents raided the offices of the national broadcaster ABC, and--unheard of before. So--and I totally link all this together, because the Americans have sent a signal, it's okay to go after journalists. And that should be of grave concern to all journalists and the public, you know, because this is--this is an attack on the foundation of democracy in our part of the world.
CH: Yesterday, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks who faces extradition to the United States for publishing documents, files, and videos that exposed US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan appeared in a video link from the high-security Belmarsh Prison in London's Westminster Magistrates' Court. Assange, who the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer said has endured prolonged psychological torture, faces a potential 170 years in prison under the Espionage Act if extradited. The court, on Friday, set a series of court appearances that will potentially culminate in a full extradition trial set to begin on February 25th, 2020. Assange spoke briefly to the court, decrying the charge that he and WikiLeaks were involved in hacking into US government computers, saying the US government was attempting to mislead the press. Joining me in the London Studio is Kristinn Hrafnsson, the Editor-in Chief of WikiLeaks. So let's begin with what happened yesterday, the start of this process. Well, let's start with the day before yesterday with the Home Secretary.
KH: Yes, that wasn't a surprise, really. We expected that it was in line with the previous declarations of this administration.
CH: This was the Home Secretary signing the extradition papers, yeah.
KH: True. And it wasn't a surprise that he would try to wash his hands basically off the case by putting this to the court--the court decisions. But this is a political question, of course, and in the end it will be a political question whether this administration will step in and stop this extradition.
CH: What was interesting that Julian didn't speak much yesterday, but the one issue that he did highlight was this issue of hacking, although it's even the US government admits that he didn't actually get into a computer. Explain what that is and why it's important.
KH: Well, I mean, the misleading factor here is there is no indictment on hacking by Julian Assange or anybody in WikiLeaks. And if you read carefully through that text, it clearly states that it is something--that they're trying to angle it as an attempt to hack or something of that nature. But in reality there's a discussion that is referred to about a re-route of a source into the material that he has already access to, in order basically hide his trail.
CH: You're talking about--that time Bradley Manning, now Chelsea Manning, you know, and so, there was a request on the part of then Bradley Manning to help cover her tracks. And Julian said he would look into it, but nothing was ever done.
KH: Alleged--allegedly, Julian, on the other hand…
CH: Allegedly okay, that's better.
KH: …basically said, "I'll look into it." And that's it, and nothing more is stated in the indictment. So when the Justice Department is presenting this as hacking indictment, that's a wrongful depiction because if you read the indictment carefully, it's obvious to everybody.
CH: Can and that's--was the issue he raised--the one issue he raised. Why is it so important to him and to WikiLeaks that that be clarified?
KH: Because WikiLeaks is a publisher. It's not a hacking organization, even though that sort of slander is trying to--is always up in the agenda and one of the attack that WikiLeaks has constantly been under. WikiLeaks publishes information, that's what it did--it does and have done in the past since it was established.
CH: Let's talk about the 17 charges under the Espionage Act. What do those mean for him, what do those mean for WikiLeaks, and what do those mean for the rest of us?
KH: Well, I think we should start basically what it means for journalism because in my mind, journalism is on trial here. And I was yesterday in Tunisia at the Congress of the International Federation of Journalists. And I was very heartened by the fact that the journalist unions all around the world did vote anonymously on the statement supporting Julian Assange in condemning this attack on journalism. Journalist are beginning to see how serious this is because what the--what the entire framework basically entails is equating journalism with espionage. And that is very serious, very serious indeed.
CH: Although it's a kind of bizarre charge given the fact that Julian is not a US citizen and WikiLeaks is not a US based publication.
KH: Yeah, that we--that, I raised as well because I was allowed to address the congress yesterday in Tunisia. And I pointed out that this is--the seriousness of the extraterritorial writs here. We are talking about the United States trying to indict them and demand an extradition of an Australian citizen, who published from the UK, or from France, from Germany and my home country Iceland. So it means that this goes through any journalist anywhere in the world could be next.
CH: One of the things that I heard in the court yesterday when I was there, Julian that--is--tell the court that he has no access to a computer and he hasn't even seen the charges that the US has leveled against him, arguing for extradition. And yet, he's in the middle of this hearing. Talk a little bit about his conditions in--are you--you've visited him?
KH: I have. I have.
CH: So, talk about a little bit about the conditions in which he is being held.
KH: Well, the condition, of course, this is a high-security prison. And of course, nobody--he is there among, you know, hardened criminals, terrorists, and mass murderers and it's absurd that a publisher should be sitting there. He is under condition where it's absolutely impossible for him to properly prepare his defense because of the limited access he has to lawyers and to material. Even though, the framework is now until February, it's not a very long time giving the scope of his case. So, that alone, it makes it impossible for him to get a fair trial.
CH: I want to talk about the sentencing of--the 50-week sentencing for, supposedly, bail violation. Speak about that because he's now--first of all, it's a high-security prison for--isn't--I mean isn't bail violation a misdemeanor? I don't know. I mean, it--well, talk about that because I think it's an important element of what's happening here.
KH: Well, he gets almost a maximum sentence for that, 52 weeks, the--or 50 weeks rather. Well, the maximum is 52. So, I mean, there are two weeks less of maximum sentencing. And it's even totally contrary to a recent sentencing guideline by a government committee which is--was issued I think in October or November, where the sentencing guideline committee had said, the maximum should be six months. So he gets almost a full year. And when this happened, I pointed out that in a high-profile case here when a manslaughter on the--on the--on the River Thames wasn't the case, the one who in the end was sentenced, it didn't show up in court, fled to Europe was extradited. He was--he got six months in jail. Julian Assange gets almost a year. So, that shows the disproportionality of the--of all of this and one has to--has to wonder whether this is a deliberate method to make it hard for him or even impossible to properly prepare his defense.
CH: When you visited him, and I was only able to see him on video, did you come away with a kind of impression that Nils Melzer came away with, that he was suffering both physically and psychologically under this kind of stress?
KH: Yes, he is. And that's, it's normal--I mean they--it--anybody would suffer. And if you look at the past history and where he comes from after the--being inside the Ecuadorian Embassy for, you know, all these years and of course that is--that is--so he's not coming from an ideal place into prison. He had--he was already suffering. And the--and the extraordinary statement by the Special Rapporteur on Torture and I've read a lot of UN documents and, you know, you rarely see such a harsh criticism of western governments as seen in their document, and it's all true.
CH: And it, you know, just--there have been so many oddities about this kind of shotgun traditional process, but one of the things that struck me is, when he was dragged out of the embassy, he was hauled into court. And I think if in 15 minutes to prepare after being just physically--of course, British Police entering the sovereign territory of Ecuador by enter--entering Ecuador's diplomatic space, and the comments of the judge, just--I mean from the start there have just been peculiarities about even this process that has begun here.
KH: Yeah, and the Special Rapporteur mentioned this as--in his report, he is dragged out of the embassy by the Metropolitan Police that was invited into the embassy by the new administration and the President Lenin Moreno. And within, I think, three hours or three and a half hours he is sentenced. He got 15 minutes with his lawyer to prepare. And the judge who had never seen him before is seeing this man for the first time in a glass cage in a courtroom, you know, exposes his bias by calling him a narcissist. And, in…
CH: And I think Julian said--even Julian didn't even say anything, right?
KH: No, he just said not guilty. I think--I think that was it.
CH: Not guilty, right, that's it.
KH: And gave snarky remarks that maybe he should just say yes to the extradition request than just haul over to the US to face it. You know, this is extraordinary and I've never seen anything like it. And the lawyers, you know, even if the judges here in this system in the United Kingdom are, you know, often have strong remarks, but this is unheard of.
CH: Does this--is this decision on the part of the Home Secretary to sign the extradition or prove the extradition orders the day before the hearing on Friday, is that just kind of a political statement, what does it mean legally?
KH: It--I'm not--I'm not entirely certain what it means legally in the--it--because this was expected basically, but it is sending a signal. So it's a political message and it--and the entire process is politicized and the entire process from the beginning has been full of, you know, of abnormal behavior and, you know, ways that you normally don't see. You know, I don't like the cliches, but this is both, you know, Orwellian and Kafkaesque. The entire process, wherever you look at it.
CH: And you have four governments colluding, Sweden, Ecuador, Great Britain, and the United States, all working in tandem.
KH: Uh-hmm. And of course, we all know who is pulling the strings. And it was quite obvious in Ecuador and when we see or saw even from the dates of material from the Ecuadorian government that this had been planned, the action on April 11, for months, probably since October last year. So…
CH: We're going to come back to that. When we come back, we'll continue our discussion with WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation with WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson. So, this has been a long process on the part of the United States. It's the culmination of a process, sealed grand jury indictment, concerted campaign of character assassination to isolate and demonize both WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, the attempts to cripple the organization in terms of its finances, talk a little bit about the aha scenes that brought us to this point.
KH: Well, I mean, if you look at the indictment, it focuses on the publications of 2010. So this has been actually brewing for all these years since 2010. That's when the first grand jury was formed. They have a mandate for 18 months and it probably has been rolling continuously ever since. There--so, the attempt to basically counterattack and send a signal and take down WikiLeaks has been going on for all these years. We learned in 2013 that myself and two of my colleagues were targets of the investigation. We assume that more people are. A lot of Americans had been approached and they've offered--been offered immunity if they testify against WikiLeaks and Julian Assange with an offer who reminds me of, you know, the Godfather, you know, approached, you know, when I make you an offer you can't refuse because it's nothing but a threat if you approach somebody and said, "You can--you can get immunity if you testify." What does--what does it mean? We talk about individual who are now living in exile, you know, in--here in the UK, in Germany, even in my home country in Iceland. So, it has been growing this willingness to take these very serious steps. At the same time, we've seen, of course, and this goes back to the Obama administration, the Espionage Act basically being used or abused, I would say, this archaic legal structure against whistleblowers. And we always said throughout this time, you know, beware, you know, because next they'll go after journalists. And now that--this has emerged for the first time in the 102-year history of this Espionage Act that a publisher, an editor, a journalist is being attacked with this framework.
CH: What about Chelsea Manning? They have put Chelsea in jail. What are they trying to do, do you think?
KH: Well, they're trying to torture her and to--and to testify and change her position, testify against Julian. That is obvious. And there's nothing about torture when you take her was--as--was court-martialed, got her sentence that was reduced by presidential decree and to be hold back into prison and be forced to stay there until she, you know, testifies on--against Julian Assange. This is--this is totally abnormal. There's no justice in that. And it shows the great link that all parties in that four countries equation that you mentioned are willing to go. Let's not forget that a Swedish national is sitting in a prison in Quito, in Ecuador for the sole reason of being a friend of Julian Assange.
CH: That's right. For two months.
KH: Yeah. And after there was a change of government in Ecuador and Lenin Moreno quickly turned his attention, you know, and--to the United States. And, I mean, The New York Times probably was reporting in December they had the information that a representative of the Trump administration had met Moreno and Moreno had actually offered, you know, Julian Assange in exchange for debt relief. And lo and behold, I mean, three weeks before Julian Assange was thrown out or dragged out of the embassy, a $4.2 billion loan--IMF loan is granted to Ecuador and there's some other $6 billion from the World Bank coming. So, put two--put two and two together. It--it's not--it's not really complicated. It's pretty obvious if you look and join the dots, where we're at. And…
CH: Well, and there's…
KH: …we have talked about the Assange president--precedent in this--in this context and this is what should be of great concern to everybody, but--it--because it will have a chilling effect and will mean that attack on journalists who are covering national security issues will be attacked. And it's already started. We saw that in San Francisco recently, against a journalist who was raided, who was working with a source. We saw that in Australia only a week ago, where the offices of News Corp journalists and then a flock of federal agents raided the offices of the national broadcaster, ABC and--unheard of before. So--and I totally link all this together, because the Americans have sent a signal, it's okay to go after journalists. And that should be of grave concern to all journalists and the public, you know, because this is--this is an attack on the foundation of democracy in our part of the world.
CH: What about the judicial process itself in Great Britain? I think the US judicial process, especially given to--it's the Southern Virginia, right--it's the Virginia--Eastern Virginia court that is--which I think has never cleared anyone charged with terrorism, ever. Do you have a little more hope in the judicial process in Britain or is it as bleak?
KH: Well, we do have some examples where extradition have been averted with campaigning and political action and legal intervention and--but you're not too hopeful with the current administration and to--when it's how--obvious how willing they are to, you know, serve the interest of the American empire. So I'm not too hopeful, but this will take a time. You never know whether there's going to be a change in the political landscape in the meantime. And so you have to have--you have to fight on, but it's going to be a very, very hard and long battle.
CH: Where do we go from here in terms of your own work in WikiLeaks?
KH: Well, I mean, WikiLeaks will continue to operate. A lot of our effort, of course, will be focused on helping our publisher and the founder of WikiLeaks and--because we, of course, recognize the utmost important to all of these and the importance not just for Julian, although he's a friend of mine, and of course, you know, he's--of course, important for me to get him free, but also, it is a larger question with--people must recognize, it's not just about Julian Assange. It's not just about WikiLeaks. It's about the future of journalism.
CH: Well, I think--I think it's very clear that Julian has not committed a crime. He's--I mean, I suppose you could argue, perhaps, over the bail issue, but certainly, what he's being charged with is something that we did at The New York Times--I mean, I did it over my 15 years several times as did many other reporters.
KH: Uh-hmm. And, I mean, the propaganda that is being presented. So, we talked about hacking earlier. The propaganda that the--that the publication had some serious effects and put lives at risk. It--it's total propaganda even in the Chelsea Manning trial in 2013, under oath, representative from the Pentagon had to admit that no harm had been caused by the publication.
CH: Yeah. I just want to interrupt because, to explain that there were--one of the charges that the US government has made is that by exposing the names of informants and collaborators, those people had been put at risk. I went to the Chelsea Manning--I attended the trial at Fort Meade and the sensing--and you're right, the US government had to admit that none of the--no physical harm came to any of those people.
KH: Uh-hmm. Yes. And I was--I returned from Tunis yesterday and I met journalists there who told me the story of the terribly important impact the cables from the embassy in Tunisia had on the revolution in December 2010 and January 2011. It's--it became a catalyst for the revolution and the overthrow of the Ben Ali dictatorship who had to feel the country in--on January 14th, I believe, in 2011.
CH: Can you just explain why, because what it did expose.
KH: It--what it did expose was nothing new to the--to the Tunisians, the despotism of the Ben Ali government, but what it did expose as well is that the American authorities fully knew how bad his dictatorship, which I think it lasted for 24 years, was. But he was a good ally and, I mean, dictator seems to be the preferred choice of allies in that region and what enraged the population is that the Americans knew, but they continue to support him despite human rights abuse, despite despotism. People--there was a lot of poverty and--but the dictator was living a luxury and it enraged the population. So, he had to jump on a plane and his family and flee to Saudi Arabia, of course. So, I mean, the--who was endangered in Tunisia? Well, if anybody was endangered, it was probably Ben Ali himself.
CH: So, let's say Julian is extradited. What--and let's hope and fight and pray that that doesn't happen, but if he is extradited, what do you expect the US government to attempt to do and if, of course, he's found guilty on these charges, what's that going to mean for the rest of us who work as journalists?
KH: Well, it is a signal of basically the end of national security journalism, because nobody would be safe in reporting on world crimes or national security issues. There will be the threats of the same fate as Julian Assange's.
CH: And what's interesting is, it's late, but all of the mainstream publications that published voluminous material gleaned from this--from WikiLeaks, I think have echoed exactly what you said, the Russian Post, The New York Times, The LA Times, had these very sober editorials after--and I think if something people like you have been saying for a long, long time, but unfortunately publications which are now at risk were very late about understanding.
KH: Yes. And it basically means that the propaganda points and the character assassination attempts, which were actually outlined in a--in a document that was .from US intelligence which was leaked to WikiLeaks in purpose in early 2010, it was the attack plan and they followed it point by point. And it has seeped in and it has worked, and it has had an effect at the demonization of Julian Assange. And it was very interested--interesting to hear Nils Melzer who was a specialist who was in--worked as a--as a UN Special Rapporteur for I think 20 years. He admitted that he had been very reluctant to take on the case. And I thought it was very honorable of him actually to point that out that he who should be, you know, especially guarded against propaganda and the sentiments building up, he of all people, when he started sort of scratching the surface, he was--he was stunned that actually he himself had…
CH: And how mendacious it was. Yeah.
KH: Yes. How mendacious it was and…
CH: We have to stop there.
CH: Thank you, Kristinn.
KH: Thank you.
CH: That was WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson. Thank you so much.
KH: You're welcome.