On Contact: Julian Assange’s extradition with Joe Lauria
On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to Joe Lauria, editor of Consortium News, about his coverage of US prosecutors in London attempting to extradite Julian Assange to the United States to face trial for allegations of espionage.
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CH: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we discuss the opening of the extradition hearing of Julian Assange in London with Joe Lauria, the Editor of Consortium News.
JL: It is technically in the Espionage Act. There is a section there. It's totally unconstitutional, needs to be challenged if Julian should come to the US. I hope as lawyers do challenge this, it butts up against the First Amendment, and that is that any person who's unauthorized cannot possess or disseminate classified information. That would be thousands of journalists over the decades. That would be a citizen who just retweeted a WikiLeaks document or email it to his friend. They have illegal because it's still classified, even if WikiLeaks has published it, it's still classified. So, you're not allowed to send somebody else. This is how absurd it is. But why are they going after him? It's not espionage, Chris. Espionage--he's not stealing documents to give to a foreign--to an enemy government, and for money. He was--unless the public is the enemy, he was giving the information to the public. This is sedition is what they're really going after. And we've had two Sedition Acts in the history of the US, one in 1898 and one in 1918. Both of them only lasted about three years and were repealed. And also here, the British sedition laws were repealed. But this is what we're really seeing here. They're going after a guy who is threatening their interest.
CH: A private security firm, Undercover Global, is being investigated by Spain's High Court for allegedly providing the CIA with audio and video recordings of the meetings WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had with his attorneys and other visitors when the publisher was in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. The security firm, hired by the Ecuadorian Embassy, also reportedly photographed the passports of all of Assange's visitors. It is accused of taking visitors' phones, which were not permitted in the embassy, and opening them presumably in an effort to intercept calls. It reportedly stole data from laptops, electronic tablets, and USB sticks all required to be left at the Embassy reception area. It allegedly compiled detailed reports on all of Assange's meetings and conversations with visitors and apparently at the behest of the CIA, also allegedly spied on Ecuadorian diplomats who worked in the London embassy. All of the surveillance material is in the hands of the US prosecutors in London currently attempting to extradite Assange to the United States, mocking the very concept of the rule of law. The prosecution and British judge have tried and condemned Assange in advance, a process no different from what we do in Guantanamo Bay or what Joseph Stalin did in the Lubyanka. Joining me by video link from London is Joe Lauria, the Editor of Consortium News, who is covering the Assange hearing. So, Joe, I want to begin with Undercover Global, and you have reported about this in Consortium News, because this--there's physical evidence. There were video and audiotapes leaked to La Repubblica, the newspaper in Italy, and El Pais, the newspaper in Spain, so this is not we have, the material. In any functioning judicial system, this stuff, the material, would have invalidated the hearing itself.
JL: Almost immediately, Chris, if this were a normal hearing, and it's not obviously, you have the prosecuting government eavesdropping on the defense preparations between the defendant and his attorneys. It's total violation of attorney-client privilege. And, again, it's the government that's prosecuting him, CIA's part of the same government that's trying to get him extradited and put into--on trial in Alexandria, Virginia. So this would be--I mean you can't imagine an easier case for a judge to throw out than this. Of course they didn't put forward--"they" being Assange's lawyers, did not put forward a motion to dismiss at this point based on this. But the judge, Vanessa Baraitser, the District Judge, has allowed this information about what happened with UC Global spying on Julian Assange and his--all his visitors to be admissible when the next phase happens in May, when this starts up again, when evidence will be introduced and witnesses will come. For--including David Morales, the owner of this company, Undercover Global, is apparently on the witness list and the defense wants him to come. So this will become an issue. Whether it has any effect on the outcome is to be determined. I want to point out that go back to Daniel Ellsberg's trial. When it was discovered that the government had raided his psychiatrist's office, had bugged his phone, that the judge in the case had been bribed with the possible FBI directorship, if he got the outcome, desired outcome, the case was thrown out. This is a different time, Chris, back then. This is as egregious or--as that. And this just not been thrown out and it may not work to throw it out, but it really should, because it's--you can--cannot imagine a more egregious violation than that of the--of the rights of the defendant.
CH: Joe, I want to talk a little bit about what the prosecution has alleged. This is James Lewis, acting for US authorities. He told the court, and I quote, "The US is aware of sources whose redacted names and other identifying information was contained in classified documents published by WikiLeaks who subsequently disappeared." And then Lewis adds, "Although the US can't prove at this point that their disappearance was the result of being outed by WikiLeaks."
JL: Yeah. But Mark Summers--I was there that day. I heard that, Mark Summers, the attorney for Assange, made it very clear. He went through the entire thing. It took him several hours. I could only summarize by saying he demolished this idea that Julian Assange had endangered informants. First, I want to add there's no statute when you look at the indictment and all of the statutes he allegedly have broken or listed at the top of the indictment, his second superseding indictment, there's nothing in there about endangering the lives of informants. There is no such crime. You cannot really reveal the name of agents, government agents, but informants are not protected that way. So, that's the first thing to consider, but secondly, the lawyer, Summers, made it clear that it was, first of all, Julian was very intent about redacting the names of people whose lives could be at risk and, in fact, he claims, the lawyer, that the David Leigh of The Guardian phoned a journalist at the Der Spiegel to complain that Julian was taking too long with these bloody redactions. That's number one. Number two, it was only when David Leigh and Luke Harding published a book in which they put the password to the unredacted and encrypted documents. In other words, this was the State Department cables. They were rolling them out slowly. They were going to--they're--every time, before publishing with his partners, Julian's partners at The Guardian, The Times, and Der Spiegel, they would read--they would redact and edit these documents. So, Julian was rolling them out slowly, but here, The Guardian put in a book the password to the entire 250,000 documents. And Julian calls the State Department, you could see it in the film "Risk" by Laura Poitras when he does it, she filmed it. She called--he called State Department, asked for Hillary Clinton. And then lets them know that they have a problem that this has been released now, that that was not the doing of Julian Assange, it was the doing of The Guardian. They claimed that that was a password that was going to be--expire within hours and WikiLeaks says that's untrue. So, I could go on, but the--I will just clearly state that if you'd listened objectively to what Mark Summers, Assange's attorney, in--on Tuesday in the hearing in the Woolwich District Court said Assange was the one that was most concerned about redacting the names of informants. We also had Mark Davis, an Australian journalist, a couple of months ago at an event in Sydney, we've got the film. We reported on it on Consortium News. He explained all of that and he also said Julian stayed up on the Friday night before the Sunday night publication. He stayed up, did an all-nighter to redact 10,000 names while he claims The Guardian, The New York Times really didn't care. And they also, The Guardian--The Times wanted Julian to publish first so they could perhaps protect themselves. This is the claim of Mark Davis. So that issue of the endangering of informants--and as you read the--what Lewis said, they have no evidence that anybody was harmed. In fact, Robert Gates at the time, the Defense Secretary, said when the documents came out, that it was awkward, it was embarrassing, but there was no danger or real threat to US interests or to any informants. There've never been one informant that we know of who was harmed by this, or even major US interests, which, well, if you're going to get into the political aspect, whether this is a political case or not, is important to note as well. I want to say one good thing, Chris, that was demolished I thought on that day and that was the idea that Julian Assange helped Chelsea Manning, his source, break into a government computer. A computer intrusion, that's the first indictment. In fact, we knew this already, Chelsea had legal access with top secret clearance to all of that data. We understood, from the indictment and from the interpretation of it, that he was only trying to help her hide her identity by signing in as an administrator, so that when--it was not known that she'd had been the leaker. But it turns out to be much more extraordinary than that. There was no password required. Chelsea Manning didn't need an administrator password. The password they were trying to crack was to get music videos, movies, and video games to download on military computers, which is forbidden by the US Army, so she was trying to get it for herself and other people in her unit. That's what Julian was trying to help her with, not to break into a government computer to steal documents she already had legal access to. So, that was totally smashed. That charge of computer intrusion is if WikiLeaks' telling the truth, and I believe they are, it's a joke.
CH: Joe, we should mention that Chelsea Manning herself is now in jail because there is pressure by the US government--from the US government to force her to say what she stated very clearly was untrue in her own trial and that Julian pressured her to--or assisted her in stealing these documents because at least until now, and once Julian, if he is brought to the United States and tried, this won't be true anymore, but it is not illegal in the United States to publish classified material. Indeed, I published classified material on the front page of The New York Times.
JL: Well, it is technically in the Espionage Act. There is a section there. It's totally unconstitutional, needs to be challenged if Julian should come to the US. I hope as lawyers do challenge this, it butts up against the First Amendment, and that is that any person who's unauthorized cannot possess or disseminate classified information. That would be thousands of journalists over the decades. That would be a citizen who just retweeted a WikiLeaks document or email it to his friend. They have illegal because it's still classified, even if WikiLeaks has published it, it's still classified. So, you're not allowed to send somebody else. This is how absurd it is. But why are they going after him? That's not espionage, Chris. Espionage--he's not stealing documents to give to a foreign--to an enemy government and for money. He was--unless the public is the enemy, he was giving the information to the public. This is sedition is what they're really going after. And we've had two Sedition Acts in the history of the US, one in 1898 and one in 1918. Both of them only lasted about three years and were repealed. And also here, the British sedition laws were repealed. But this is what we're really seeing here. They're going after a guy who is threatening their interest in a huge way and that's why he's behind a bulletproof glass at the back of the courtroom. He could not speak to his lawyers. He can't even look at his lawyers. Between his lawyers and himself are American lawyers sitting behind the America's British lawyer. He can't speak. He can hear. He's in a cage. Why? As you've seen in any courtroom in the US, and here as well, I believe, you have men and women who are being tried for murder sitting at the desk with their lawyers. And Julian Assange cannot do that. In some ways, he's more dangerous to the state. He is more dangerous to the state than a common murderer. And he is locked up behind it. They are just sending a message. They could treat him any way that they want. They want to make it as difficult for him and his lawyers as possible. They take documents away from him. They strip-searched him three times on Monday. They handcuffed him eleven times on that day and put him in five different cells. What for? What is the--are these intimidated tactics for? Because they could simply do it and they're getting away with it. But this became a big issue in the last two days this week, Chris, the treatment of Assange. He began to speak and he could be heard from the glass saying that he's as much of a spectator in his own trials he would be if he were at Wimbledon, at a tennis tournament. So, his sharp mind is still there. It was good to see that he could still use that kind of sarcasm. But they've made a huge issue of that and they've applied to get him out of that cage. The Judge, Baraitser, saying, "It's not up to me. It's up to the governor of Belmarsh Prison. You know I can't intervene." Et cetera, et cetera. She has repeatedly taken the side of the prosecution into intervening and interrupting Assange's lawyers and hardly interrupting the government's lawyers. So, Assange is seen as a major threat because he is filling in what is omitted routinely by corporate media. American behavior abroad, the foreign policy of the US, as aggressive as it's been, the millions of people that have been killed since the end of the Second World War, the coup d'etats that have taken place. There's not much spoken about that at all. During the impeachment with Trump, there was no--and why wasn't he impeached for war crimes is a kind of bipartisan consensus not to discuss what kinds of things US governments do so past presidents wouldn't be implicated and future presidents can commit those crimes again. Julian Assange has filled in what is routinely omitted from corporate media on US foreign policy. This is what makes him such a dangerous man to be enclosed in a bulletproof glass case and also to be basically tried for sedition, not for espionage.
CH: And we should be clear that most extradition hearings, all extradition hearings, are held in the--I believe the Westminster Court, but they've moved it to this high-security prison where there can only be 16 visitors. And then I believe the press watches it through a live feed, is that correct?
JL: No. They were some press tables, I read, on the floor and then there's a public gallery upstairs that has sixteen public and six family members, so there were about twenty-two people there. And it is technically still the Westminster Magistrates' Court, but it's meeting in the building of Woolwich Crown Court, which is right on the grounds of Belmarsh prison, Woolwich Crown Court. That's right. That's no accident either, obviously.
CH: Right. Thanks. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about Julian Assange's extradition hearing with the Editor of Consortium News, Joe Lauria. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the US efforts to extradite Julian Assange with the Editor of Consortium News, Joe Lauria. So Joe, the US--the prosecutor, on behalf of the United States, opened his statement addressing the press for an hour really with no legal argument. He was talking directly to the media and quite openly admitted such he said that it's not true that mainstream outlets like The New York Times or The Guardian were threatened with the same kind of charges that Julian Assange was threatened with for publishing cables and the names of informants with cultivating Manning, all of which was not true, as--in computer hacking. He then read out a series of articles from the mainstream media attacking Julian Assange essentially to, I think, bring the media over to his side. And then the magistrate, Baraitser, questioned the prosecution, in particular the claim that newspapers were not in the same position as Assange i.e. aiding or abetting Chelsea Manning in getting the material. And brought up the British 1989 Official Secrets Act, which says that it--merely obtaining or publishing any government secret was an offense, and this caught Lewis off-guard. And he ended up essentially completely contradicting what he had said before agreeing with the judge and that Assange was liable for extradition whether or not he had aided and abetted Manning. And then Lewis went on to add that any journalist or any publication that printed the Official Secrets would also be committed an offense. I found out a, kind of, fascinating moment in the trial and wondered if you could comment about that.
JL: Yeah. It was a lot going on there. One, yes, he's addressing the media to keep the media on the government's side. They have been largely at--against Assange. They have abandoned Assange because he's done the job that they should have been doing, in general, about uncovering government secrets. They don't want him to be considered one of their own. However, when he was arrested back in April 11 of last year, The New York Times, and a couple of other papers, and even Rachel Maddow, made very strong statements saying that this is wrong. We can have this guy who we can't stand, we don't like him, he did this and that, but he is a publisher and he is being prosecuted and arrested for publishing classified information and that is dangerous because we all do that. Rachel Maddow said that's our bread and butter. I don't know if it's her bread and butter, but a lot of journalists and the corporate media, it is their bread and butter, they get hold of classified material, and to publish it. So at that time, they got very alarmed about. And then, of course, they forgot about it. And the attacks continued against Assange. They have amplified the disinformation that's laundered from the intelligence agencies through them to give it credibility about a whole host of things, including Julian Assange and him being a rapist and him being a danger and et cetera, et cetera. So Lewis was trying to keep the media on his side and he was trying to say, "This has nothing to do with you. And he knew they would report this so the--he wanted the public to know. It has nothing to do with journalism. We're not attacking journalism. We love journalism. We love the First Amendment. This is about this guy over here, you know, who took these classified information and he published it." And what he didn't mention is, it embarrassed the hell out of the United States government and made a lot of people very, very angry, starting from Mike Pompeo at the CIA when Vault 7 was published. And this guy's not a journalist, is what he's saying basically. He's just some guy, you know, he's a hacker. He's someone who's dangerous. He's not one of you. But when the--when the Official Secrets Act of 18--of 1989 was mentioned, it is identical with this part of the Espionage Act in the US which criminalizes mere possession, unauthorized possession of classified data, and publication of it. You need the crime to be the same in both countries in an extradition clearly. So that's why that was raised and that would include journalists clearly. Journalists can be, and might be, if Assange is extradited and convicted in the future, charged under this act that had never been before. There had only been some journalists in 1917 in the Espionage Act who had tried to impede the draft. But no journalist had ever been indicted on possession and dissemination until Julian Assange. We all know the Obama Administration were right up to the line, they almost did it. They impanelled a grand jury. They called it the New York Times problem. What is that that? That means if they indict Julian Assange for publishing classified material, how could they not also indict The New York Times through that, that The New York Times would be liable as well to be indicted? So they stopped short to protect not Assange, but the media. So Trump people, the Trump administration, went over that red line and they have indicted him. And that's very, very, very dangerous. And every reporter who calls himself a journalist should understand that, and whether they like Assange or not, they've got to defend him because they're defending their own interests.
CH: Well, just quickly, Joe, tell us what he's facing in the United States if he is extradited. I think a hundred and, what is it, a seventy-five year...
CH: Seventy-five years.
JL: One hundred and seventy-five...
CH: One hundred and seven...
JL: ...years, yeah, on seven--seventeen counts of espionage. One of computer intrusion, which, if the WikiLeaks lawyers were correct, were to help Chelsea Manning download a video game. I mean, it's absurd what they have against him and the case they presented this week, the government, was extremely weak and the defense was extremely strong in demolishing every argument. And I hope that's an objective point of view because I think anyone who is objective would come to that conclusion. But that might not matter in the end because this is a highly politicized case. And the--really the big issue at the end of the week was, was this a political offense or not? And if it was, is Britain going to use the official--sorry. The Extradition Treaty between Britain and the US or the Extradition Act, which is a domestic legislation here? It's a highly complex thing. The Domestic Act came out first, and then the Extradition Treaty was the second one, was ratified in 2007. But they do a very different way of ratification than the US does. It's where the Senate will take a signed treaty by the president and vote yes or no whether to ratify. Here it goes to all the government departments, foreign office, Ministry of Justice et cetera, and it's a very complex thing. And so it's not clear, and it was not clear when this week's proceeding ended, which would hold sway here. The judge will decide based on the Extradition Treaty, which makes it forbidden to extradite someone for a political offense or the Domestic Extradition act which doesn't say anything about political offenses. So it neither bars them nor allows them, says nothing. So obviously, the government, the US government side, is saying, "We have to go with the act because, you know, it doesn't say that it's forbidden to extradite someone for a political offense," whereas Assange's aside is saying it's the treaty, international law, that had--that should go in the floor and should be enforced. But the issue also is did he commit a--is just a political offense? And the government side, the US side, through their British lawyer, tried to establish that in order for this to have been a political offense, then he would have had to have tried to overthrow the government of the United States, or change the government was the actual words. And he could only have done that on US territory and he's never been on US territory, which is the height of hypocrisy because the Espionage Act allows universal jurisdiction after 1961 amendment that they can arrest him, he--an Australian citizen in Britain was arrested for publishing something about the US, he was not on US territory. So for the crime, he didn't have to be--he doesn't have to be on US territory. For it to be a political offense, he had to be on US territory, same with the First Amendment. As you know, Pompeo said just before the extradition process began, that the First Amendment does not extend to people outside the US, to foreigners outside the US. So--but he's--also can be indicted even though he's not in the US. I mean this is the double game that's being played here. So, that issue about whether it's a political offense and whether to use the Extradition Act or the Extradition Treaty, is going to become a major part of Phase two which begins May 18. We're also going to have testimony from individuals and it's going to maybe last at least three weeks to lay out all the evidence there. I hear Noam Chomsky has been invited to testify by--or asked to testify by the defense. And we're also going to have the owner of that UC Global. So May 18th, things should get extremely interesting here. Everything was left up in the air here, including how drilling will be treated. Will he be in the glass box? Will he be able to sit with his lawyers?
CH: Let's talk about the conditions in which he's been incarcerated since he was dragged out of the US Embassy, the Prime Minister Theresa May at the time essentially sending police into the sovereign territory of Ecuador to take him out, what's happened since then? What are his conditions like?
JL: He was immediately brought to Belmarsh where he has been ever since, even though he served his 50-week sentence for jumping bail, which should never have required someone to be in a high-security, maximum-security prison along with violent criminals. He was put mostly in isolation in a so-called hospital ward for most of the last year. And he only got out into the--back into the general prison population because that prison population revolted. They got together and complained to the governor that Assange was being mistreated. This is the story anyway. And so they relented and let him back into the general population, but he has been--had--he's had very few meetings with family members. He's had very few meetings with his lawyers. And clearly preparing for a case of his life, whether he's going to the United States where he could disappear for the rest of his life, or whether he's going to walk out of here as a free man, he needed to have ready access to his lawyers and legal documents. And they were only seeing him sometimes once a month for two hours. It was clearly designed to make it as difficult for him to win as possible. How could that possibly be a fair trial when he was then strip-searched and he was handcuffed 11 times and he had his documents taken away from him? They are going to have--this case will go to appeal whoever wins. So these things could become important on appeal. The way he was treated and the way he's been treated in the courtroom where he could barely hear what's going on and he's in that glass proof. He cannot communicate with his attorneys. This could become part of an appeal, the fact that this was not a fair trial or a fair hearing.
CH: Oh, and, of course, we have the report by Nils Melzer, which said that his condition, he--Nils went with two doctors to interview him and assess him, said it was consistent with psychological torture.
JL: That's absolutely correct. Nils went into the prison, saw him there, he's continued to speak out about this. We've had 60 doctors around the world more than them signing a statement that they sent to Priti Patel, the Home Secretary here, to have Assange released, removed from prison to go to a university hospital, that he was in dire need of services. He was not allowed to leave. He was not allowed to leave Ecuador. Embassy, all those years, when he needed treatment, they said he would be arrested the moment he stepped out. So, he's been treated as badly as they possibly can and they can get away with it because it's consistent with a PR campaign and negative disinformation campaign against him to have the public really despise this man who's actually doing a service for them to bring them truth about their governments. So with that public negative view of Assange, they can get away with this unbelievably bad treatment, which I don't understand fully why they're doing it because it could ultimately backlash against them with the public. It has here in Britain. Some people quite upset when they learned that he'd been treated so badly on Monday. It's just hubris, it's just they can get away with it. It's to try to hurt him to make it an unfair trial and let's hope that if it goes to appeal, that that would be the ruling, that this has not, so far, been very fair for Julian Assange in terms of a legal process.
CH: Right. Thank you, Joe. That was Joe Lauria, Editor of Consortium News joining me from London to talk about the US attempts to extradite Julian Assange and place him on trial in the United States. Thanks, Joe.
JL: Okay, Chris, thank you.