(MPN Op-ed) — New reports from a host of mainstream sources are asserting that the U.S. government — in its long-standing efforts to arrest and prosecute WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange — may have changed its strategy in pursuing the journalist. While past efforts at targeting Assange focused on his role as a publisher, this new strategy would see Assange targeted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as an asset of Russian military intelligence.
As several recent reports at MintPress and other independent outlets have noted, the fate of WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange and the legal charges he is likely to face if extradited to the United States are likely to set several key precedents that could upend freedom of the press, citizen rights, and other cornerstones of modern democracy — that is, if he is prosecuted as a publisher of classified information.
Yet, by changing its strategy and catching Assange up in the Mueller probe as well as linking him to a “hostile” foreign entity, the U.S. government would be able to save face by avoiding setting these problematic precedents while also still unleashing its full fury upon the Australian-born journalist who has long been the object of extreme hostility from the U.S. political establishment.
Since 2010, the U.S. has been conducting a grand jury investigation that seeks to nail Assange for publishing material via WikiLeaks, an effort that has expanded under the Trump administration following WikiLeaks’ publication of the CIA hacking exploits in the Vault 7 releases.
Those charges — conspiracy, theft, and electronic espionage among them — could see Assange imprisoned for life or even face the death penalty. The existence of such charges was confirmed in a CNN report published Saturday, which stated that “[…] according to U.S. officials, charges [against Assange] have been drawn up relating to previous WikiLeaks disclosures of classified U.S. documents.”
However, those grand jury charges focus on WikiLeaks’ publication of materials it obtained from its sources. Thus, as Glenn Greenwald recently noted at The Intercept, prosecuting Assange for merely publishing classified government documents could then “easily be used to put them [any and all American or foreign journalists] in a prison cell alongside Assange for the new ‘crime’ of publishing any documents that the U.S. government has decreed should not be published.” Such a precedent Greenwald asserted would be “the gravest press freedom threat in decades.”
Thus, it is no surprise that the U.S. seems poised instead use another strategy to go after Assange, one that would avoid opening this pandora’s box for American and foreign journalists alike.
Indeed, U.S. officials have already made this point clear. Five years ago, in 2013, Obama administration officials told The Washington Post that “there is little possibility of bringing a case against Assange unless he is implicated in criminal activity other than releasing online top-secret military and diplomatic documents.” Former Obama Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller further elaborated on this to the Post, stating that “if you are not going to prosecute journalists for publishing classified information, which the department is not, then there is no way to prosecute Assange.”
In other words, the U.S. government — in order to prosecute Assange — must first accuse him of involvement in “criminal activity” that does not center on his publishing of classified documents.
Now, thanks to the Mueller probe and the political climate it has fostered, the U.S. government seems to have gotten the opening it has long sought in its pursuit of Assange.
Following the most recent indictments issued by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team earlier this month, mainstream media sources have been openly discussing the possibility that Assange will be targeted not for publishing classified information but for allegedly working on behalf of Russian military intelligence.
For instance, a report published on Saturday by CNN states:
The recent indictments issued by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller imply that Assange and WikiLeaks were a conduit for Russian intelligence in distributing hacked Democratic Party emails in 2016.” [emphasis added]
That same article goes on to speculate that “a sealed indictment” in relation to the Russian hacking probe may await Julian Assange if he is extradited to the United States.
Similar claims have also been made by the Washington Monthly, which recently published a report stating:
Based on the latest Mueller indictments, it is clear that Julian Assange and the Russians coordinated the timing of the release of the DNC emails to coincide with the Democratic Convention in order to sow conflict between Sanders and Clinton supporters.”
Another report, this time published in the Washington Examiner, also spoke of these possibilities and asserted that the latest round of Mueller indictments targeting several Russian intelligence operatives had put Assange “back on the hot seat.” That report claims that the recently released indictments reveal that Assange was “eager” to obtain information allegedly stolen by Russian military intelligence from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and collaborated with Russian military intelligence by giving “Russian hackers advice on how to disseminate it [the leaked DNC emails].”
The report also claims that the indictments “undermine” Assange’s repeated denials that the source of the DNC emails was a DNC insider, not the Russian government, even though Assange’s claims have been corroborated by several independent analysts, including celebrated NSA whistleblower William “Bill” Binney.
Furthermore, some writers of the establishment left, such as Bill Palmer, have asserted that “the grand jury proceedings strongly suggest that Mueller plans to indict [Trump confidante Roger] Stone and Assange in tandem.” Palmer asserted that an indictment against Assange is “imminent” given that Mueller “is now subpoenaing Stone’s closest friends and associates. This comes even as Ecuador says it’s turning Assange over to British authorities – a possible sign that he’ll be indicted by Mueller and extradited.”
Thus, it appears that a consensus is beginning to emerge in the mainstream press that Assange is set to be imminently indicted through the Mueller probe, not necessarily the long-standing grand jury proceeding, as such an indictment would be used to accuse of Assange of collaborating with Russian military intelligence in its alleged interference with the 2016 U.S. elections, an act that some lawmakers have likened to an “act of war.”
In addition, a group of Democratic senators recently demanded the end of Assange’s asylum and his extradition to the U.S. along these same lines, asserting that Assange was a partner in alleged Russian intelligence “interference” in the 2016 election.
It is also worth observing that these reports fail to note that the indictments are merely accusations written by Mueller and his team and do not contain concrete evidence, as such evidence is only set to be presented in a court of law. Given that the Russians named in the indictments are unlikely to ever appear in a U.S. courtroom, Mueller will likely never need to actually prove his case. Furthermore, when some subjects of past Mueller indictments did appear in U.S. courts against all odds, Mueller actually scrambled to delay the hearing — leading some analysts to claim this was a sign that the special counsel lacked actual evidence to back up his indictments.
These recent reports discussing the increasing likelihood that Assange will be targeted via the Mueller probe are only building off a larger and more long-standing media effort to paint Assange as a “Russian puppet” and “Russian intelligence asset” ever since the DNC emails were published by WikiLeaks and subsequently blamed on the Russians by U.S. politicians and government officials.
For instance, a New York Times article in August 2016 strung together a narrative of events that claimed to show that Assange had a mutually beneficial relationship with the Russian government. The article admits to being speculative, stating as its thesis the following:
Whether by conviction, convenience or coincidence, WikiLeaks’ document releases, along with many of Mr. Assange’s statements, have often benefited Russia, at the expense of the West.”
The Times article, in one example, cites Assange’s interview show, “The World Tomorrow,” which was broadcast on Russia Today, to insinuate that Assange had previously been on the Russian government’s payroll. However, it was later revealed that Russia Today was among over a dozen broadcasters that purchased a broadcasting license for Assange’s show. Despite that, the arc of the story paints Assange as a Russian collaborator using similarly threadbare evidence.
In the two years since that report, the Assange-as-Russian-asset narrative has been carefully cultivated by similar outlets. Smears against Assange and WikiLeaks have been numerous and biting — with many making repeated false assertions that have since become staples of American political discourse, owing to their frequent propagation by mainstream media despite their false nature. As Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels once said, “repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.”
One of the end results of over two years of constant reporting on RussiaGate hysteria has been priming the American public to respond irrationally and in a reactionary way to political events. It has also worked to cultivate blind faith in the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community, despite their long records of near-constant lying to the American public.
As a result, if Assange is persecuted through the Mueller probe as having acted as a “conduit” for Russian military intelligence, he will be treated as an “enemy of the state” and an asset of a “hostile” government, not as a mere publisher of information. He will be treated as a Russian spy, not a journalist.
Furthermore, if the “evidence” presented by Mueller against Assange is based on confidential assessments by U.S. intelligence or the FBI, those buying into RussiaGate will accept it as fact, just as many still accept the proven falsehood that “all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies have agreed that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election to benefit Donald Trump.”
As the recent Trump-Putin summit showed, in mainstream U.S. political discourse, doubting the findings of U.S. intelligence is tantamount to “treason.”
However, if Assange is prosecuted under these terms, which seems increasingly likely, it will ironically be the Trump administration that benefits the most. Indeed, the Trump administration has been adamant in its desire to see Assange apprehended. If Assange is targeted by the Mueller probe, it would deflect the public’s and Mueller’s attention away from Trump while also allowing Trump’s administration to imprison a “priority” target.
Going after Assange through the Mueller probe comes after an unprecedented smear campaign to rob the journalist of as much of his support base as possible. If the government were to prosecute Assange in such a way that other journalists could be targeted — as Greenwald and others have warned — that would risk Assange receiving support from many of those who have helped smear him, forcing them to defend him in order to protect their craft.
However, by treating Assange as a Russian collaborator — not as a journalist or publisher — and using the carefully cultivated Russian hysteria against him, it will spare those journalists the obligation of belatedly coming to Assange’s aid and they will instead continue to align themselves with the very institutions that seek to destroy Assange and his organization.
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