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Exclusive: WikiLeaks Lawyer Warns U.S. Charges Against Assange Endanger Press Freedom Worldwide

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The Justice Department has inadvertently revealed that it has prepared an indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. In an unusual development, language about the charges against Assange was copied and pasted into an unrelated court filing that was recently unsealed. In the document, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kellen S. Dwyer wrote, “Due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged.” The news broke on Thursday night just hours after The Wall Street Journal reported the Justice Department was planning to prosecute Assange. Assange has been living since 2012 in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London where he has sought refuge and political asylum. It’s unclear what charges may be brought against Assange; the Justice Department has previously considered prosecuting him over his role in the release of hacked DNC emails during the 2016 presidential campaign, as well as over the release of the so-called Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs, shared by U.S. military whistleblower Chelsea Manning. The Assange case has been closely followed by advocates for press freedom. Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch tweeted, “Deeply troubling if the Trump administration, which has shown little regard for media freedom, would charge Assange for receiving from a government official and publishing classified information—exactly what journalists do all the time.” We speak with human rights attorney Jennifer Robinson, who has been advising Julian Assange and WikiLeaks since 2010.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Justice Department has inadvertently revealed it has prepared an indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. In an unusual development, language about the charges against Assange were copied and pasted into an unrelated court filing that was recently unsealed. In the document, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kellen Dwyer wrote, “Due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged,” unquote. The news broke Thursday night just hours after The Wall Street Journal reported the Justice Department was planning to prosecute Assange.

Julian Assange has been living since 2012 in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London where he has sought refuge and political asylum. It’s unclear what charges may be brought against Assange; the Justice Department has previously considered prosecuting him over his role in the release of hacked DNC emails during the 2016 presidential campaign, as well as over the release of the so-called Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs, shared by U.S. military whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

The Assange case has been closely followed by advocates for press freedom. Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch tweeted, “Deeply troubling if the Trump administration, which has shown little regard for media freedom, would charge Assange for receiving from a government official and publishing classified information—exactly what journalists do all the time.”

We go now to London, where we’re joined by human rights attorney Jennifer Robinson. She’s been advising Julian Assange and WikiLeaks since 2010.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Jen Robinson. Can you talk about this inadvertent revealing of the intent to arrest Julian Assange?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: This is confirmation of what we’ve been concerned about and been talking about since 2010. It is the reason, of course, that Julian Assange was—sought asylum and granted asylum inside the Ecuadorean Embassy and the reason he remains there today. This confirms what we’ve been saying, that there is a very real risk that the United States is going to seek to prosecute him for his publishing activities and potentially seek to extradite him, and that if there was to be an indictment, it would be sealed, it would be secret, and we wouldn’t know that it existed until such time as he was in custody. This is precisely what we’ve learned from the inadvertent disclosure from the U.S. Department of Justice overnight, and it confirms the concerns we’ve had and the reason why he was granted asylum in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about his reaction? Have you spoken to him inside the Ecuadorean Embassy right now?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: I haven’t yet been able to speak to him personally. I’m going into the embassy shortly to discuss it with him. But, of course, we are concerned. There have been rumors over the past few weeks about what might happen.

But, of course, we must remember that this disclosure came from the Eastern District of Virginia. This is a criminal investigation that was started in 2010 in relation to disclosures made by WikiLeaks and The New York Times and The Guardian and other major newspapers around the world, which revealed evidence of U.S. war crimes, evidence that the United States had not been honest with the American public about how many civilians had been killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. These are important public interest disclosures.

And that a publisher could face prosecution in the United States—and we now have confirmation that they’ve sought an indictment—over publishing such truthful public interest information is a real concern. And this is a concern not just for us and not just for Julian Assange, which is what we’ll be discussing later today, but is also a concern for all of the press, all of the domestic press in the United State, but also what it says about what the United States is doing in terms of exercising jurisdiction over publishers all over the world. What does this mean? Does this mean that the U.S. could seek to prosecute a publisher who’s publishing information from abroad about material about the United States? Will Russia, will Saudi Arabia, will China start to follow suit? So I think this raises questions not just for Julian Assange, but for journalists and publishers inside the United States and journalists and publishers everywhere who are publishing material about other states around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to reread the tweet from Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, who said, “Deeply troubling if the Trump administration, which has shown little regard for media freedom, would charge Assange for receiving from a government official and publishing classified information—exactly what journalists do all the time.” Jen Robinson?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: I couldn’t agree with Mr. Roth any more. As we have said since 2010, investigating—a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks sets a dangerous precedent for all of the media. This is precisely what New York Times general counsel David McCraw has been saying for many years, that he doesn’t see how the U.S. government can distinguish between what WikiLeaks does and what The New York Times does.

Now, this criminal investigation was started under the Obama administration. But as we warned back then, this is a precedent that was dangerous. And now we have President Trump, who has called the press the enemy of the people, who has been openly hostile towards The New York Times and other mainstream media organizations. And I think everyone ought to be concerned about what this potential indictment means. Of course, we are concerned. It is why Julian Assange sought asylum. It is why he remains inside the Ecuadorean Embassy. But this has implications for all media in the U.S. and, as I said, elsewhere around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden. He appeared on CNN this morning.

MICHAEL HAYDEN: Then fast-forward to actually sending an agent of WikiLeaks to Hong Kong to assist Edward Snowden in the flight from U.S. justice. You then later have the release of cyber hacking tools, apparently stolen from the United States government. And I’m not even up to the question of the American election in 2016 yet. I think there’s a reason why he’s stayed in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for so long.

AMY GOODMAN: He went on to talk about—comparing him to a journalist—he was speaking to John Berman, saying because journalists curate information. But he started by talking about helping Edward Snowden in Hong Kong, sending another person from WikiLeaks to help Snowden leave Hong Kong. Talk about Julian Assange’s history and his—Hayden saying these are the reasons he should be arrested, even outside of whatever the Mueller inquiry is about.

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Well, let’s take those two questions separately. We have the fact that WikiLeaks assisted Snowden in gaining asylum, and we have the fact that WikiLeaks has published CIA materials.

Now, in respect to the CIA materials, WikiLeaks has done what other media organizations can and should and do all the time, which is receiving classified information and publishing it in the public interest. That information was verified. It has been shown to be in the public interest. And WikiLeaks has done no different than any other media organization in publishing that material.

With respect to assisting Edward Snowden, he has been granted asylum. And the disclosures made by Edward Snowden have been demonstrated to have been in the public interest. We’ve seen decisions on Americans’ constitutional right to privacy showing that the conduct of the American government was unconstitutional. That is import information, important public interest information. And I think the world has seen and been grateful for the publications that Edward Snowden has made.

That he is now protected from extradition and prosecution for having made those disclosures is important, and WikiLeaks is to be thanked for that. Now, should someone face prosecution for having assisted a whistleblower, for having published information in the public interest? I think Americans ought to be asking themselves those questions. What does it mean for American democracy?

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Last year, just after he became CIA director, in Pompeo’s first major address, he blasted WikiLeaks.

MIKE POMPEO: It’s time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a nonstate, hostile intelligence service, often abetted by state actors like Russia. … In reality, they champion nothing but their own celebrity. Their currency is clickbait, their moral compass nonexistent. Their mission, personal self-aggrandizement through destruction of Western values.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Pompeo. Of course, this certainly went against what his boss, President Trump, had said. I believe in the campaign, in a month or two, he raised WikiLeaks, praised WikiLeaks, well over a hundred times. Let’s go to one of those moments.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This just came out. This just came out. WikiLeaks—I love WikiLeaks.

AMY GOODMAN: There you go. Jennifer Robinson, if you could talk about Pompeo and Trump?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Well, Pompeo’s statements, as the head of the CIA, demonstrate the fervor within the CIA in certainly to be seeking WikiLeaks’ prosecution. But to say that receiving and publishing information in the public interest is an attack on Western values is, frankly, wrong and a dangerous statement to be coming from the head of the CIA and someone who’s been very senior in the Trump administration. This cuts at the heart of constitutional protections for free speech. It is protected under the U.S. Constitution to receive and publish information that’s in the public interest, even classified information. And that any publisher, including WikiLeaks, could be called a hostile nonstate intelligence agency, when media organizations around the world all the time, including The New York Times, including The Washington Post, receive classified information and publish it when it’s in the public interest—to say that that is an attack on Western values is a very dangerous statement from the head of the CIA that ought to be investigated.

Speaking to Trump’s statements during the election, I think it’s important to note that WikiLeaks has been doing the same thing that it’s always been doing, which is, again, receiving and publishing information in the public interest. If we look back to 2010, when WikiLeaks was publishing material, the Cablegate material, the diplomatic cables, the Iraqi and Afghanistan War Logs, demonstrating human rights abuse and corruption by the American government around the world, at that time, WikiLeaks was lauded by the progressive left-wing press and, indeed, by the liberal establishment. On Fox News, people like Sarah Palin were calling for him to be killed by drone strike. Fast-forward many years later, and you see that the politics of any publication cuts in different ways, but the principle of what they do remains the same, which is to publish information which they verify to be correct and be in the public interest. That’s what WikiLeaks does. And that the United States government is now taking such an aggressive approach towards prosecuting and in potentially extraditing a publisher for doing precisely that raises serious concerns about U.S. press freedom for all publishers and all journalists in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Jen, I wanted to ask you about the whole inquiry, the Mueller inquiry, and I wanted to turn to a moment on Democracy Now! when we had journalist Allan Nairn on debating Julian Assange on Democracy Now!

ALLAN NAIRN: I have a—first, I have a brief question for Julian Assange. Mr. Assange, you said that you did not get the leaks directly from a state. You said you know you did not get the leaks directly from a state. Do you know that Russia didn’t give you the leaks through an intermediary?

JULIAN ASSANGE: I’m not going to be playing 20 questions on our sources. I’m sure you understand, Allan, as a source protection organization, we’re not going to be inscribing circles around who our sources are, how we communicate with them, any properties that might be used to arrest them or criticize them in some future process.

ALLAN NAIRN: So it is possible that, as Comey said, Russia gave you the leaks through an intermediary?

JULIAN ASSANGE: I’m simply not going to comment on it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Julian Assange and Allan Nairn. Can you talk about what Julian was saying there and also what you know of the Mueller investigation investigating links between President Trump, associates and Russia’s 2016—whether they were interfering with the U.S. elections and what WikiLeaks had to do with that?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Well, as Mr. Assange just said himself, WikiLeaks have made very clear that they didn’t receive the information from a state source. That 's a matter for—sourcing matters are a matter for WikiLeaks, and they're very careful about their sourcing and protecting their sources, which is why the organization continues to receive such important, sensitive, public interest information.

As to the Mueller investigation, our legal team for WikiLeaks has not been contacted by the investigation at all. There has been no information further from—at least that we’ve received, about any indication of any potential charges. And I think, again, it raises questions about sourcing and about the protection of publication—publishers’ ability to be able to publish. In our view, there’s no connection between WikiLeaks and the—any kind of conspiracy. There’s no evidence even in the DNC suit, that’s been very publicly filed against WikiLeaks, that there’s any indication of any prior arrangement or conspiracy. That WikiLeaks has received information from a source and published it, information that was shown to be in the public interest, which demonstrated corruption within the Democratic National—within the Democratic Party, this is important public interest information. And indeed, The New York Times said that they would have published it, had they received it. So, again, we have to ask questions. Publishers have the right to receive and publish information in the public interest, and that is what WikiLeaks does. They should not be prosecuted for doing so.

AMY GOODMAN: Jen, how is Julian Assange in the embassy? He has been there for more than six years. It’s a tiny embassy. What is his condition?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: He has been inside the embassy now for many years. And indeed, over the past six months, he’s been in there without access to the internet, phone calls or visitors. Since just this week, he started to have visitors again, which is a good development. And his health is deteriorating. This is something that we’ve been concerned about for a very long time. He doesn’t have access to an outdoor area. He doesn’t have the ability to exercise outside. He doesn’t have the ability to seek proper medical treatment, which we’ve been asking for for many years. It’s an incredibly difficult situation and not one anyone should be forced to be in this position.

Now, of course, the confirmation that we’ve had today shows that his decision to seek asylum was the correct one, and Ecuador’s decision to grant it to him was the correct one. Now, should a publisher be stuck inside a room for years on end because of a potential prosecution by the United States for publishing information in the public interest? And the answer is, absolutely not. But he is, I think, in as good spirits as you can expect. But I’ll wait to see him later this afternoon and have a discussion with him.

AMY GOODMAN: The Ecuadorean Embassy cut off his access to internet, or does he have it now?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: They have reinstored his ability to be able to have visitors. And in terms of the internet and other restrictions, there’s a whole range of protocols that are in place. But at least the restrictions have been lifted in terms of visitors, and it’s made a difference for him, certainly in the past week.

AMY GOODMAN: Does Julian Assange feel he could walk outside? Does he think the British government—have they said they are going to arrest him if he does?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: The British government have made very clear that if and when Julian walks outside of the embassy, he will be arrested to face potential prosecution for breach of bail in seeking asylum inside the embassy. We believe that he has a just excuse for having done so, having sought asylum, particularly in circumstances where we now have confirmation that there is—the U.S. has sought a sealed indictment. Then it remains to be seen whether there is an indictment and whether they will seek his extradition. And, of course, as we heard from the confirmation overnight, that we won’t know that until he’s in custody. But we very much expect that there will be an extradition request, on the basis of this information. It’s what we’ve been concerned about for a long time. So, should he walk out, he will be arrested, he’ll face bail proceedings and likely an extradition request, as a result of what we’ve heard overnight.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Robinson, we want to thank you so much for being with us, human rights attorney who’s been advising Julian Assange since 2010. To see our series of interviews with Julian Assange, both inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, when we traveled there, and our interviews with him when we’re here just talking to him, you can go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

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