Watch Amy Goodman and The Intercept’s Ryan Grim co-chair the Belmarsh Tribunal on the case against imprisoned WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange.
Inspired by the Russell-Sartre Tribunals of the Vietnam War, the Belmarsh Tribunal brings together a range of expert witnesses — from constitutional lawyers to acclaimed journalists and human rights defenders — to present evidence of the assault on press freedom and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The tribunal was organized by Progressive International and the Wau Holland Foundation.
Members of the tribunal included:
Ewen MacAskill, journalist and intelligence correspondent (formerly The Guardian)
John Kiriakou, former intelligence officer for the CIA
Sevim Dağdelen, member of the German Bundestag
Lina Attalah, co-founder and chief editor of Mada Masr
Abby Martin, journalist and host of The Empire Files
Michael Sontheimer, journalist and historian (formerly Der Spiegel)
Mark Feldstein, veteran investigative reporter and journalism historian at the University of Maryland
Maja Sever, president of European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
Ben Wizner, lawyer and civil liberties advocate with the ACLU
Marjorie Cohn, professor of law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and former president of the National Lawyers Guild
Trevor Timm, journalist and co-founder of Freedom of the Press Foundation
Ece Temelkuran, journalist and author
Rebecca Vincent, director of campaigns, Reporters Without Borders
AMY GOODMAN: Good afternoon, everyone. It’s really an honor to be here and to welcome you all to the Belmarsh Tribunal, convened by the Progressive International and the Wau Holland Foundation and brought to you live on democracynow.org’s website, brought to you live at The Intercept's website and at Democracy Now!'s YouTube channel and beyond.
Since its first sitting, the Belmarsh Tribunal has convened the world’s leading journalists, lawyers and parliamentarians, from professor Noam Chomsky, who just celebrated his 95th birthday, to President Luiz Lula da Silva, to provide testimony to the global threat to press freedom. Today, the Belmarsh Tribunal returns here to the National Press Club for its most urgent session as the extradition case against WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange is entering its final stage.
In 2010, WikiLeaks came to this very hall in the National Press Club to premiere a video it called “Collateral Murder,” providing leaked evidence of U.S. war crimes that would forever change the trajectory of the “war on terror” and the U.S. government’s repression of its critics. I remember that news conference that Julian Assange held so well. We interviewed him the next day on Democracy Now!, as they revealed this video footage that they had gotten.
It was video footage of a July 2007 attack by a U.S. Apache helicopter unit on an area of Baghdad called New Baghdad. There were more than a dozen men below. The Apache helicopter, you can hear them laughing and cursing inside, because it’s the video not of peace activists on the ground, but from inside the Apache helicopter. They request permission to open fire on this group of men. They get it, and they kill almost all of them. Two of them worked for Reuters. The up-and-coming videographer Namir Noor-Eldeen was 22 years old. And the driver for so many Reuters reporters in Iraq, Saeed Chmagh, was 40. He had four children. He didn’t die in the first attack, in the first blast. But as he crawled away, the Apache helicopter opened fire again and killed him. They killed more than 12 men that day. Reuters repeatedly asked for the videotape to see what happened to their colleagues. And it was only after Julian Assange and WikiLeaks released that video that they got a hold of it.
And to show how important press freedom is, in the Iraq notes and Afghan war logs that WikiLeaks also released, we saw that six weeks before an Apache helicopter unit was again hovering overhead, two men looked up, they put up their hands, surrendering to an Apache helicopter. The soldiers in the helicopter called back to base, talked to the lawyer, said, “Can we open fire?” They got permission, and they blew them away, these two men surrendering. But the response was from above in the helicopter. You can’t surrender to a helicopter. And if people had seen what had happened in February of 2007 at the time and opened — I think an investigation would have been opened. And what happened six months later to Saeed and — Chmagh and all the men in Iraq who were killed that day by the Apache helicopter unit wouldn’t have happened, because they would have been under investigation. Why press freedom, why freedom of information is so important, because press freedom is really about the public’s right to know.
Because of these courageous revelations, Julian Assange has been charged under a more than 100-year-old act, the 1917 Espionage Act, and faces a potential 175 years in prison. Today Julian Assange is imprisoned at the high-security Belmarsh prison outside London, where he’s been held for almost five years as he awaits the final verdict, an extradition case. The prison after which this tribunal takes its name, the Belmarsh Tribunal, inspired from the Russell-Sartre Tribunal of 1966, also known as the International War Crimes Tribunal, when representatives of 18 countries gathered to hear testimony of the war crimes committed by the United States against the people of Vietnam. The Russell-Sartre Tribunal, the Nobel Prize-winning Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and others, that tribunal would turn its attention to Palestine in the years that followed, investigating the state of Israel for its violent occupation of the Palestinian territories and against the people of Palestine. Now as war crimes multiply in Gaza and the West Bank, with over 17,000 people killed, over 60 Palestinian journalists killed in the past two months alone, the Belmarsh Tribunal takes forward the legacy of the Russell-Sartre Tribunal to hear testimony on the threats to press freedom around the world.
As the members of today’s Belmarsh Tribunal take their seats, the Biden administration is preparing for Assange’s extradition early next year, perhaps within the next few weeks. But the international pressure for his freedom is mounting. From presidents and prime ministers to Nobel Peace Prize winners, the international community is crying out against the injustice of Assange’s prosecution and its implication for press freedom worldwide. Earlier this month, U.S. congressmembers from both parties came together to demand that Attorney General Merrick Garland drop the charges against Julian Assange. Meanwhile, a high-level delegation from the Australian Parliament traveled to Washington, D.C., to push a similar demand in the name of their imprisoned citizen. Julian Assange is an Australian citizen. As yet, however, the Biden administration has not budged from its position. Assange could be extradited to the United States possibly as early as January.
That’s why we’re here today, to hear testimony from 13 of the world’s leading journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders on the past, the present and the future of the fight for press freedom, and the persecution of Julian Assange. Sorry, I’ve got a little frog in my throat. I’ve just flown in from Dubai, where I was covering — just a few hours ago, where I was covering the U.N. climate summit. And interestingly, the first summit that we covered at Democracy Now!, the first climate summit, was in Copenhagen. And as we stood outside the Bella Center, where that climate summit was taking place — we called it “the Bella of the beast” — there was Julian Assange, at that time a free man.
Well, I pass now the gavel to the co-chair of today’s tribunal, Ryan Grim, who is the D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept and author of the book that was just published this past week, The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution, to Ryan Grim.
RYAN GRIM: Thank you, Amy, and thank you to everybody for coming out here today. Going to be quick, so we can move to the distinguished testimonies that we’re going to receive. Amy spoke eloquently about the way that the persecution of Assange is such a threat to press freedom. And I wanted to speak a little bit more specifically about the charges themselves. And I know that in some ways, it can be naive to kind of even engage with the actual indictment, because what Amy described is what is actually at play here. But if he is extradited, it is going to have to go to court, and it will be worked out. And so the law does matter. And I wanted to speak about the charges, kind of as an investigative journalist, somebody who, you know, has — I’ve seen myself as a competitor at many times with Assange. He would always crush me. Like, he — and I think that the animosity that you see from so many journalists toward him is not unrelated to that, that he has broken more big stories in his career, perhaps, than collectively the rest of journalism combined during the time that he’s been a journalist, and I think that’s very hard for other journalists to take. But so I want to talk about two specific elements of the indictment.
First of all, there’s a myth out there that he’s being charged as a hacker and not for publishing. If you do a control-F in the indictment for “publishing,” you will find it multiple times. That’s just — it’s just simply a lie. He is charged with publishing classified information. You often hear him described as a traitor, that there was some treason involved. I can’t think of anything more absurd to charge somebody with who isn’t an American citizen. The time that he was here in this room may be the only time he’s been to the United States. If he’s been here more than that, it’s not much. So, if you’ve barely ever even visited a country, how can you commit treason against it? The idea that, say, I have committed treason against Saudi Arabia for reporting on them, or the UAE, is just as absurd. And they would love nothing more than to be able to make that the bar, so that if you’re traveling anywhere around the world, you can say, “Well, here are our laws around press freedom. He violated them. We’re extraditing him to our country.”
So, the two key points here, one is this idea that he asked, you know, Chelsea Manning to go ahead and get information for him. For one, investigative journalists do this all the time. We are constantly getting leaks from sources, and then we’ll say, “What else do you have that can confirm this? What else do you have that can contextualize this?” If what he did is illegal, then everything that every investigative journalist does, when they’re doing investigative journalism, is illegal. And in one way, that is the goal of the indictment. The phrase that he used was even careful when he was chatting with Chelsea. He said — she said, “This is mostly all I have. Do you want me to see if I can get anything else?” He said, “Curious eyes never run dry, in my experience.” So he wasn’t even — he was being careful about what he said. But even if he had said, “Yes, we want more,” that’s what journalists do. They want more information.
The second key part is the way that they talk about how he offered a way — he offered to help Chelsea to break a hash that would give her anonymity as she was obtaining and providing this information. To me, that’s no different than any journalist who tells a source, “Put a potted plant on this side of your door, and that will be a signal that we’re going to meet in a parking garage. Put a potted plant on this side of the door, and it’ll be a signal that we’re not.” That’s back in the low-tech Watergate days. Today it would be, “Contact me on Signal. Here’s how you reach out to me, so that you’re going to be protected.” It would also be describing you in a vague way in an article, so that the authorities do not know who the source is. All of these things are basic source protection methods that he was engaged in with her. And to frame that as criminal activity, which the indictment does, is a direct threat to any journalism that is not just repeating, you know, on-the-record statements from authorities, which is not an accident.
And I’ll just finish with the key point, that of the crimes — from the crimes that were exposed to the world by Chelsea Manning to Julian Assange, only two people have ever been punished for that. And that’s Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange.
And so, Amy, do you want to introduce our first speaker? Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, our first witness today at the Belmarsh Tribunal is Ewen MacAskill, internationally renowned journalist and defense and intelligence correspondent at The Guardian. Ewen and his team share the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their coverage of information disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Ewen MacAskill.
EWEN MacASKILL: It’s a real pleasure to be here. I was at the Belmarsh Tribunal in London. But I think it’s more important to be at this one in Washington, because this is where the story is really going to happen. Just one elephant in the room to get out of the way: I’m Scottish. I am — that’s kind of obvious. So, some Americans panic when you hear a Scottish accent. But I will speak more slowly than usual. Thanks. Thanks, Amy. Amy and Ryan covered two points, one of them “Collateral Murder,” and Ryan was good in the way journalists actually work and deal with sources. But I’ll come back to it.
Part of the reason I’m here is, from 2007 to 2013, I was The Guardian's Washington bureau chief. And so I was here in 2010 when the story broke. I wrote some of the stories from the cache of documents that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks provided. And I covered the reaction from the White House, State Department and others. I know that there's quite a lot of hostility, particularly in the left in America, towards Julian Assange over what happened in 2016 in the White House elections. But maybe it’s a bit presumptuous for somebody who’s not American to ask you to park that, because this extradition has nothing to do with 2016 and Russia. This extradition is almost exclusively, although there’s some extra hacking allegations, is mainly to deal with what happened in 2010. And those leaks, as Amy said, are an act of journalism. They’re a public service.
If not for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and Chelsea Manning, we wouldn’t have known about the Apache attack in Iraq. Up until that point, we didn’t really know what was happening in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least not in a realistic way. Those war logs provided an account of how the U.S. and its allies were losing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, contrary to the public line that they were actually winning them. That’s akin to what Daniel Ellsberg did with the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s over Vietnam. And there were lots of other stories there, hundreds of stories that were in the public interest from the diplomatic cables, some — the fact that the U.S. was spying on the then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other U.N. officials, stories about Saudi plans to — or, Saudi desire for an attack on Iran, stories about what U.S. diplomats really thought about Arab dictators. In some ways, that contributed to the Arab Spring. Now, these are all acts of journalism, and they should be welcomed. That’s what journalists are supposed to do.
In the U.K., Assange has been — first he was held — he was in the Ecuadorian Embassy, and, as Amy said, he’s been in Belmarsh now for almost five years. But there’s very little coverage in the U.K. press on Assange. The idea that a journalist/publisher could be in a high-security jail and nobody’s paying much attention seems almost inconceivable to me. But it’s almost never reported. Apart from when he was forced or arrested and taken to Belmarsh, there’s been very little reporting. And there’s not much reporting in the U.S., either. There’s exceptions, like Ryan and The New York Times published a editorial in support of Assange, in conjunction with The Guardian, Le Monde and others. But these are rare events. You hardly ever hear anything in the States about Assange.
But this — he will be extradited. I’m pretty sure he will. I know the way the U.K. courts work. It’s politically motivated. That court will find — will agree to the extradition of Assange. The U.K. is so close to the U.S. They’re reliant on intelligence sharing. So, when the U.S. asks for something from the U.K., they nearly always comply. So, I mean, the chances are that Assange is going to come back here. Then it will be a big story, and people will be all over it. They’ll be talking about press freedom. And if you’re going to influence this, you need journalists to be writing about it already. You need U.S. journalists to be putting in Freedom of Information requests. Maybe Ryan is already doing that. You need investigations. You need the journalists in America tapping their sources in the White House or State Department or the Justice Department and doing stories. You need activists writing to their members of Congress. You need to sort of generate some sort of buzz around the story. Again, I apologize. I’m coming from Britain, and I shouldn’t be telling Americans what they should be doing, but…
I said that in 2010 I went to the State Department, with Hillary, the day — the first day the cables were released, and Hillary Clinton was sort of visibly annoyed and angry and said it was an attack on the international community. Joe Biden, who was then vice president, described Assange as a high-tech terrorist. Now, there’s no reason to think that Biden has necessarily changed his view. But it’s coming up to an election year. And you’ve got to wonder, unless there’s pressure on him, he can just ignore this. But if there’s pressure on him, then he might think of enough concerns in the election year to avoid being sidetracked by something like a press — a freedom of the press argument. So, if you were to — if the people in this room and the people watching were to engage in pressure on their members of Congress, try to get journalists’ interest, then that’s the best thing that could happen for Assange.
Amy mentioned that he’s in Belmarsh prison. You know, you might not be aware, Belmarsh is a maximum-security prison in the U.K. Many of the inmates there are terrorists convicted of fatal attacks in Britain, serial killers. The idea that Assange, even if you accept that he was maybe guilty of some sort of computer hack thing, the very lowest of the charges against him, he should not be in that company. And I think it tells you everything that you need to know about Britain, that they would put Julian Assange, that someone, the messenger, the person who told us the truth, should be put in a high-security prison. This will be the fifth Christmas that he’s spent in Belmarsh.
The court case is the final court case in Britain. An appeal is pending. At any point, the judges will announce the date for the ruling. They’ll give three weeks’ notice. Then they’ll give the ruling. Within hours of that, he could be on a flight to the U.S. It might go through European Court of Appeal, and Britain, which has an ambivalent attitude towards the court, may sort of delay things, but — or it may just decide, “We don’t care about the European Court. He’s off to America, and now it’s in American hands.”
And this is a sort of final point. Whenever people talk about Assange, especially journalists who say this a dangerous precedent for journalists, it really is. The U.S. has constantly tried to muddy the waters, saying that Julian Assange isn’t a journalist, he’s not a publisher. It doesn’t matter. These are just labels. In this modern day, journalism takes lots of forms, and people can be journalists from their own laptops at home. These old labels don’t matter that much. What matters is this was a serious act of journalism. He provided a public service. And if journalists are going to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act, designed to deal with German spies during the First World War, then that is a serious matter for investigative journalists and journalists engaged in reporting national security. Any journalist engaged in reporting national security is then in danger of being charged under the Espionage Act. If Julian Assange can be charged, then, theoretically, journalists like my former editor, Alan Rusbridger, at the time of Snowden, which is a much more serious case than the 2010 WikiLeaks ones, would the U.S. thought, “OK, Alan Rusbridger is guilty of damaging U.S. security. He might be British, but we’ll take him back to the States under the Espionage Act”? Or the editor of Der Spiegel or Le Monde or El País, or reporters like me, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, should they be charged under the Espionage Act? And it’s not about just your foreign journalists, like me or The Guardian, because eventually you could see American journalists also being prosecuted. That may seem fanciful, and it’s hard to imagine Biden prosecuting reporters from The New York Times or wherever. But under a Trump presidency, maybe it’s not so fanciful.
RYAN GRIM: Thank you, Ewen. Is this — is this on? Our next witness at the tribunal is John Kiriakou. He’s a journalist, whistleblower and former intelligence officer for the CIA. After leaving the CIA, Kiriakou became the first former CIA officer to confirm that the agency waterboarded detainees in the course of its so-called war on terror. In 2012, Kiriakou became the first CIA officer to be convicted of disclosing classified information and the only CIA agent to go to jail in connection with the U.S. torture program. Today he is the nation’s foremost — one of the nation’s foremost defenders of the First Amendment. Thank you so much.
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, friends. I am honored to be here to speak in support of Julian Assange. Amy said something very important, I think, in her introductory comments, and that is that Julian most likely will be extradited sooner rather than later. And I want to talk about that, because I think we should hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
So, in preparation for the worst, let’s talk about solitary confinement. First, I want to say unequivocally that the Justice Department is lying to everybody. Everybody. It is not up to the prosecutors to decide who goes to solitary and who doesn’t. That is the sole discretion of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and never the two shall meet. So, prosecutors can tell Julian’s attorneys all they want: “We promise he won’t be put in solitary. We promise he won’t be put in a communications management unit.” Those are empty promises.
So let’s talk about solitary confinement. Believe it or not, solitary confinement as a punishment was invented in the United States of America. In 1829, the government built a facility in Philadelphia — now it’s in downtown Philadelphia, back then it was out in the hinterland — called the Eastern State Penitentiary. It was a maximum-security penitentiary, Gothic in style, made of stone. And the idea was that if you take a criminal and put him in a 6-foot-by-10-foot cell with a bed, a chair, a bedpan and a Bible, and no human contact, he’ll spend all of his time reading the Bible, and he’ll come out as a reformed and good human being. But instead, everybody went insane. Literally, they went insane. And we never learned a lesson from that experience.
I want to share with you the words of just a few people who have spent time in solitary. Before I give you their words, I want to remind you that the United Nations has declared the U.S. practice of using solitary as a punishment to be a form of torture. That’s from the United Nations; it’s not from John. It’s a form of torture. Anything longer than 15 days is a form of torture. But in this country, we keep people in solitary confinement for, currently, as long as 44 years. Can you imagine 44 years with no human contact?
First I want to tell you about Cesar Villa. He is currently a prisoner in the Pelican Bay State Prison in California. He wrote this recently, following his 12th year in solitary confinement. He said, “Nothing can really prepare you for entering solitary. It’s a world unto itself, where cold, quiet and emptiness come together, seeping into your bones, and then eventually into your mind. The first week I told myself, 'This isn't so bad. I can do this.’ The second week, I stood outside in my underwear shivering as I was pelted with hail and rain. By the third week, I found myself squatting in a corner of the yard, filing my fingernails down over concrete walls. My sense of human decency dissipated with each day. At the end of the first year, my feet and hands were split open from the cold. I bled all over my clothes, my food, between my sheets. My sense of normalcy began to wane. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, looking back now, that’s when my mental unraveling must have begun then. My psyche had changed. I had gone insane. I would never be the same.”
Thomas Silverstein, who spent 28 years in solitary confinement at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, said, “My cell was so small that I could stand in one place and touch both walls simultaneously. The ceiling was so low that I could reach up and touch the hot light fixture. My bed took up the entire length of the cell, and there was no furniture otherwise. The walls were solid steel and painted white. The lights were always on. Shortly after I arrived, the prison staff began construction, adding more bars and other security measures to the cell while I was still in it. It’s hard to describe the horror I experienced during this construction process. As they built new walls around me, it felt like I was being buried alive. Due to the unchanging bright artificial lights and not having a wristwatch or a clock, I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. Frequently I would fall asleep, and when I woke up, I wouldn’t know if I had slept for five minutes or five hours. I had no idea what time of the day it was. I now know that I was housed there for about four years. But I would have believed it was more than a decade if that’s what somebody had told me. It seemed eternal and endless and immeasurable.” And just after he wrote those words, he died, still in solitary confinement.
One more person: William Blake spent 25 years in solitary. He said this: “Solitary is a sentence worse than death. I’ve experienced times so difficult and felt boredom and loneliness to such a degree that it seemed to be a physical thing inside of me — so thick it felt like it was choking me, trying to squeeze the sanity right out of my mind, the spirit from my soul, and whatever life was left in my body. I have seen and felt hope becoming like a foggy ephemeral thing, hard to get a hold of, even harder to keep a hold of as the years and then the decades disappeared behind me while I stayed trapped in the emptiness of solitary. I’ve seen minds slipping down the slope of sanity, descending into insanity. And I’ve been terrified that I would end up going like the guys around me that have cracked and become insane. It’s a sad thing to watch a human being go insane before your eyes because he can’t handle the pressure of the box and the pressure that the box exerts on your mind. But it’s sadder still to see the spirit shaken from the soul, and it’s more disastrous. Sometimes the prison guards find us hanging and blue. Sometimes our necks are broken when we jump from our beds, the sheet tied around the neck, that’s also wrapped around the grate covering the light in the ceiling, snapping taught with a pop. I’ve seen the spirit leaving men in solitary, and I’ve witnessed the results. And it’s a nightmare.”
That is what the plan is for Julian Assange. So, when they tell you, “No, no, no, we’re not going to put him — we promise we won’t put him in solitary confinement,” that has as much weight behind it as me promising that I won’t put him in solitary confinement. So, rest assured, they’re lying to us, just like they’re lying to him. So what do we do next? Thank you. What do we do next? Next is we have to keep fighting. Whether we fight Merrick Garland or Joe Biden or we fight on the airwaves to try to influence the jury, the fight really has just begun. Thank you.
RYAN GRIM: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, John. Our our next witness, Sevim Dağdelen, comes from Germany to join today’s tribunal. Sevim has been a member of the German Bundestag since 2005, where she sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee. She is a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and a deputy member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Thank you.
SEVIM DAĞDELEN: Thank you. Thanks, Ryan. Thank you, dear friends. Just allow me to say a word in the light of the U.N. Security Council meeting last night regarding the call for a immediate and humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. I think it’s — really, the veto of the United States of America is a shame, is a scandal. And it all shows us that the talks about Western values is nothing than a farce. And the Western press coverage about Gaza also shows us how much we need the voice of Julian Assange, who once said, “If wars can be started by lies, peace can be started by truth.”
So, over 11 years ago, I had the honor and opportunity of being the first parliamentarian to visit Julian Assange during his asylum in the Embassy of Ecuador in London. For over 11 years, Julian has been deprived of his liberty, spending seven years as a political refugee in the Ecuadorian Embassy and more than four years as a political prisoner in the high-security prison in Belmarsh in London. Over the course of these 11 years, the persecution of Julian Assange has been continually ramped up. Today he is facing the end of a show trial, which is completely unworthy of a rule-of-law state, and he’s closer to extradition to the United States than ever before.
Julian is facing charges because he published information on U.S. war crimes. And it is not only Julian who is in the dock. It is also people’s right to know the truth, the right of every journalist worldwide to inform the public about unacceptable situations or the crimes of the powerful without fear of state persecution and repression. And it’s also the right of parliamentarians to know the truth about their governments, what they’re doing, that all the talks about surgery clean wars is nothing than bullshit, because all wars are brutal and not clean.
Julian Assange is joined in the dock by what people in our hemisphere like to proclaim as Western values, no less. Julian’s crime is to have exposed more than anybody else the double standards of the Western community of values, to which he has himself ultimately fallen victim. And this is the reason behind attempts to punish and make an example of him. The persecution of Julian by the U.S. government is aimed at silencing, silencing him and silencing the truth. The fact that the rest of the Western states are generally standing idly by is a disgrace and serves to undermine our own credibility.
Yet, across the world, numerous people of organizations have refused to stand idly by. They have even organized resistance against the persecution of Julian Assange, against the unprecedented attack on press freedom. In 2020 in Germany, for example, only a few months after the beginning of the extradition proceedings against Julian, we founded a cross-party parliamentary group entitled Freedom for Julian Assange, which involves members of the German Bundestag from all democratic parties, and then we follow up with building these kind of groups in some other countries in Europe. Two years later, shortly after the British government had agreed to Julian’s extradition to the United States, we at the German parliament successfully adopted, with a large cross-party majority, a resolution calling for Julian Assange’s release. And in this petition, the German Bundestag condemns for the first time the political persecution of Julian Assange as an attack on press freedom and calls on the federal government to work towards his release from custody in the United Kingdom and to advocate in its dealings with the U.S. government for an end to his persecution. This success is just one example of a growing worldwide movement campaigning for Julian Assange’s liberty and for protecting press freedom.
Although these developments are encouraging, we must not forget that the decisions on Julian Assange’s future and life are taken in Washington alone. It is here in the United States of America that the persecution of Julian began, and it is here it can and must be ended. It is therefore encouraging that representatives, colleagues of mine, from both the House and the Senate, have now come together to call on the Biden administration, in a bipartisan letter, to end the persecution of Julian Assange. Now that the extradition of Julian is coming closer, it is up to us to increase the pressure further and unite forces. Over the last few days, I have held discussions, among others, with colleagues from the United States Congress and promoted the idea of a transatlantic initiative campaigning for Julian Assange’s freedom.
When governments get together and strive to rid themselves of democratic oversight by silencing one of the most important chroniclers of the contradictions and shortcomings of their policies, then we all have to have a collective democratic duty to resist this. Calling for freedom for Julian Assange means campaigning for the truth and defending the fundamental rights which are the very foundation of our societies. There is too much at stake to allow party divisions or the ocean between us, which separates us, to prevent us from uniting. Free Julian Assange, free press freedom, and free the truth. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much. Next up is Lina Attalah. She is the co-founder and chief editor of Mada Masr, one of Egypt’s leading news outlets. In 2020, she was awarded the Knight International Journalism Award from the International Center for Journalists. After we covered the U.N. climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, last year, we went to Cairo to Lina’s offices to interview her, incredibly brave journalist who had been jailed, who had been detained late last year — or, late last month. She was summoned to appear for questioning before the Cairo appeals prosecution for her courageous coverage of what has been happening in Gaza. For this reason, she could not make the trip to join us here at the Belmarsh Tribunal. She joins us now by video from Cairo.
LINA ATTALAH: Hi. My name is Lina Attalah. I’m a journalist based in Cairo. I’m also the founding editor of Mada Masr, an independent, also Cairo-based news website. I so happen to be facing right now prosecution for coverage we have done in the recent days about pressure being put on Egypt to accommodate Palestinians displaced in the current Israeli war in Gaza. Some of the charges I’m facing, which include publishing false news, could lend me some — a jail sentence.
But I also want to go back to 10 years ago and even more, when I was involved in covering cables revealed by WikiLeaks for this newsroom and for the previous newsroom I was working with. We so happened to have been some of the few publications that were involved in the cables coverage, especially cables addressing very local issues that would require contextualization, as well as further reporting to explain the information and value in the moment they were revealed. In fact, some of the cables I covered involved Egypt’s political management of the Sinai Peninsula, which has historically been the hoped-for site for the displacement of Palestinians of Gaza by Israel and its allies for years and years.
To keep covering this issue and many others in Egypt today means to constantly hunt for leaks, depending on the willful collusion of those who see the value of public interest and information hidden from them. In fact, on the sidelines of working on the WikiLeaks revealed by — on the leaks revealed by WikiLeaks, we learned that journalism is originally an act of collusion, breaking open the closed doors of knowledge guarded by the clerics and their secularized political successors today. So, WikiLeaks, in that sense, was a foundational moment for journalism.
But some of the leaks are cables coming from one of the most powerful political enterprises in the world, if not the most powerful. And that the price being paid for it are grave charges and endless prosecutions are telling facts of the ultimate limits to our public right for information. These are the limits that won’t be avoidable under democratic rule and liberal values triumphing the public right to know. These are the limits that power will always manage to push for. And these are the limits that would send those who challenge them to jail and assign them to ongoing pursual.
Today, and especially with the ongoing war next door, I feel that such references as freedom of expression, public interest, right to information, among other foundational references, can increasingly be parked aside as casualties of power. I am not fooled that these references can be activated in their absolute meaning or that they are enough to protect our practice as journalists or whistleblowers, or our rights as people, by and large. But I’m increasingly alarmed by the ease of the erosion in this moment, as generative as crises tend to be. I also hope that this is a moment of reckoning, where new intellectual frameworks and political strategies can emerge to protect our rights to share and receive crucial information, frameworks and strategies that can keep pushing the boundaries of knowledge and that can liberate Assange and all those divulging important secrets of power. Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, that’s Lina Attalah, a co-founder and chief editor of Mada Masr. As she talks about the significance of WikiLeaks for journalism and democracy today, she has also been fighting for the release of the Egyptian political prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah and many other political prisoners who are held in Egypt, which helps to explain the enormous pressure she is under right now. We turn now to the next witness at the Belmarsh Tribunal, Abby Martin, investigative journalist, host of The Empire Files, an independent documentary and interview series reporting on conflicts, repression and the future of the First Amendment. She’s been active as an editor and international journalist for more than a decade, published several books and directed several movies, most recently, Gaza Fights for Freedom.
ABBY MARTIN: Thank you so much. It’s an honor to be on this panel and to be with all of you here today for this very important call to action.
The past eight weeks have been the deadliest on record for journalists, with 60 confirmed killed in Gaza so far. They are being targeted for assassination, many alongside their entire families. The reporters who remain say that their press vests, which should be their protective barrier from bombs and bullets, are actually what is marking them for murder. The genocide in Gaza has been exposed by these heroes. The only way the world knows the depth of crimes committed by the U.S. and Israel, things that would otherwise remain hidden for years, is because journalists are able to document them on their phones and instantly upload them for the world to see.
The Iraqi people did not have the capacity to film their reality when a crime of this scale was being committed to them. They had no ability to break through the lies and propaganda disseminated by our so-called free press. Instead, it was whistleblowers, like Sergeant Joe Darby, who leaked the infamous Abu Ghraib torture photos, which dealt a major blow to the U.S. war effort. Imagine for one second if the Bush administration locked up the CBS reporter who dared to publish those. Iraqis didn’t have social media, but they did have WikiLeaks, which finally showed the world what American forces had kept hidden for so long. Washington worked very hard to control where journalists could access and what they could and could not report. WikiLeaks was the antidote for that lack of free press during what was the greatest atrocity in the modern era. The Iraq War Logs forced Americans to confront what the United States was doing in our names. They gave proof to Iraqi society, the extent to which U.S. soldiers had been killing civilians. And the revelations made the occupation untenable. Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange helped end the Iraq War.
Forgive the repetition, but I think this quote bears repeating. Julian Assange once declared that if wars can start with lies, peace can start with the truth. Those words ring as our beacon when we look at the threat that truth poses to power, the powers that decide who lives and who dies, how wars start and how wars end. Truth poses the ultimate threat indeed. It gives the peons the power to know and the agency to act. That’s why Julian Assange is deemed enemy number one.
Let’s turn to Gaza once again, where not only journalists, but Palestinians who become viral, like our great late friend Refaat Alareer, are openly assassinated, openly assassinated for exposing Israel’s crimes. Let’s not forget, the CIA tried to do the exact same thing to Julian Assange. They wanted to kill him for the same reason that Israel is killing Palestinian journalists. But America is not as brazen as Israel and needs to maintain this veneer of respectability, humanitarianism and democracy. So, instead, they chose a different means to the same end: silencing him, punishing him and taking away his life by throwing him in a dungeon. And they relied on the willing agents of empire, the dutiful media stenographers, to articulate to us why Assange is not a journalist, and persecute him at the stake.
Assange has been in prison for so long, it actually might be hard to remember what it was like when WikiLeaks came out. It’s hard to remember how much of a relief it was to witness an organization braving the truth, armed with proof, a figurehead that challenged power in such a superb way. Remember what an exciting moment that was? A triumph of public interest journalism, which was finally shining a spotlight on the crimes the Pentagon was committing in the shadows. WikiLeaks was celebrated as the important public service that it was, and Assange was heralded as a heroic leader. And as an aspiring journalist, I was so moved by his conviction and voice. So much has happened since he’s been gone. Leaders have risen and fallen. Movements have been sparked and extinguished. Looking back at the legacy of WikiLeaks and how much of its revelations provided a foundational knowledge for the machinations of empire and the state and geopolitics today, I am eternally grateful.
We turn to the bloodletting in Gaza. It’s because of WikiLeaks that we know about Israel’s intent to keep Gaza’s economy on the brink of collapse, its people teetering above humanitarian crisis. We can thank WikiLeaks for revealing the strategy of wanting Hamas to govern the Gaza Strip, so they can deem 2.3 million civilians there a hostile entity worthy of collective punishment and, as we’ve seen plainly today, death.
We’ve all seen how the U.S. government prosecutes whistleblowers with extreme prejudice. No one embarrasses them without paying dearly in prison. But Assange’s case took the state’s vengeful prosecution to a new and extremely dangerous level. Assange did not steal or leak any government secrets. He never committed any crime. He published and exposed the crimes. That’s why the Espionage Act was enacted over a hundred years ago, to prevent the interference in the war effort. As President Woodrow Wilson stated when he oversaw the creation of this archaic and draconian law, “Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.”
The case against Assange is unprecedented. It breaks new legal ground that has profound implications for not just every journalist, but every citizen. This case criminalizes journalism. It criminalizes dissent. What’s happening to Julian Assange will have a chilling effect that will resonate for generations: “This is what will happen to you if you try to replicate Assange’s work. This, too, can be your fate, if you dare to challenge us.” And let’s remember the U.S. government has no credibility on this issue. They weaponize the notion of a free press to only ostracize, sanction and try to kill their enemies, take down governments, while their closest enemies are the most horrific on freedom of the press — Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Israel, right? How can we trust an institution like this to tell us who is a journalist and who is not, who is worthy of doing journalism? How is it acceptable that the perpetrators of the illegal invasion of Iraq are the ones who get to decide if the man who exposed their crimes is a journalist? We cannot let a conflict of interest of this magnitude prevail. Julian Assange is the voice of the people, and we must free him Thank you.
RYAN GRIM: Our next witness is Michael Sontheimer. Unfortunately, he couldn’t be with us today. He’s an acclaimed German journalist and historian who has several decades of experience working in journalism and editing. He was the founder of the German newspaper Tageszeitung and its main editor. Later, he worked for Die Zeit. And as correspondent for Der Spiegel, he worked on the WikiLeaks revelations and Julian Assange’s refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy. And here is Michael joining us from Germany.
MICHAEL SONTHEIMER: My name is Michael Sontheimer. I am a journalist from Germany, from Berlin. And back in 2010, I got in contact with a organization called WikiLeaks. I was a member of the editorial staff of Der Spiegel back then, the biggest news magazine in Europe. And soon after that, Der Spiegel cooperated with The Guardian, The New York Times. Le Monde stepped in, and El País, as well. We cooperated with WikiLeaks by publishing secret U.S. documents, mainly military documents which were provided by a military analyst called Bradley Manning, today Chelsea Manning. These documents showed, among others, serious war crimes by American soldiers in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Especially shocking and horrible was the video called “Collateral Murder” by WikiLeaks, in which you can see how a — an Apache helicopter circling above Baghdad and deliberately killing two Reuters journalists and civilians. These publications had quite an impact. They were well recognized all around the world. And the responsible American institutions, obviously, were quite annoyed about being exposed that way. The WikiLeaks also published in 2010, with Der Spiegel and all the other journalists, we published the so-called diplomatic cables, more than 90,000 emails by American diplomats which showed the arrogance in which quite a few U.S. diplomats looked at other countries in the world.
So the Department of Justice in Washington started a criminal investigation, not alone against Julian Assange, but also against other members of the WikiLeaks staff. And parallel to that, a defamation campaign or character assassination campaign was launched against Julian Assange. He was depicted as a rapist, raping two women in Sweden, as a narcissist, as a crazy person, as whatever. And this worked. This worked. The many liberals or left peoples who had supported WikiLeaks and Julian Assange did not know what to do. And Assange was quite isolated and saw no other way than to flee, then to run into the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and apply for political asylum, which was eventually granted to him in 2013. But it was a kind of — well, quite by choice, but still was a prison. He was in the embassy for six-and-a-half years, completely — complete surveillance, microphones, cameras all over, and the material was sent to the United States. On the other side, WikiLeaks continued to publish material. But in the end, the pressure of the United States government on the Ecuadorian government was so strong that the Ecuadorians withdrew the political asylum of Julian Assange, and he was arrested by British police more than four years ago, and since then, as we know, he’s in high-security prison.
Meanwhile — it took a while, but, meanwhile, all important journalist associations and institutions and human rights organizations and NGOs are demanding the immediate release of Julian Assange. And this context, I find it very embarrassing that the German foreign minister, Mrs. Annalena Baerbock, had demanded the release of Julian Assange during her election campaign, but as soon as she was elected, she didn’t comment anything anymore on Julian Assange. And meanwhile, she or her spokespeople keep saying, “We trust in the rule of law in the United States and in the U.K.” I mean, how can you trust the rule of law of a country where the most powerful secret service, the CIA, has been discussing if it wouldn’t be an option to kill Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy or just to kidnap him? I mean, this was never planted. It didn’t happen. But, I mean, we know how powerful the American secret services are. And that is, I think, the reason why Julian Assange is still in prison. Although in South America more and more presidents or heads of states or prime ministers have come up demanding freedom for Julian Assange. And especially in his home country last year, the political movement is quite strong to bring him home. The Prime Minister Albanese has said several times, “Enough is enough.”
But, I mean, the Americans, in its almost natural arrogance and their powerful secret services, they obviously want to state an example to teach journalists worldwide a lesson, the lesson that if you interfere with American military and secret services, you won’t be happy in your life, the future. That’s the lesson which journalists should not take, but it is difficult to ignore the dangers posed for media freedom worldwide, the danger posed by the American government.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Michael Sontheimer. Now to our next witness, the legendary investigative reporter Mark Feldstein, currently holds the Richard Eaton chair of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland, 20 years as an award-winning on-air investigative correspondent at outlets like CNN and ABC News. Mark.
MARK FELDSTEIN: Thank you. The prosecution of Julian Assange is unprecedented in American history. Publishing state secrets is not unprecedented. That’s common. It’s been going on thousands upon thousands of times since the 1790s. But never before has a publisher been thrown in prison for what he published. After September 11th, the government escalated prosecution of whistleblowers, the leakers, but never the journalists who published the information. That was seen as protected by the First Amendment and its clause protecting freedom of the press. This was known as the reporter-source divide. And so the Obama administration, which didn’t like the leaks any more than other administrations, prosecuted Chelsea Manning for these leaks, but not Julian Assange, because of the First Amendment.
That changed under Donald Trump. His administration administered a new and dangerous legal theory, using the espionage laws to imprison people for publishing true information about government abuses — Julian Assange. If you look at the indictment, it targets news gathering and publishing, by itself, as an act: nine counts of what they call unauthorized disclosure of national defense information — that’s publishing; seven counts of unauthorized obtaining or receiving of this information — that’s news gathering. In fact, they say that Assange, quote, “explicitly solicited … restricted material of political, diplomatic or ethical significance … precisely because of the value of that information.” That’s what journalists do. That’s what all good journalists do. That’s what I teach my journalism students to do. Even a top-level national security official from the Bush administration, Jack Goldsmith, said that this was obviously framed to mirror what journalists do. It’s not an accident. This is an attempt to criminalize investigative reporting, to criminalize national security journalism. And Julian Assange is the perfect defendant from the government’s standpoint, because he’s so unpopular. It’s easier to convict him as a publisher than the publisher of The New York Times, which also published this information, even as it opens the door to doing just that.
This case is about more than Julian Assange or journalism. It’s about the right of the citizens to get the information they need to participate in a democracy, to know what’s being done by the government, in our name, with our tax dollars. It was a Republican congressman, Rand Paul, who said of this case, “In a free society, we are supposed to know the truth. In a society where truth becomes treason, we are all in trouble.”
RYAN GRIM: And for our next witness, we’re glad to have the president of the European Federation of Journalists with us today, Maja Sever. With over three decades of experience as an investigative journalist, she has received numerous awards, including Croatia’s Journalist of the Year in 2018 and the Pride of Croatia in 2020. She is the first woman to lead the European Federation, following her post as president of the Trade Union of Croatian Journalists.
MAJA SEVER: Julian Assange is a crucial figure when we talk about transparency, media freedom, journalism and controlling political authorities and governments. The fate and role of Julian Assange are crucial for the journalism, because it symbolizes the fight for freedom of speech and the public right to know the truth. His works with WikiLeaks allowed for the release of the large amount of information that exposed corruption, abuse of power and other covert activities of governments all around the world, demanding transparency. Assange is a symbol of ideas that the public has a right to know the truth about the actions of their governments. He used technology to enable the distribution of information between intermediaries and showed how digital tools can be used to preserve media freedom and democratic values. His fight for transparency and freedom of information is essential for the future of journalism, because it raised questions about the role of the media, the role of the journalism, the relation between the government and the media, and the public’s right to access information. His legacy could have a lasting impact on the way journalists deal with data and how society deals with issues of freedom of expression and access to information.
That is why European Federation of Journalists join the numerous colleagues and organizations in calling on the United States government to drop all charges against Julian Assange and allow him to return home to his wife and his children. We are seriously concerned about the impact of Assange’s continued detention on media freedom and the rights of all journalists worldwide. We call on European governments to work actively to free Julian Assange. To show our solidarity, many of our members have declared that — we declared Julian Assange a full member or a free member of our organizations, our unions and association. We want to show that we are really in solidarity with Julian Assange. And we demand: Free Julian Assange now.
AMY GOODMAN: Our next witness at today’s tribunal is Ben Wizner, lawyer, civil liberties advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union. Since July of 2013, he’s been the lead attorney for NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. He’s also an adjunct professor at the New York University School of Law. Ben.
BEN WIZNER: Thanks, Amy Ryan. Thanks to Progressive International for including me again. It’s an honor to be a member of this tribunal.
I want to do something a little bit different with my four or five minutes today. I want to speak to people who are not in this room and who would not be in this room; to people who would in fact disagree with what has been said and will be said today; to people who do not believe that WikiLeaks is one of the world’s indispensable journalistic organizations, and who regard Julian Assange not as a journalist, but as a chaos agent or, worse, a hacker; to people who don’t necessarily believe that American empire is the greatest threat to world peace, and who see America as largely a force for good in the world; to people who see no connection between the imprisonment of Julian Assange and the vital investigative journalism they read in America’s leading newspapers; to people who think Julian Assange should probably be locked up for conduct wholly unrelated to the charges in this case — in short, to most Americans, including almost every member of Congress and almost everyone who holds power in this city.
I want to say that if you think that what’s happening to Julian Assange has nothing to do with you, that you have no skin in this game, you are wrong. The Washington Post recently, in recent years, unveiled a slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness.” It’s a little bit grandiose. They’ve been mocked a bit for it. But can anybody doubt its truth? No government in the world willingly divulges evidence of its own misconduct. Even in democracies, we might say especially in democracies, where leaders have to face voters, people in power use every method at their disposal to conceal their misconduct, their scandals and their crimes. Every important fact we know about our government’s crimes, we know because the free press published the government’s secrets. The single most important role of the press in a democracy is to dig out the government secrets and to return them to their rightful owners: the public.
This prosecution seeks to recharacterize that vital role as a criminal conspiracy. For the first time in our modern history, the government is describing the publication of truthful information as a felony. And if you think the government will do that once and then be satisfied, you’re naive about how power works. The threat of prosecution will be in the air every time the government seeks to persuade a newspaper not to publish its classified secrets. And even if you think that’s not likely to happen with this president and this attorney general, take a moment to consider who the next president and attorney general might well be. This prosecution could hand a loaded weapon to someone who views our free press as an enemy of the people.
Let me close by speaking directly to the attorney general. Though I suspect he does not stream Democracy Now! or The Intercept, perhaps this footage or coverage of this footage will make its way to him. We know that this is a prosecution that you would not have initiated. We also know that you’re an institutionalist, and you don’t believe that the government should change its position just because it changes its attorney general. And I think we know that you do not want to have the historic mark of being the first attorney general to set the precedent that publication of truthful information can land journalists and publishers in prison. Julian Assange has been in a maximum-security prison for more than four years. Under any version of punishment, whatever you think he may have done wrong, enough is enough. And it’s possible — indeed, it’s vital — that we find a way to bring this case to a resolution without setting a precedent that will make this country less free. Thank you.
RYAN GRIM: Our next tribunal member is Marjorie Cohn. She’s a professor emerita at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Previously, she was the president of the National Lawyers Guild. Professor Cohn has testified to the House Judiciary Committee and to military courts-martial about the illegality of the wars and the duty to disobey unlawful orders. She is a member of the Bureau of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers.
MARJORIE COHN: The indictment against Julian Assange, which was filed by the Trump administration, is based on WikiLeaks’ 2010-to-2011 exposure of war crimes committed by the United States. Assange was also indicted for exposing Cablegate. His indictment had nothing to do with Hillary Clinton and the 2016 election.
In 2010, U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning provided WikiLeaks with documents containing evidence of U.S. war crimes. Those included the Iraq War Logs, which were 400,000 field reports describing 15,000 unreported deaths of Iraqi civilians, as well as systematic rape, torture and murder after U.S. forces handed over detainees to a notorious Iraqi torture squad. They contained the Afghan War Diary, 90,000 reports of more civilian casualties by coalition forces than the U.S. military had reported. And they included the Guantánamo Files, 779 secret reports with evidence that 150 innocent people had been held at Guantánamo Bay for years, and 800 men and boys were tortured and abused in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The United States has ratified both the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture, making the U.S. a party to those treaties. Under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, treaties are the supreme law of the land. That makes the obligations contained in them part of U.S. domestic law. It means the United States is bound to follow the obligations set forth in those treaties.
Chelsea Manning also furnished WikiLeaks with the notorious 2007 “Collateral Murder” video. It depicts a U.S. Army Apache attack helicopter targeting and killing 11 unarmed civilians, including two Reuters journalists, as well as a man who came to rescue the wounded in Baghdad. Two children were injured. After the attack, a U.S. Army Jeep drove over one of the dead bodies, severing it in half. The “Collateral Murder” video reveals evidence of three different violations of the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Army Field Manual. First, civilians can never be targeted. Second, rescuers can never be targeted. And third, it is forbidden to deface a dead body.
WikiLeaks also exposed Cablegate, which consisted of 251,000 confidential U.S. State Department cables that disclosed corruption, diplomatic scandals and spy affairs on an international scale. Those documents, according to The New York Times, told the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money. A year ago, The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País, which also exposed Cablegate, signed a joint open letter calling on the U.S. government to dismiss the Espionage Act charges against Julian Assange for publishing classified and military diplomatic secrets. “Publishing is not a crime,” the letter states. “The U.S. government should end its prosecution of Julian Assange for publishing secrets.”
Barack Obama’s administration, which prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all prior presidential administrations combined, decided not to indict Julian Assange. That is because of the so-called New York Times problem. That means they would also have had to indict journalists from major news outlets that did the same thing that WikiLeaks did. But rather than dropping Trump’s case against Assange consistent with the position of the Obama-Biden administration, Joe Biden has zealously pursued extradition and persecution. It is critical that the Biden administration drop the U.S. demand for extradition and dismiss the indictment against Julian Assange. The integrity of the U.S. government and the survival of freedom of the press require it. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Next up is Trevor Timm, co-founder and executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, journalist, activist, legal analyst, who previously worked for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He’s the author of Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles. Timm, Trevor Timm.
TREVOR TIMM: Thank you, Amy. And thank you, Ryan. It’s an honor to be here.
Many panelists have already eloquently spoken about the fact that what Julian Assange is accused of is not a rarity in journalism. In fact, it’s what journalists from mainstream papers, from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, do almost daily, which is talk to sources about classified information, ask them for more information and publish that information. In fact, it’s written into their job responsibilities.
But when you talk to defenders of the Justice Department or spokespeople for the Justice Department, they will often — you know, they are unable to say unequivocally that this will not create a precedent that will allow them to go after those same journalists, but they will say, of course, “We would never do that.” And so I think it’s important to emphasize that this is not just a slippery slope argument or some theoretical exercise.
Currently, right now on the campaign trail, the leading candidate for the Republican Party, Donald Trump, has repeatedly told crowds of thousands of people that he would like to, quote-unquote, “jail” journalists. He has repeatedly, on social media, talked about how cable news operations are committing, quote-unquote, “treason” for criticizing him and reporting on things that he doesn’t like. And just the other day, one of his close allies talked about how, in the second Donald Trump administration, he will, quote-unquote, “go after” the media. And so, you know, I would ask anybody within the Justice Department currently, in the Democratic Party or in charge at the White House, “Is there anybody who would love more a precedent set in this Assange case that would allow a future president to go after newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post than Donald Trump?” After all, it’s not WikiLeaks or a WikiLeaks-like outfit that is publishing the most classified information in the United States today. It is those papers that I just named, and many other mainstream papers like them.
Now, many people in this room, both the panelists and in the crowd, have done heroic work trying to raise awareness about this case. Virtually every press freedom organization, including Freedom of the Press Foundation, virtually every civil liberties organization, including ACLU, virtually every human rights organization, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, has loudly condemned these charges and asked the Justice Department to drop them. But there is one group of people who can make more of a difference than anybody. And that is the journalists who are in this audience, the journalists who may be watching at home, and their editors and publishers.
Now, you might say that journalists don’t like to make their opinions known about various issues, whether it’s because of, you know, claims of bias or because of the rules inside of their newsrooms. However, we know that this is not the case when we’re talking about issues that directly affect their rights. And I want to talk quickly about two examples. When you go back and look at what happened during the Trump administration, when he was out there calling journalists enemies of the people, when he would tweet to his tens of millions of followers, by name, naming journalists and calling them every insult in the books, journalists banded together and loudly condemned this behavior, both individually and collectively. They went up to members of Congress and forced them to condemn this behavior and asked them what they were going to do.
Now, you can say Trump is impervious to that criticism or even liked that criticism, and so nothing changed. But we do know, actually, that this can work on the Biden administration specifically. I think a lot of people forget that at the beginning, the very beginning of the Biden administration, just in the first month or two, we found out that at the end of the Trump administration, the Justice Department had issued secret legal orders to spy on the email records of journalists at The New York Times and The Washington Post and CNN. And even worse still, it seemed like the Biden administration was going to continue fighting to make sure that they got that information from the reporters and the tech companies that held it. Well, as soon as journalists found out about this, there was widespread outrage. Journalists of all stripes, from mainstream news organizations to independent, were loudly condemning this on social media. The next day — I think it was even over the weekend — at the White House, they were being peppered with questions. And despite the Biden administration saying that they never want to meddle in individual cases in the Justice Department, which is a noble goal, they, almost the next day, declared that their administration’s policy was they were not going to allow the surveillance of journalists anymore. The Justice Department quickly got this message. By the day after that, they had announced that they, too, were going to work on instituting rules that would make sure that this would never happen again. And a few months later, they released the strongest rules, internal Justice Department rules, that they’ve ever had.
And so, you know, we know that this can bring change. Now, the problem is that a lot of people are, or journalists are, afraid to speak up for Assange. And so time is running out. If Julian Assange comes to this country, it may be too late. And so, my message to all those journalists is: Please, tell your followers, tell your bosses, and tell anybody who listen, that this is not just about Julian Assange; it is about your rights and the rights of all your colleagues. Thank you.
RYAN GRIM: Our next member of the Belmarsh Tribunal joins us now from Berlin. Ece Temelkuran is an acclaimed Turkish author and journalist. She is the recipient of the Freedom of Thought Award from the Turkish Human Rights Association, the Pen for Peace Award and Turkish Journalist of the Year.
ECE TEMELKURAN: Hello. My name is Ece Temelkuran. I’m here to tell you about fascism, what to do against it, and why Julian Assange is central in our fight against global rise of fascism.
I’ve been a journalist in Turkey. And as you know, my country is now a fully formed authoritarian state. Many Western countries, until very recently, believed that fascism takes over the political power overnight, that it marches to power in goose steps. It is, in fact, a long and torturous process. And one of the very first steps in this process is the loss of truth. It is not an abstract phenomenon. Actually, it begins with targeting journalists and journalism and all those who speak the truth. Targeting journalism doesn’t right away begin with imprisoning them or getting them fired. It begins with discrediting them first. And then, when they are defamed enough, when they have less and less people to support them, the journalists become vulnerable before the power. And that is when they are put in prison and, as in Julian Assange’s case, held in solitary confinement. Alongside them, the truth is imprisoned. And that is when the authority is free to say whatever it wants and shamelessly act however it wants.
As we very well know, there has been a massive global campaign to discredit Julian Assange. And his image has been painted in such a way that many people, and for a very long time, hesitated to support him. Although the tide has turned now, too long time has passed before many enough understood that the fact is Julian Assange has been targeted and made into a victim of international criminal law only because they wanted to draw a line about the truth for the others, for the other truthsayers, and how much of the truth can be told.
After practicing journalism for two decades in Turkey, losing a country to fascism, and writing a book called How to Lose a Country, that explores the global patterns of a new form of fascism, I can tell you quite confidently telling the truth and revealing the dirty secrets of the power takes a lot of faith in humans. Telling the truth, while being aware of the consequences, is, at its — at its very core, means that you believe that when enough people know about the wrongdoing, they will take action. If only they knew, you think to yourself, they would do something to change the course of events.
Now, it falls on us to fulfill Julian Assange’s faith in us and not let him down. Fascism, even the messy, quite colorful new form of it, when you look deep into the heart of it, is the total loss of faith in humankind and its capacity to change the world for the better. This means that if we fail the truthsayer and his faith in us, we will fail ourselves and side with those who are keeping the truth in solitary confinement, with those who think that we cannot change anything, with those the world and the humanity cannot be better. This will be our colossal moral failure. On the other hand, we will then contribute to the rise of global fascism by being silent. We are not nonfactors of history. We count. And in order to prove it today, we need to stand with the truth and with Julian Assange. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Last but not least, before we conclude our tribunal today, our witness is Rebecca Vincent, the director of campaigns for Reporters Without Borders, RSF, Reporters Sans Frontières, an international organization focused on safeguarding the right to freedom of information across the world. I very much appreciated when they came to my defense. When charges were brought against me for covering the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota, RSF was there. Rebecca Vincent began her career at the State Department before leaving to dedicate her career to the defense of human rights and a free press. She’s a fellow at the Royal Society of Arts and serves on the Advisory Network of the Media Freedom Coalition, the Magnitsky Awards Committee and the Advisory Council of the Foreign Policy Center.
REBECCA VINCENT: Thank you, Amy and Ryan, and also to Progressive International for bringing us all here together today. It’s a pleasure to be here on behalf of Reporters Without Borders, known internationally as Reporters Sans Frontières. So, if I say ”RSF,” it’s because of our French acronym.
At RSF, we defend Julian Assange because of his contributions to journalism. The publication by WikiLeaks in 2010 of the leaked diplomatic and military documents informed extensive public interest reporting around the world, including by The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel — of course, the five original media partners of WikiLeaks, who worked together to treat the leaked materials journalistically — but also reporting by hundreds of other media outlets around the world over the years. The publication of these materials exposed information in the public interest, including war crimes and human rights violations that to this day have never been prosecuted. Only the publisher is being pursued.
If the U.S. government succeeds in its efforts to secure Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States and bring him to trial here, he will be the first publisher prosecuted under the Espionage Act. This outdated law has itself become the focus of growing calls for reform, in part because it lacks a public interest defense. This means that no publisher, journalist or journalistic source accused in this way could defend their actions as serving the public interest. Although the U.S. government puts much emphasis on other accusations against Assange, it is important to note that the bulk of this case is based on Espionage Act charges, 17 of the 18 counts against Julian Assange. Prosecuting him on these charges would set an alarming precedent that could change the very future of journalism, as it would pave the way for similar prosecutions of journalists and media organizations around the world. These charges should be immediately dropped, and the Espionage Act should be reformed to ensure such a case can never be brought again.
As part of our global campaign for the release of Julian Assange, RSF has monitored the full extradition proceedings in London courts, which commenced in February 2020. Gaining access to these hearings was not easy. And we were the only NGO that fought our way into court to monitor every stage of this process. During the first instance proceedings in particular, we faced an extensive and evolving set of barriers to observation that violate the principles of open justice and the right to a fair trial. I want to emphasize that my colleagues and I have never experienced such difficulty monitoring any other court case in any country, even during the pandemic. We persevered because it was so important to bear witness to this historically important case.
And in court, what we observed was disturbing. During the first instance proceedings, Julian Assange was held in a glass cage at the back of the courtroom, where at times it was clear he had trouble following proceedings and could not easily consult with his legal representation. Even more disturbing is the fact that Assange has not been allowed to attend court in person ever since. The last time he was seen outside of Belmarsh prison was during a bail hearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on January 6, 2021, nearly three years ago. He is now only permitted to join court hearings via a video link from prison, and at times he has looked very unwell in doing so. Alarmingly, we learned that he suffered a mini stroke in prison during the appellate hearing in his case in October 2021. This is an important reminder of his state of mental health and physical health, which remain at great risk, which is exacerbated the longer he is in detention, and would be brought into even more dire risk in conditions of extradition. So, when we say that the possible — that the extradition of Julian Assange is a possible matter of life or death, that really cannot be ignored.
Fast-forwarding to today, we await news of Day X, the final U.K. court hearing that represents the last possible stage in domestic proceedings, bringing Julian Assange dangerously close to extradition. If there’s any glimmer of hope, it perhaps lies with the ongoing diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Australian governments over Assange’s fate. We again urge both governments to commit to reaching a political solution as a matter of urgent priority that would allow for Assange’s release without further delay and prevent his extradition, with a guarantee of no further time to be served in prison in the U.K., the U.S., Australia or anywhere. The past 13 years cannot be undone, but these states can correct the situation now and put an end to the relentless persecution of Julian Assange, which endangers journalism and global press freedom. It’s more crucial now than ever before to unite in our global call to free Assange and to stand up for the principles at stake.
It’s a pleasure to be gathered here today in the very city at the epicenter of this all with those who are determined to fight for Julian Assange and for all of our right to know. May this be the last Belmarsh Tribunal that is ever needed and the last time anyone ever faces such treatment for publishing information in the public interest.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you, Rebecca.
And that concludes this Belmarsh Tribunal. These final thoughts. As our first witness, Ewen MacAskill, was speaking, from The Guardian, I looked up a piece that was in The Guardian a couple of years ago.
“Senior CIA officials during the Trump administration discussed abducting and even assassinating WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, according to a US report citing former officials.
“The discussions on kidnapping or killing Assange took place in 2017,” according to Yahoo News, “when the fugitive Australian activist was entering his fifth year sheltering in the Ecuadorian embassy” in London. “The then-CIA director, Mike Pompeo, and his top officials were furious about WikiLeaks’ publication of 'Vault 7', a set of CIA hacking tools, a breach which the agency deemed to be the biggest data loss in its history.
“Pompeo and the CIA leadership, [quote], 'were completely detached from reality because they were so embarrassed about Vault 7', Yahoo cites a former Trump national security official as saying. 'They were seeing blood.'
“Some senior officials inside the CIA and the Trump administration went as far as to request 'sketches' or 'options' for killing Assange. 'There seemed to be no boundaries,' a former senior counterterrorist official was quoted as saying. …
“The kidnapping or murder of a civilian accused of publishing leaked documents, with no connection to terrorism, would have triggered global outrage.
“Pompeo raised eyebrows in 2017 by referring to WikiLeaks as a, [quote], 'non-state hostile intelligence service'. The Yahoo report said … it was a significant designation, as it implied a green light for a more aggressive approach to the pro-transparency group by CIA operatives, who could treat it as an enemy espionage organization.”
This is the background for where Julian Assange is today. In 2012, he got political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Think about that. That was more than 10 years ago that he has not been able to enjoy freedom, year after year. I mean, he could have gone to Ecuador, but he couldn’t step outside of the Ecuadorian Embassy because he faced arrest by the British authorities, and, of course, now, at the behest of the United States, waiting to extradite him here based on a more than 100-year-old law.
It’s clear that the authorities are not simply going to change their minds, as is always the case if you look back in history. It’s up to movements making demands of the top. It’s movements that make history. It is all of you. It is up to all of you. That is the only possibility of making the difference. Our motto at Democracy Now! is “go to where the silence is, and say something.” It is so critical that that happen today. Right now more than a thousand people are watching online. You can take those links at Democracy Now! and spread them far and wide. If each person sent this to 10 or 20 people or to whole organizations, this is what makes the difference.
And I’ll end by going back to World War II, to the White Rose Collective, to Hans and Sophie Scholl, brother and sister. She was a student at the University of Munich. He was a medical student at the University of Munich. They weren’t Jewish. They were German Christians who thought: What could they do in the face of the Nazi atrocity? And they thought, “Well, at least if we can get out information, the Germans will never be able to say, 'We didn't know.’” And so they published a series of six pamphlets. On the third pamphlet were written the words, “We will not be silent.” They spread these pamphlets out everywhere. In the middle of the night, they would hurl them into an alleyway or into a marketplace or from the atriums, balconies at their school, just toss these pamphlets about. Hans and Sophie, their professor and others were arrested by the Gestapo. They were charged, they were tried, they were convicted, and they were beheaded. But that philosophy, that motto should be the Hippocratic Oath of not only journalists today, but of all people of conscience. “We will not be silent.” Democracy now!
RYAN GRIM: So, a quick programming note: For people who are here in person, I have books out in the hallway. And I also have — for people around the world that might not understand this, I also have some granola that’s out there. And that’s because last week I made a whole bunch for a school fundraiser. That is the way that we fund our public schools here — the F-35s, we’ve got that covered somehow — when it comes to schools. So, I sold a lot of it, not all of it, so I brought the remainder here. Please take some home with you.
A couple quick points. One, thank you to John Kiriakou for diving in on solitary confinement. And the only thing I would add to that is the U.K. asked for promises, as he said, from the United States that he would not be put in solitary confinement. Those promises, obviously, from the Department of Justice aren’t worth anything. They also included, basically parenthetically, a clarification in their promise that they made to the U.K. — which they can’t make, because it’s the Bureau of Prisons that does it — that if they decide later that he does need to be put in solitary confinement, that they will do so. Like, that’s even in the document that they sent to the U.K., in which they could have completely just lied. Instead, they wouldn’t even make a firm meaningless promise.
One point on what Mark Feldstein said — I’m glad he brought up the reporter-source distinction. I was interviewing Daniel Ellsberg several years ago, when I brought that very distinction up about how they can prosecute a source, but not a journalist. And he made the point that he believes that that’s unconstitutional, and that if he had gone to trial, he was going to challenge that. His argument was you don’t shed your First Amendment rights and privileges just by going to work for the government, that the government can do plenty of things — it can destroy you financially, it can fire you, it can strip your security clearance. There are plenty of administrative responses that they could have for somebody who leaked classified information based on their conscience. Now, selling it to a foreign government, obviously, that’s espionage. That’s different. But what he said: They cannot criminalize that act. And so that there is — and Abby Martin made the point, that this is not just an attack on journalists. It’s also an attack on all citizens who dissent and who want to speak up.
And the last point I’d make is to journalists who might be watching this around the world who who feel some discomfort about this because they just don’t like Julian Assange. And I would remind them that it is not a coincidence that they’re targeting Julian Assange, who is somebody who both has published some of the most impactful journalism over the last 20 years, but also is so disliked among so many of his peers and also among the kind of different partisan ecosystems here in the United States. You know, lots of factions of the Republican Party consider all of the free press to be a, quote, “enemy of the people,” to quote the former president. And the Democratic Party, of course, so many elements within that don’t like him, because they blame him for 2016. And so, whenever they’re going to try to roll back freedoms, they’re going to target those who are kind of the most vulnerable or least popular. And when you see that happening, that’s when you need to stand up. We don’t need your voice when it’s easy. We don’t need your voice defending The New York Times. They’re OK. When we need you is when you feel that little twinge, like there might be some risk here to me speaking up. Like, that’s the precise moment when you have to do that. And that’s what everybody here is doing. That’s what everybody on this tribunal did today. And I’m so grateful for that. Thank you.