“Free the Truth”: The Belmarsh Tribunal on Julian Assange & Defending Press Freedom
Written by GRB on 01/01/2024
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: President Biden is facing continuing pressure to drop charges against Julian Assange. The WikiLeaks founder has been languishing for nearly five years in the maximum-security Belmarsh prison outside London, while appealing extradition to the United States. If he is extradited, tried and convicted, Julian Assange faces up to 175 years in prison for violating the U.S. Espionage Act for publishing documents that expose U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and beyond.
A group of journalists, lawyers and press freedom advocates recently gathered to testify at the Belmarsh Tribunal at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Inspired by the Russell-Sartre Tribunals of the Vietnam War, the Belmarsh Tribunal has brought together a range of expert witnesses, from constitutional lawyers to journalists to 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 the Progressive International and the Wau Holland Foundation. I co-chaired the tribunal with Ryan Grim of The Intercept. Today we bring you excerpts.
AMY GOODMAN: 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.
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.
AMY GOODMAN: 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: 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.
RYAN GRIM: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: That was CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, speaking at the Belmarsh Tribunal. When we come back, we hear more testimony from journalists and human rights defenders.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. In this special broadcast, we’re airing excerpts from the Belmarsh Tribunal, which convened at the National Press Club in D.C. in early December. I co-chaired the tribunal with Ryan Grim of The Intercept.
AMY GOODMAN: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: 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 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.”
AMY GOODMAN: That was journalist Mark Feldstein, the chair of broadcast journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, speaking at the Belmarsh Tribunal. When we come back, we’ll hear testimony from ACLU attorney Ben Wizner, who’s the attorney for NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden. We’ll also hear from the late Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who spoke at the first Belmarsh Tribunal. Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. In this special broadcast, we’re airing excerpts of the Belmarsh Tribunal, which convened at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in early December. I co-chaired the tribunal with Ryan Grim of The Intercept.
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: 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.
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.
TREVOR TIMM: 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.
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.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Rebecca Vincent, director of campaigns at Reporters Without Borders, testifying at the Belmarsh Tribunal in early December in D.C. The High Court of Justice in London will hear what may be Julian Assange’s final appeal on February 20th and 21st.
We end today’s show with the words of the famed Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. He died at the age of 92 in June. He was one of Julian Assange’s most vocal supporters. In 2019, he appeared on Democracy Now! a day after the Justice Department indicted Assange on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yesterday is a day that will be — live in the history of journalism, of law in this country and of civil liberties in this country, because it was a direct attack on the First Amendment, an unprecedented one. There hasn’t actually been such a significant attack on the freedom of the press, the First Amendment, which is the bedrock of our republic, really, our form of government, since my case in 1971, 48 years ago. But this is — I was indicted as a source. And I warned newsmen then that that would not be the last indictment of a source, if I were convicted. …
But my warning really was that it wasn’t going to stop there, that almost inevitably there would be a stronger attack directly on the foundations of journalism, against editors, publishers and journalists themselves. And we’ve now seen that as of yesterday. That’s a new front in President Trump’s war on the free press, which he regards as the enemy of the people. …
They started out with a charge that made Julian look something other than a normal journalist. The help to hacking a password sounded like something that, even in the Digital Age, perhaps most journalists wouldn’t do, and that would hope to separate him from the support of other journalists.
In this case, when they had to lay out their larger charge, this is straight journalism. They mention, for instance, that he solicited investigative material, he solicited classified information — terribly, he didn’t just passively receive it over the transom. I can’t count the number of times I have been solicited for classified information, starting with the Pentagon Papers, but long after that, and that’s by every member of the responsible press that I dealt with — the Times, the Post, AP, you name it. That’s journalism.
AMY GOODMAN: Famed Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. He died in June at the age of 92. He testified at the first Belmarsh Tribunal at the National Press Club last January. To see the full video of both Belmarsh tribunals [Jan. 20, 2023 and Dec. 9, 2023], visit democracynow.org.
And that does it for today’s show. Democracy Now! is produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Sonyi Lopez. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude, Dennis McCormick, Matt Ealy, Emily Andersen and Buffy Saint Marie Hernandez. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.