Enough is enough—it’s time to set Julian Assange free

The Wikileaks founder’s last-ditch attempt to fight extradition to America confronts us with fundamental questions about press freedom and the power of the state

February 10, 2024
Image: David Cliff/Alamy
Image: David Cliff/Alamy

You may well have forgotten about Julian Assange. It’s been 11 years since he disappeared from public view—first into the claustrophobic seclusion of the Ecuadorian embassy and then, nearly five years later, to the maximum security Belmarsh prison. Out of sight, out of mind. 

All that is about to change as he fights a last-ditch attempt in London’s High Court to prevent being extradited to America—and the strong likelihood of once more vanishing, this time into a state penitentiary for a very long time.

Why should we care?

There is no shortage of people who don’t, much. They may dislike Assange—and it has to be conceded that he has a unique ability to lose friends and alienate people. Many in the media don’t believe he’s a “proper” journalist, and therefore won’t lift a finger to defend him. Some will never forgive him for his role in leaking information about the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016, and accuse him of being Putin’s patsy. 

And then there are people who have a touching faith in the secret corners of our state, and deplore anyone who lifts the lid. James Bond is a world-beating brand, even if the counter-narrative is sometimes more George Smiley or Jackson Lamb from Slow Horses. I will never forget a distinguished editor, at the height of the Edward Snowden revelations, writing: “If the security services insist something is contrary to the public interest… who am I to disbelieve them?”

In other words, trust the state. If they say “jump”, your role is to ask “how high?”

But why would you? “The state”—don’t we know it?—routinely gets all kinds of things wrong. The same is, inevitably, true of the secret state, the security state, the deep state—whatever you want to call it. 

Would you trust the police or security services to monitor all your communications and movements? Not if you’ve read any Orwell. Did you not notice the intelligence failures/embellishments that helped shape US and UK policy before the disastrous attack on Iraq in 2003? Really?

Were you blind to the proven allegations of torture and rendition during and after 9/11? Did you miss the findings of illegal surveillance in the wake of the Snowden revelations? Do you shrug when you read about the police or intelligence agencies penetrating protest groups, behaving in ways that form the subject of the UK’s ongoing undercover policing inquiry?

In other words, the security state—for all that it does good and necessary work—needs to be monitored and held to account. Especially as it has immense powers over the lives of individuals, including questions of life and death.  

But any attempt at scrutiny, given that the shadowier parts of the state are bolstered by an increasingly prohibitive protective shield of law and punishment, is not easy.

Over the years much valuable work has been done by whistleblowers—think Daniel Ellsberg, Clive Ponting, Chelsea Manning, Thomas Drake, Katharine Gun, Edward Snowden. And then there is the hybrid breed of individuals like Assange—part activist, part journalist, part publisher, part hacker.

Nearly all of them follow a pattern. They are vehemently denounced by the state as traitors and despicables. Then comes a form of reassessment: juries clear them, public opinion changes; presidents, on reflection, commute their sentences. Finally comes a form of redemption: they become celebrated in Hollywood movies and/or honoured for their courage. Daniel Ellsberg, by the time he died last year, had acquired a kind of iconic status as someone who did the right thing when it mattered. 

And so to Julian Assange. Of course they hate him. Of course they want to make an example out of him. Of course they will never, ever admit that the Wikileaks revelations about the Afghan and Iraq wars contained even a microbe of public interest.

Of course they want to stop all scrutiny of the secret state. Australia, the UK and the US have, in recent years, in various ways tried to place forbidding roadblocks in the way of those who would shine an unwelcome searchlight. Longer jail sentences; criminalising the right to possess, let alone publish, classified material; the threat of injunctions to prevent publication; the right to spy on journalists and their sources; the pursuit of activists and others who might present a “risk”.

And now they want to get Assange, perhaps encouraged by the muted response of the international journalist community to his arraignment. But it’s time to wake up and be alarmed.

“If the prosecution succeeds,” says James Goodale, “investigative reporting based on classified information will be given a near death blow.” Goodale, now 90, deserves to be listened to since he led the New York Times’s defence of the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers—the once-secret dossier leaked by Ellsberg which showed the truth of the Vietnam War. And, yes, that became a Steven Spielberg film with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Time is a great healer. 

So should Assange, an Australian citizen, be extradited?

Imagine another scenario. An American journalist, based in London, starts digging into, say, the Indian nuclear weapons programme. Her reports clearly breach that country’s 1923 Official Secrets Act. India wants to prosecute her and, hopefully, jail her for a long time—pour décourager les autres.

Can you imagine any circumstances in which that American journalist would be bundled on an Air India flight to Delhi? Of course not: no American government would countenance it. So why—when even the Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has made it plain he thinks it is time to set him free—are we still using up precious court and jail resources to argue over how much more punishment can be inflicted on Assange? 

I know Assange is in some ways a problematic figure, though I will always defend the work we did together when I was editing the Guardian, on the Iraq and Afghan war logs and the diplomatic cables. I get why the defence of him from the wider journalistic community has been somewhat muted.

But I know they won’t stop with Assange. The world of near-total surveillance, merely sketched by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-four, is now rather frighteningly real. We need brave defenders of our liberties. They won’t all be Hollywood hero material, any more than Orwell’s Winston Smith was.

But I agree with Albanese and his crisp message to President Biden. Enough is enough. Set him free.