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In this episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Bill Goodwin, investigations editor, joins Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna to discuss the case of Julian Assange, whose recent extradition hearing at the Old Bailey Bill reported on
In this episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Bill Goodwin, investigations editor, joins Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna to discuss the case of Julian Assange, whose recent extradition hearing at The Old Bailey was curiously under-reported, but which Bill covered in depth.
Caroline gets the ball rolling with her own reflections on the international man of mystery that is Julian Assange – well known, in some quarters, for his association with Pamela Anderson and his dressing up a cat in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Back in the heyday of WikiLeaks, in 2010/11, Caroline covered the story from a channel perspective, in relation to implications that hosting the site could have on the burgeoning cloud provider space. Caroline recalls how Amazon Web Services (AWS) pulled the plug on WikiLeaks at that time.
This was at the time of Chelsea Manning’s leaks to WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of US military and other government documents of “great historical importance”, says Bill. These led to revelations of torture in detention at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp and civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. They demonstrated that US troops were killing significant numbers of civilians in the face of silence from the US and Iraq’s ministry of health.
Bill says Daniel Elsberg – the US economist who, in 1971, leaked the Pentagon Papers that cast a bad light on US Vietnam policy – described the WikiLeaks disclosures, during the recent Assange court hearing, as among the most important revelations of criminal state behaviour in US history. Elsberg said: “It was clear to me that these revelations, like the Pentagon Papers, have the capability of informing the public that they had seriously been misled about the nature of war, progress in war, the likelihood of it ending at all.”
Caroline asks why the US case against Assange has taken so long to reach the point it has, even allowing for his sojourn in the Ecuadorian embassy (from 2012 to 2019).
Bill recounts that the Obama regime had declined to prosecute Assange in 2013, but that the Trump administration revived the prosecution in 2019 about the same time as Assange was arrested in the Ecuador embassy in London by the Metropolitan Police, his welcome there having been outstayed.
(As is well known, Assange originally took refuge in the embassy in 2012 at a time when he was facing extradition to Sweden to be investigated for sexual assault allegations made by two women. Following his arrest in 2019 that case was reopened for investigation and then discontinued later that same year. Sweden’s deputy director of public prosecution, Eva-Marie Persson, said, in November 2019: “The reason for this decision is that the evidence has weakened considerably due to the long period of time that has elapsed since the events in question.”)
A cache of leaks related to the US’s highly probable animus towards Assange – though it is not a matter for which he is being prosecuted – is the so-called Vault 7 leaks.
Clare asks about this series of leaks on the podcast, and Bill explains: WikiLeaks published a series of leaks on the CIA, codenamed “Vault 7”, in March 2017. The first tranche included 8,761 documents and files from the CIA’s Centre for Cyber Intelligence in Virginia. WikiLeaks described it as the largest ever publication of confidential documents on the CIA.
This series of leaks might have led the US to revisit the prosecution of Assange, speculates Bill. And “the US’s silence on Vault 7 is remarkable”, he adds.
On the podcast, Bill goes into the complicated story of how unredacted US documents came to be published on the web. He also adverts to US Brigadier General Robert Carr’s investigation into the impact of WikiLeaks disclosures on behalf of the Defense Department, which found no specific examples of anyone who had lost his or her life because of them.
The Old Bailey proceedings
Julian Assange is currently in Belmarsh prison, in London. But he was in court, at the Old Bailey in London, in September and October of this year.
On the podcast, Bill takes the team through the court proceedings, which were about whether he should be extradited to the US to face prosecution.
This most recent trial, conducted by judge Vanessa Baraitser, saw a mushrooming of indictments emanating from the US authorities. Assange was initially indicted on one count under the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for allegedly conspiring with former US soldier and intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to obtain classified US documents.
The US later filed a second indictment adding 17 further charges under the Espionage Act 1917, related to receiving and publishing classified documents from Manning.
Shortly before the extradition hearings in September, the US filed a third indictment, which did not add any new charges but introduced further detailed allegations that Assange conspired with hackers to obtain confidential information.
Assange’s defence team complained that they were not given time to address the new allegations before the September court hearings but were not granted further time.
Bill details, on the podcast, some of the reporting restrictions and constrictive court mechanics that characterised the hearings.
Assange’s state of health
The parlous state of Assange’s health was an issue that came up during the proceedings. Bill confirmed that he does have a set of health conditions, including a diagnosis of Asperger’s and depression. The risk here is that if he is extradited then he may be at risk of suicide. Conditions in US prisons also mean that he would be held in a cell the size of a parking lot 23 hours a day if extradited.
If he is not extradited, the US government will most likely appeal, says Bill. And if that appeal – more likely a series of appeals – fails then the case could follow the patterns of alleged hackers Lauri Love and Gary McKinnon who were spared extradition (and also prosecution in the UK), but are effectively trapped in the UK.
The wider import of the Assange case
On the podcast, Brian asks why the Assange extradition case is important?
Bill says the case is not really about Assange. It has much wider implications and, if it goes ahead, will criminalise many aspects of journalism.
The charges against Assange include, under the US Espionage Act, possessing leaked documents and conspiring with sources to obtain newsworthy information, as well as trying to help a source protect their identity. Bill points out these are common journalistic practices, and mentions former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s concern about the precedent the case will set for journalists in the future.
The NUJ is also, says Bill, campaigning on the issues of journalistic freedom surrounding the case, and both they and Rusbridger have argued that if the US can extradite UK citizens for possessing and publishing leaked documents, for example, exposing US war crimes, then it follows that Russia, or North Korea, should equally be able to extradite journalists who expose corruption in Russia or North Korea.
And then, where would we be?
(As a parenthesis, Bill is well known for his record in the defence of freedom of the press. In 1989, he almost went to jail in defence of a very important principle of press freedom – namely the protection of sources. As a young reporter on The Engineer, Bill wrote a story based on a leak. A judge ordered him to reveal the identity of a person who told him that an engineering company was in dire financial straits. He refused to do so and was fined for contempt of court. Eventually, in 1996, the European Court of Human Rights said the order and the fine violated his rights to free expression).
On the podcast, Bill expands on the specific interest in the Assange case for Computer Weekly and other news organisations. WikiLeaks’ use of technology to protect sources has been innovative, and we have emulated some of that, he says.
The team close the podcast out by first revisiting some of the colourful activities famously associated with Julian in the (very small) Ecuadorian embassy. And the impressive list of visitors he received from the worlds of the media, show business, music and computer science. He also had two children with Stella Moris during his time there.
Bill then sums up the significance of the WikiLeaks disclosures of US government documents.
“It has been hugely important,” says Bill. “It introduced the phenomenon of mass leaks of information. It disclosed a lot of information that sheds light on governments, not just the US government, and calls them to account. Daniel Elsberg was very clear about how important the revelations were. And Patrick Cockburn’s piece [in July 2007] in The Independent about the killing of two Reuters journalists [and nine other people by a US helicopter in Baghdad] was confirmed by the Manning leaks.” (Cockburn has also written in the London Review of Books about Assange being “in limbo”).
“It’s hard to over-estimate the importance of these leaks,” concludes Bill.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser has said she will issue a decision on whether to extradite Assange, who remains in custody in Belmarsh Prison, on 4 January 2021. The 49-year-old faces up to 175 years in prison.