A bipartisan duo in Congress has launched a fresh effort to push President Joe Biden to drop the Department of Justice’s extradition request against Julian Assange and to stop prosecutorial proceedings against him.
Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Thomas Massie, R-Ky., are asking their colleagues in the House to sign on to a letter to the Biden administration by Thursday, noting that opposing Assange’s prosecution is important not only for press freedom, but also to maintain credibility on the global stage.
McGovern, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who co-chairs the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Congress, told The Intercept that the charges against Assange are part of an alarming global trend of increasing attacks against the press, including in the U.S. “The bottom line is that journalism is not a crime,” he wrote in a statement. “The work reporters do is about transparency, trust, and speaking truth to power. When they are unjustly targeted, we all suffer the consequences. The stakes are too high for us to remain silent.”
The lawmakers will send the letter to Biden as well as Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The letter follows a similar effort by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., earlier this year and comes amid Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s visit to the U.S. this week. Buoyed by cross-partisan Australian support for the cause to free Assange, an Australian citizen, Albanese himself has previously expressed frustration with Assange’s situation, saying it had gone on far too long.
“The fact that it’s a bipartisan effort is extremely important, showing that Julian’s issue is not a left or a right issue, but it’s an issue of principle,” Gabriel Shipton, Assange’s brother, told The Intercept.
Assange has been held in a London prison since 2019 as he has combated U.S. extradition efforts. He faces 18 criminal charges in the U.S., 17 of which allege violations of the Espionage Act. The charges stem from the whistleblower’s publication of classified documents about the State Department, Guantánamo Bay, and U.S. incursions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The letter, which was first reported by Fox News, appeals to Biden by citing his former boss’s administration. “We believe the Department of Justice acted correctly in 2013, during your vice presidency, when it declined to pursue charges against Mr. Assange for publishing the classified documents because it recognized that the prosecution would set a dangerous precedent,” the letter reads. (The Obama administration had also commuted the sentence of former U.S. Army soldier and whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who had provided the hundreds of thousands of documents — and infamous video of an Apache helicopter strike killing Iraqi civilians and two photographers working for Reuters — to Assange.)
“We note that the 1917 Espionage Act was ostensibly intended to punish and imprison government employees and contractors for providing or selling state secrets to enemy governments, not to punish journalists and whistleblowers for attempting to inform the public about serious issues that some U.S. government officials might prefer to keep secret.”
In their letter to colleagues, McGovern and Massie cite Chinese officials calling the United States “hypocritical” when it comes to supporting press freedom by targeting Assange. Tlaib also raised the undermining of U.S. standing abroad in her letter to Garland in April.
“Every day that the prosecution of Julian Assange continues is another day that our own government needlessly undermines our own moral authority abroad and rolls back the freedom of the press under the First Amendment at home,” Tlaib wrote.
As part of WikiLeaks’s release of documents, Assange coordinated with outlets like Spain’s El País, France’s Le Monde, the U.K.’s The Guardian, and the New York Times to release classified cables revealing the inner workings of bargaining, diplomacy, and threat-making around the world. Since the mass documents leak in 2010, Assange has faced legal pressure. He sought asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012, where he remained until his 2019 imprisonment.
Shipton described the support for Assange’s release across the Australian and American political spectrums as a “growing recognition” that the whole affair is a complete scandal. “Publishing this information related to the Iraq War, the Afghanistan war logs, and the Chelsea Manning leaks, to be prosecuted for the act of journalism is being seen as a growing scandal. And I think it’s time for wiser heads to prevail.”