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Analysis | The joy and rage over Assange’s release

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The twelve years that Julian Assange lived in confinement and detention marked an age unto itself. In 2012, the brash Australian online publisher and founder of WikiLeaks took sanctuary in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, fleeing a European arrest warrant that sought him for questioning regarding an accusation of sexual assault in Sweden that Assange said was trumped up. At the time, the silver-haired Assange was the man of the moment — and he believed it, too, even releasing a video in 2011 taking credit for fomenting the wave of uprisings in the Arab world.

To his boosters, Assange was the world’s most recognizable champion of the democratizing potential of the internet, using his platform to expose the misdeeds of the world’s greatest powers. To his critics, including many in the Washington establishment, the release by his organization of a trove of secret U.S. military and diplomatic documents between 2009 and 2011 was a threat to vital U.S. interests and assets.

This week, as Assange embarked toward what looks like a life of freedom, he emerged into a world transformed. The digital landscape through which he achieved global celebrity is no longer the domain of rebellious optimists, but unfathomably powerful tech oligarchs and the corporate behemoths they run. And WikiLeaks, once an institution almost universally admired by pro-democracy liberals, is now a bit player in a more polarized geopolitics, its reputation tarnished by its apparent dealings with the Kremlin.

Assange himself is a diminished figure, visibly unwell following more than five years in British detention after a more right-wing government in Quito kicked him out of Ecuador’s London premises in 2019. The Swedish investigation was dropped that same year, but Assange was picked up by London police on U.S. charges related to violating the Espionage Act by publishing military documents about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as diplomatic cables. He was plunged into a lengthy legal battle over possible U.S. extradition.

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In the early hours Wednesday, Assange landed in Saipan, a Pacific island in the U.S.-administered Northern Mariana Islands ahead of a court hearing where he was expected to plead guilty to a single charge of espionage as part of a tentative plea deal agreed with the Justice Department that spares him any jail time. Afterward, he is slated to depart for nearby Australia, reunite with his family, spend time “in contact with nature” and “start a new chapter,” as his wife put it.

But the previous chapter remains the source of much febrile debate. Assange’s supporters see him as a de facto journalist persecuted for his efforts to shed light on state secrets. His detractors cast him first as a reckless criminal, employing illegal methods to obtain said secrets and endangering the United States’ local sources in countries like Afghanistan, and later a Russian stooge.

“The case raised, but never definitively answered, vital questions about what it means to be a journalist, a publisher and a whistleblower,” my colleague William Booth explained. “Was he a non-state actor threatening the national security of the United States, as CIA director Mike Pompeo once alleged? Or a hero, as his many supporters believed as they gathered time after time in front of British courthouses, while Assange’s attorneys fought against his extradition to the United States.”

In the United States, Assange’s imminent release led to jubilation on the more extreme sides of the political spectrum, with both far-left activists and far-right lawmakers cheering the news. Figures as disparate as left-wing academic Cornel West and hard-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) see in Assange a hero battling the U.S. war machine and exposing a compromised establishment.

“Hopefully, someday, this country of ours will apologize to him for this torture,” left-leaning filmmaker Michael Moore said, referring to Assange’s ordeal. “In the meantime, let us all draw from him the kind of courage that is needed during our darkest times of aggression and the funding of foreign slaughter with our tax dollars.”

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said June 25 that there was nothing to be gained by keeping WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange incarcerated. (Video: Reuters)

Others were far more critical. “He is a despicable Russian asset who harmed hundreds of people and dismissed them like they didn’t matter,” Gail Helt, a former CIA analyst, wrote on social media, referring to myriad local sources in various countries whose lives were endangered after being identified in U.S. cables released by WikiLeaks. Other U.S. politicians cast Assange as an enemy agent.

“Julian Assange endangered the lives of our troops in a time of war and should have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” former vice president Mike Pence said, while launching a broadside against the White House. “The Biden administration’s plea deal with Assange is a miscarriage of justice and dishonors the service and sacrifice of the men and women of our Armed Forces and their families.

Press freedom advocates have long called for Assange’s release but were concerned about the precedent set by his potential guilty plea. Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, feared that this could “embolden future federal prosecutors with an axe to grind against the press” and regretted that the Biden administration didn’t simply drop the case.

“Just imagine what an attorney general in a second Trump administration will think, knowing they’ve already got one guilty plea from a publisher under the Espionage Act,” Timm wrote in the Guardian. “Trump, after all, has been out on the campaign trail repeatedly opining about how he would like to see journalists — who he sees as ‘enemies of the people’ — in jail. Why the Biden administration would hand him any ammo is beyond belief.”

In Assange’s native country, the message was a bit simpler. “Regardless of the views that people have about Mr. Assange’s activities, the case has dragged on for too long,” said Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, whose center-left government worked behind the scenes to bring the standoff over Assange to a close. “There’s nothing to be gained by his continued incarceration and we want him brought home to Australia.”

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