Julian Assange and the war on whistleblowers w/Kevin Gosztola | The Chris Hedges Report

Thirteen years ago, WikiLeaks published extensive leaked US government documents detailing a range of criminal and unethical acts, from the slaughter of civilians in the “War on Terror” to acts of espionage against foreign heads of state. Since then, the persecution of Julian Assange has not ceased. This year, Assange is expected to stand trial in the US for violations of the Espionage Act. Journalist Kevin Gosztola joins The Chris Hedges Report to review the cases of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, and discuss Washington’s wider war against whistleblowers and the truth itself.

Kevin Gosztola is the managing editor of Shadowproof, where he writes The Dissenter. He is the author of Guilty of Journalism: The Political Case Against Julian Assange.


Transcript

Chris Hedges:  The long persecution of Julian Assange, the publisher of WikiLeaks, is set to culminate in its final act: a trial in the United States, probably this year. Kevin Gosztola has spent the last decade reporting on Assange, WikiLeaks, and the wider war on whistleblowers. His new book, Guilty of Journalism: The Political Case against Julian Assange, methodically lays out the complex issues surrounding the case, the gross distortions to the legal system used to facilitate the extradition of Julian, now in a high security prison in London, the abuses of power by the FBI and the CIA, including spying on Julian’s meetings when he sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London with his family, doctors, and attorneys, and the dire consequences, should Julian be convicted, for the press.

Joining me to discuss his new book is Kevin Gosztola. So Kevin, you do a very… I think your book and Nils Melzer are the two books I would recommend for people who don’t understand the case. I use this show in this interview to really lay out for people who are unfamiliar with the long persecution of Julian and the legal anomalies that have been used against him. You know, what those are. So let’s just start with what are the charges, what are the allegations, which is where you begin your book.

Kevin Gosztola:  Yeah. And the intention was to look ahead and say, Julian Assange is likely to be brought to the US by the end of 2023, maybe 2024. We need something out there for the general public so they can wrap their head around the unprecedented nature of what’s unfolding. And so the charges against Julian Assange, he was first indicted back in April of 2019. Or sorry, that was when it was unveiled. He was charged first with a computer crime offense. They alleged, essentially, a password cracking conspiracy. And that was of intrusion, of essentially agreeing to help Chelsea Manning anonymously access military computers.

And then the other charges were 17 espionage act offenses. And of course, those have gotten the most attention and they’ve been the ones met with the most outrage and unanimous disgust from press freedom, civil Liberties, and human rights organizations around the world. And those are the ones, really, that are the most damaging and cause the greatest amount of alarm when you look at what the US Justice Department is alleging.

And then in 2020, it’s important to note that this flew under the radar, but I go into this in great detail in the book, is there are these allegations, this narrative that gets grafted on in the summer of 2020, right before we have the major extradition hearing in September of 2020. It is a whole bunch of facts or claims that are put forward about what Assange did or didn’t do to promote hacking to align himself with LulzSec or members of Anonymous. They criminalize him for providing source protection to Edward Snowden, NSA whistleblower. And it has all these other details to basically fatten up the indictment and make it easier to win extradition in the British court.

Chris Hedges:  I want to go back to the charges. First of all, didn’t Chelsea Manning, at the Army, already have all the passwords?

Kevin Gosztola:  So this is an important point. There is no reason, and it is actually illogical what the US Justice Department is claiming, because she had access to these military computers. She never would’ve had to go through the databases anonymously in order to access the materials. And in fact, the Assange legal team was able to get the services of Patrick Eller, who was an Army criminal investigator, who actually looked at the court martial record and went through all of this and found that there is no substantial basis at all for what the US government is claiming when it comes to this password cracking conspiracy.

Technically speaking, it was not possible for any cracking of a password to happen, because Julian Assange was never given all the information needed to do that or to help her, Manning never had all that information to do it. But beyond that, she just wouldn’t have needed to do it because she had access. She had the security clearance.

Chris Hedges:  Also, the charge of hacking into a computer is important because they use that to distinguish Julian Assange from publications like The New York Times or Der Spiegel, or The Guardian that published the same information and without that hacking charge, legally one would think they’re also liable.

Kevin Gosztola:  And this is part of opening up that to a debate. That is why you hear so much about, oh, is he or is he not a journalist? And by making it seem like he engaged in hacking when he was editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, just as you say, they’re able to create this animosity towards him and treat him he’s somebody that he’s not. At some point he ceased to be a journalist because he was for breaking into government computer systems.

Chris Hedges:  So you covered Chelsea Manning’s court martial, and I wanted you to explain what happened and why the role of her court martial was such an important moment in this whole saga.

Kevin Gosztola:  So Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison. That was in 2013. And she was convicted of all the offenses that she was charged with committing under the Espionage Act for the release of documents, which are at issue in this case. And these are the major sets of documents that have given WikiLeaks the acclaim. These are the Afghan and Iraq war logs, the Afghanistan war logs and Iraq war logs. Then the US State Embassy cables, the Guantanamo files that were published, these detainee assessment reports. And then there are some files here and there that are notable but don’t get a lot of coverage like rules of engagement files. And then there’s a collateral murder video, of course, from Chelsea.

She was sentenced for these. But she was crucially acquitted of the aiding the enemy offense, which was this charge that was one of the most disturbing and troubling aspects of the court martial against Chelsea Manning. All of it was really troubling to see unfold against her, but this idea that because she had transmitted information to WikiLeaks and made it publicly available to the whole world, that she was somehow aiding Al-Qaeda terrorists as the military prosecutor said, that was something that caught the attention of the ACLU, Amnesty International. All these groups said that that was something that had to be protested and it should not go forward. The judge should not convict her. So she escaped that charge. She also was acquitted of one charge that they didn’t prove the facts around because they never were able to prove that she had leaked this or had this Granai massacre video from Afghanistan, this horrific massacre that is well known in Afghanistan, obviously.

So the reason why the court martial is something that people should keep fresh in their minds, even though it may seem like it’s decade-old history, is the fact that when I followed this, the military prosecutors never brought up any sort of thing like, oh, there was a conspiracy between Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning.

And, in fact, when the prosecutors were asked by the judge, if you substituted WikiLeaks with New York Times, would you still prosecute this case in the same manner? Meaning, would you accuse Chelsea Manning of aiding the enemy? They said, without hesitation, yes. So it wouldn’t make a difference. WikiLeaks or New York Times, they would’ve charged Manning the same. They would’ve criminalized her for being a media source and hit her as hard as they did. What that tells you is that, at that time, they’re not viewing WikiLeaks as a hostile entity. They’re not treating WikiLeaks as anything other than this new media organization that is doing something that is different from what the standard establishment media or prestige media organizations had tended to do with classified documents.

There is this report that Chelsea Manning released from this Army Intelligence Center, that was one of the reports that she was charged with releasing, that indicated that the military actually had analyzed WikiLeaks and come to the conclusion that Assange was like a foreign correspondent or staff writer, that they had gone to the trouble of authenticating documents that WikiLeaks was a website where they uploaded documents on military equipment, and that they had journalistic responsibility to the newsworthiness of the information that they were uploading to their website.

Which tells you that they understood that this was not what Mike Pompeo was telling people WikiLeaks was in 2017. No, this was a news media organization that was publishing US documents on wars in the Middle East.

Chris Hedges:  They had to create new charges, in essence, to create distance between WikiLeaks and mainstream traditional media, didn’t they?

Kevin Gosztola:  Yeah. That’s essentially what you’re seeing. As we’ll get to, when you see the CIA enter and play their role, what they’re basically doing is making it clear that they see WikiLeaks as something different than The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Guardian. And then in doing so, that’s why they feel they have the authority to take these extralegal, extra judicial counterintelligence measures to go after and target and destroy an organization like WikiLeaks.

Chris Hedges:  Can you address the charge that WikiLeaks released information that endangered the lives of informants or collaborators that was used, again, to tar WikiLeaks?

Kevin Gosztola:  Off the top of my head, I cannot remember the name of the individual at this moment, but I think his name was Robert Carr. Anyways, there was an official who took the stand during this military court martial who was asked by the prosecutors to speak to this idea that the Taliban had gone forward and executed an individual because they were named in documents that WikiLeaks had published. At that point, David Coombs stopped the court and told the judge that –

Chris Hedges:  David Coombs was Manning’s lawyer.

Kevin Gosztola:  – David Coombs was Chelsea Manning’s attorney. He stopped the court and he got the judge to recognize that the prosecutors were lying to her, or that this witness was now deliberately misleading the court about what happened, because the Taliban had not actually executed any individual because of the fact that they were named in a WikiLeaks document. This witness was forced to recant that testimony. In fact, the judge actually scolded the prosecutors and said she was putting it down in her record that nobody had been killed by the Taliban as a result of WikiLeaks documents.

So during this whole court martial, there was not a single person put into the public record who US officials were able to claim were killed because WikiLeaks exposed them to this harm. So this was a canard. And in fact, to the credit of the establishment media there, I remember that the Associated Press actually did do a little bit of reporting and analyzed this claim.

They even came back with WikiLeaks did not have blood on their hands, because they could not find any evidence. There was one individual, I think, in Ethiopia who was known to flee, said that they were in fear for their lives because they were named in, I think, a US State Embassy cable. What you have to remember is that these cables were detailing great repression and authoritarianism and things of that nature that were going on in these countries.

So it’s just as true that if they were named in the cables that they might face some repercussions. It was just as true that the State Department, by aligning themselves with these activists, might be exposing them to harm from their government because those governments could see them, could see the US government as meddling and trying to get those activists to do something on behalf of the United States that maybe the governments didn’t want to allow the US government to do.

Chris Hedges:  The unredacted documents were made public, not because of Julian, but because Luke Harding, in his book on WikiLeaks, released the key that allowed those documents to be opened.

Kevin Gosztola:  Yeah. And that’s one of the biggest media mishaps that has played into the prosecution. I say that that is something that has aided and abetted the prosecution by the US Justice Department.

Chris Hedges:  I have a chapter called, “How does the US government view WikiLeaks?” Not as journalism, although, I used to work for The New York Times and every time we made an error, it got into the error box at the end of the year. In our year end review, we were given a list of errors, and you did not want a very long list. I don’t believe WikiLeaks has ever had to retract anything they’ve published.

Kevin Gosztola:  No. I put this forward because I think we have to think of it in different ways. So there is what the US government says today, and if you ask the US government what WikiLeaks is, you probably will get them to respond to you. Any official will probably say something like, they are a hostile entity. In the 2020 military budget that was passed, or the defense budget. It’s not really a defense budget. But that actually singled out and made it that it was the sense of Congress that WikiLeaks is a non-state hostile intelligence service, essentially.

Chris Hedges:  Well, that’s how Biden has described it.

Kevin Gosztola:  But that’s what Mike Pompeo as CIA director had it labeled when he was CIA director. But what’s crucial, I think, in my view, because we’re talking about events that happened back in 2010 and 2011, Julian’s lawyers will probably argue it this way. This is the way I would go forward in order to defend Julian Assange, is to say, that doesn’t matter. What did the US government think of WikiLeaks in 2010 or 2011? And the evidence is that back then they did not see it as a hostile organization.

There weren’t allegations that cutouts from Russia were passing information to WikiLeaks. They saw it unequivocally as this organization that presented a threat to the US government because, as Geoff Morrell, when he was Pentagon Secretary said, this is an organization that was beholden to nobody and they did not think that they would be able to negotiate it with them the way that they would be able to negotiate with The New York Times or The Washington Post in order to get them to sit on documents and not reveal things like we know has happened in the history of The New York Times and The Washington Post, whether it involved secret drone bases or warrantless wiretapping, to name a few examples.

Chris Hedges:  Well, in that case, they’re right. Let’s talk about the Espionage Act. Obama uses the Espionage Act to go after all sorts of whistleblowers, Kiriakou, Drake and others. Then Trump uses the Espionage Act against Julian. So you have the first step against whistleblowers, the second step by the Trump administration to use the Espionage Act against a journalist. Then it raises the whole question of the fact that Julian is not a US citizen. WikiLeaks is not a US-based publication. You addressed this in the book, but talk about the Espionage Act.

Kevin Gosztola:  So the Espionage Act is over 100 years old. You have to go back to 1917 under President Woodrow Wilson. And this was drafted in order to suppress anti-war descent. This was to go after people who did not want to see the US take a greater role and be involved in World War I, to join World War I. And they went after people who were anti-war activists, socialists, communists particularly, and had a mechanism now in which they were able to go after people who were leafleting, spreading pamphlets.

They could go after publications that were promoting anti-war sentiment. And they used the Espionage Act, essentially, to challenge these people and prosecute them. There were thousands of cases in the 1920s under the Espionage Act. And then there was one of various sedition laws that were brought against people on the left.

So the law says that you are not allowed to give national defense information or information related to the national defense to anyone who is not entitled to receive it. It also says that you aren’t allowed to do it with intent to harm or injure the United States, or if you know that it would advantage a foreign power, essentially.

So it presumes that you have some knowledge of the information. And typically what we saw with these Espionage Act prosecutions is that you would sign a non-disclosure agreement when you are given your security clearance. So all these people who are essentially media sources or whistleblowers who are being prosecuted under the Espionage Act when President Obama was in office, they signed non-disclosure agreements, which gave them a little bit of liability. That’s what the Justice Department would claim. That doesn’t take away from their courageousness or conscientiousness in exposing what they see as abuses and corruption.

But that’s something then, when you go forward, you get to a journalist like Julian Assange, and he never signed any non-disclosure agreement. He has no responsibility to these documents that the government is claiming now he’s a criminal for exposing, and he’s not somebody who the US government has any claim over, can’t hold anything over his head. And yet they are pushing this and basically saying that, you and me, if we get secret documents that come from the US government and they don’t want them published, they could come after us with a prosecution because those documents were still deemed sensitive by the US government.

This was just a natural progression. There are people who spoke out against the war on whistleblowers under Obama as he charged and went forward with cases that he inherited like Thomas Drake’s case, John Kiriakou’s case, a CIA whistleblower, as he targeted these people and brought them through court, that the next stage was going to be to not just go after the sources, but to now go after journalists for being engaged in exposing things that were detrimental to the warfare state.

So as Obama is perfecting the assassination complex and the ability of kill lists to be used, and for drones to go and execute people abroad, as he’s perfecting indefinite military detention regimes, and as he’s pursuing more wars of occupation or allowing those to go on and on and on, they say, well, it’s important for us to make an example out of someone.

One of the Obama officials, Dennis Blair, actually says that they recognized that there were so many leaks happening that they needed to make an example out of somebody in order so people would know that there were consequences if you leaked to the press.

Chris Hedges:  Was it eight people they made an example, eight or nine?

Kevin Gosztola:  Yeah. I think by the time Obama was done, it was up there around 11 or 12. And then under Trump, we only had a small number of cases that were well known, and those were… And one of them actually inherited the Daniel Hale case against him. It’s important to mention him because he’s in a communications management unit in the state where I live, and he’s in one of the harshest conditions that anyone prosecuted under the Espionage Act has ever been in. He’s basically been confined as if he’s a terrorist.

Chris Hedges:  He exposed the drone program and the widespread killing of civilians. Let’s talk about Vault 7. This seemed to change the game for Julian. Many people argue that you have to explain what Vault 7 was, but that exposure of CIA hacking tools into our phones, computers, et cetera, really sealed the fate of Julian. So talk about Vault 7 and the role it played in the extradition request.

Kevin Gosztola:  And just to be clear so that I’m not inadvertently suggesting that Julian Assange did something that he didn’t do, they did not publish the actual readouts of these tools so people could actually use them and engage in their own hacking, but they published the details of this hacking arsenal that the CIA had at their fingertips. And having exposed these highly, highly sensitive programs that the CIA was engaged in offensively, of which we didn’t have a debate about.

We never talked about whether this was something that we thought should be going on globally with the CIA hacking into all manner of systems. There were things related to malware and ways they could embed eavesdropping devices in Samsung TVs and encrypted messaging apps like Signal and WhatsApp that people use in order to communicate with some modicum of privacy. We found that those were being compromised by the CIA.

This was something that was a big deal, but it so upset Mike Pompeo that, according to Yahoo News reporting, which I’ll delve into some more detail with another question, but to this point, we know that Mike Pompeo was hugely embarrassed and did not want to go face Donald Trump and tell him that he had lost control of these files. And that plays into the vengeful spirit in which the CIA decided to go after and destroy WikiLeaks further, to go after Assange, to force him out of the embassy.

So this reporting from Yahoo News, which is really one of the only establishment news media outlets, an online news media outlet, that has put any effort into trying to uncover what the CIA has done to WikiLeaks, put this report out on secret war plans that were sketched and put together by Pompeo and officials at the CIA.

It essentially said that they were planning to kidnap, or you could read that as rendition, or even poison Julian Assange, which would amount to an assassination attempt. And that also by labeling WikiLeaks as a hostile entity, they were able to get around any oversight that they would’ve had to do. I mean, what is oversight, anyways? I mean, the Congress doesn’t really do oversight. But they wouldn’t have to let Congress or the White House know what the CIA was doing, because they could claim that WikiLeaks was a rival spy service. And as they went after WikiLeaks, they could try to disrupt the digital architecture of the WikiLeaks website. They could try to steal electronic devices from people who were staff or associates of WikiLeaks. They could plant damaging or false information against people within WikiLeaks and try to turn people against each other and create internal battles. I mean, a classic COINTELPRO tactic that was used against the left in the ’60s and early ’70s. And so this was something in which, when the Vault 7 files came out, they now got this permission within their organization to go in and really neutralize WikiLeaks and also get their hands on Julian Assange,

Chris Hedges:  Which is exactly what happened at UC Global. This is the Spanish security firm that worked for the Ecuadorian embassy in London. It spied on Julian on behalf of the CIA, including filming his meetings with his attorneys, eviscerating attorney-client privilege. We only have about five minutes left. I want you to talk, I mean the FBI’s role, but talk about the grand jury. Because he faces 17 violations, supposedly, of the Espionage Act. Each one carries a 10-year sentence, five years for supposedly hacking into a government computer. That’s 175 years.

Talk about where he would be sent in the Eastern District of Virginia, because this is terrorism central for the US judiciary. There’s a horrible lynching of all sorts of people, Samuel Erian and others, they hauled. Of course, Chelsea Manning in there as well. But talk about what will happen if he is extradited.

Kevin Gosztola:  Yeah. Let me just give a quick, quick few points here. So if he’s put on trial in the Eastern District of Virginia, it’s highly unlikely that he will have a fair trial because he either has the option of a jury, which they’ll pull from people who are working from, all of these people are going to come from, let’s call it Top Secret America, which is what Bill Arkin and Dana Priest dubbed it over a decade ago. These people who work for military contractors, national security contractors, whether they might work for military agencies or they might work for parts of the US government, or they may not work for these agencies, but have family or relatives that work for these agencies.

That would be the jury that would be deciding whether Julian Assange was guilty of these political crimes. And then if he said no to a jury but wanted the judge to decide, well, that judge is going to be somebody who probably has historically shown deference to the national security state. So he is going to be in trouble either way. The grand jury investigation is a story that has not really been focused on as broadly as it should, but the way it was used going back to 2011 was a fishing expedition, much like fishing expeditions that have been launched against left-wing activists.

I think Chelsea Manning has been the most clear example of what this grand jury was trying to do in order to destroy a person for standing up on their moral or political principles. And she was put in this position where they wanted her to basically recant her statement from the US court martial that she had given so that they could try and make her seem like she was part of some conspiracy, that she was put up to leak the documents, that WikiLeaks solicited her to release documents to Julian Assange. She refused, and she went to jail for a year.

And then I also just have to say quickly that, on the FBI rule, Siggi Thordarson is named in this 2020 indictment that they added these new allegations to. And this is a person who the FBI flew to Iceland to interview, who is someone who has been accused of many, many crimes including sex with minors, embezzlement schemes. He stole over $50,000 from the WikiLeaks store. He was put in jail in 2021 because he was committing so much criminal activity that Iceland needed to invoke a provision in their law to stop him by jailing him. And he is working with the FBI, or he is cited in the indictment. It’s where they get a lot of these lies about Julian Assange being involved in hacking, which he later recanted in an interview for Iceland’s Stundin newspaper. And Iceland’s minister of interior actually kicked the FBI out of Iceland when they found out that they were there, because Iceland knew that they were trying to use Siggi as bait to get to Julian Assange.

Chris Hedges:  Great. We’re going to have to stop there. That was Kevin Gosztola on his book Guilty of Journalism: The Political Case Against Julian Assange. I want to thank the Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com

Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.