Glenn Greenwald Defends WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange’s Asylum Claim In Radio Debate
AlterNet Radio’s Joshua Holland recently invited Guardian columnist (and former constitutional lawyer) Glenn Greenwald onto his show to defend Ecuador’s granting asylum to Julian Assange.
The asylum was granted based on the belief that if the UK were to extradite Assange to Sweden for questioning on sexual assault claims, Sweden would promptly extradite him to the United States, where a grand jury investigation is underway with the goal of indicting him on Espionage charges.
Based on the torturous treatment (see here and here and here) of alleged whisteblower PFC Bradley Manning, who presently stands trial for passing state secrets to WikiLeaks, Assange supporters believe the U.S. government has every intention of persecuting Assange as a political prisoner.
Greenwald makes a compelling case here, in one of the best debates I’ve listened to yet on this issue. Here are some highlights of the partial transcript:
JH: We have an international incident, a standoff if you will. Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The Brits say they’re not going to give him safe passage. The Swedes are not going to give him a guarantee that he won’t be extradited to the United States. That’s the situation we’re looking at.
GG: The important thing about that is that’s the initial position of the parties. Typically, when there’s international standoffs and countries are unable to resolve their difference they get together and negotiate. Thus far the Brits and the Swedes have been unwilling to negotiate with the Ecuadorians, which is what made the Ecuadorian government conclude that there was something else going on her. It made them believe that Assange’s fear of political persecution was well-grounded.
Now that they’ve granted asylum there have been a couple of additional meetings. Whether the parties have softened their positions in an attempt to get closer together is something I don’t know, but generally that’s what has happened. So what you’ve laid out is generally a beginning gambit. That’s the reason there’s a standstill.
JH: I think he’s citing the threat of extradition to the US in order to avoid facing these charges. In one sense what he’s asking for from Sweden is a little difficult for them to grant. There has been no extradition request made of the Swedes, and there are no charges here in the United States as far as we know. There were certainly reports that there was a sealed indictment. Wouldn’t the Swedes have to kind of concede that they don’t have a good and independent judiciary in order to grant that request?
GG: I think there are two issues to note. One is that you’re right that there have been no extradition requests that we know of from the United States to Sweden, nor have there been any publicly disclosed indictments. I don’t really place much credence in the report you referenced — the Stratfor emails that were leaked when Anonymous hacked into them, that there’s a sealed indictment. There may or may not be, but I don’t consider some Stratfor employee to be dispositive. I guess if you’re Assange you look at that and take it seriously, but to me that’s very much up in the air.
What we do know, though, is that there is a very aggressive and active grand jury investigation based in a northern district of Virginia that has been subpoenaing people and investigating whether or not Assange should be indicted under the Espionage Act. We know that prominent people in the government, like Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, and Eric Holder, the attorney general, have to varying degrees made clear that he should be prosecuted, that they want to prosecute him and that they are actively looking to do so. I think it would be very irrational to discount the extremely genuine threat that he faces from prosecution in the United States, especially given that this administration has proven its unprecedented fixation on criminally punishing people who leak information. I think that threat is very real.
You’re right that it would be odd for the Swedish government to give some sort of ironclad guarantee that they will not extradite him to the United States under any circumstances without having seen any extradition request. The odd aspect of this case is that Ecuador, a real country, has now granted political asylum to Assange in order to protect him from political persecution, and there is a need there for Sweden to negotiate if they want to get ahold of him in Sweden. They need to satisfy the Ecuadorians that this is not a ruse to get him to the United States. That makes the situation somewhat odd. Even if you believe that Sweden can’t, or that it would be hard to, issue some kind of hard and fast guarantee now, I think it’s very debatable.
Let’s assume that they couldn’t. Then what you do is sit down with Assange’s lawyers and the Ecuadorian government representatives and you say you can’t give him a guarantee, but you can make a public statement saying that we think that any attempt to prosecute Assange for Wikileaks’ disclosures would be a political crime. A political crime is not something under our extradition treaty that we can extradite for. So you take this position in advance that you consider this a political crime, but you still reserve the right to analyze the extradition request if and when it comes in.
Now will that be enough to assuage the Ecuadorians to withdraw their asylum or to Assange to go to Sweden? I don’t know, but I certainly think it’s worth the negotiation effort, and the fact that it hasn’t happened yet is why there is a lot of suspicion.
JH: There were a number of stories a few months back about the grand jury. They were also accompanied by various legal scholars expressing the opinion that it would be very difficult to charge Assange, given that the New York Times worked with him in publishing the cable leaks. How do you charge Assange without at least exposing the New York Times to the same charge, and if you do that you’d have a very tough First Amendment hurdle to overcome.
I’m not convinced the United States is actively trying to prosecute him because it’s a very tricky case to prosecute, and Assange is not the whistleblower or leaker. If anything he’s a publisher; he’s basically a journalist. Obviously Bradley Manning is accused of leaking documents, leaking classified information. It’s different to be the leaker and the acceptor of those leaks, isn’t it?
GG: Sure. I think you’re making an argument from a very legalist perspective, and it’s one that I wholeheartedly agree with. It would be an incredibly violent breech of the First Amendement guarantee of freedom of the press for Assange to be prosecuted for doing what media outlets do all the time, which is receive classified information from government sources, and then publish it in the public interest. As you pointed out, the New York Times published many of these same documents. They’ve not only done that, but they’ve published far more secrets than Julian Assange has ever dreamed of publishing, including top-secret information. The New York Times has published all kinds of top-secret designations, whereas Wikileaks never has. None of the documents leaked from the Iraq War and Afghanistan war logs or the diplomatic cables were top-secret. They were either classified or confidential, a much lower designation of secrecy.
From a strictly legal perspective you’re right. Nonetheless if you look at what the United States government has done over the past 10 years, the fact that something is legally dubious or difficult seems to be no bar from them doing it. This is the same government that’s assassinating its own citizens without due process of any kind, putting people in cages in Guantanamo without a whiff of due process. The prior administration got away with declaring torture as something other than torture. We see the constant manipulation of law for the benefit of the United States government. When you add on to that the very deferential posture of the federal courts when it comes to claims about national security — where all kinds of Muslims have been prosecuted for what looks to all kinds of scholars to be nothing other than First Amendment activity, like advocating for groups and putting YouTube clips on the Internet — I think it’s a lot easier to say in some abstract legal sense that it would be a difficult prosecution, but that’s far from the same thing as saying that it won’t happen and that it won’t be successful.
The other thing I would add is that the Justice Department doesn’t convene grand juries for fun. They do it only when they’re serious about prosecuting. They didn’t convene a grand jury during the Wall Street financial crisis because they weren’t serious about prosecuting. They didn’t convene one to investigate Bush’s torture crimes or eavesdropping crimes because they weren’t serious about prosecuting. They’ve convened a grand jury, they’ve had testimony, they’ve filed motions, and have been very active in this process leading to the very rational conclusion that they are serious. Whether they will go through with it or not nobody knows. It would be incredibly foolish for someone in Julian Assange’s position to blithely assume that it won’t happen, or that if it did happen it would succeed given the success of the United States in its court system over the last decade.
One argument I hear over and over again by Assange critics is “If the U.S. planned to request his extradition, why wouldn’t they just make that request to the UK? What would be the advantage of waiting until he is in Sweden?” Greenwald gives a couple reasons, but I believe this one in particular, to be very significant:
GG: […] The other aspect is that everything that would be done in Britain would be very transparent and public. We saw this with the Swedish extradition over the last year and a half. It’s all done in open court and all the proceedings are public. Sweden has a very unusual judicial system in that it has all kinds of levels of secrecy to their proceedings, especially in the pretrial stage that most Western nations would not even recognize as a justice system, let alone accept. There’s all kinds of condemnations of it, even from the US State Department. I don’t mean to suggest that they’re some tyrannical regime, but it is the case that this secrecy in their judicial system has always led Assange to fear that whatever the United States and Sweden did it would be away from the scrutiny of the public. It would be much easier than in Britain.
Finally, although the British government is very accommodating when it comes to the United States they have a very independent judiciary that has repeatedly ruled against the government and expressed disapproval of the United States in the war on terror. A lot of this would go through that court system. Sweden has a history of having the government just bypass its legislature, bypass the judiciary in order to comply with the requests of the United States — including in instances where the UN found that it’s lawless. He perceives that the transparency of the more established judiciary, and public opinion, would be much bigger hurdles to overcome if he were in Britain than if he were in Sweden where it could just be out of the public eye.