Congress, Skulduggery and the Assange Case

Is the imperium showing suspicions about its intended quarry? It is hard to believe it, but the
US House Intelligence Committee is on a mission of discovery. It’s subject: a Yahoo News
report disclosing much material that was already in the public domain on the plot to kidnap
or, failing that, poison Julian Assange. Given that such ideas were aired by officials within
the Central Intelligence Agency, this struck home. On the Yahoo News “Skulduggery”
podcast, Committee chairman and Democratic Representative Adam Schiff said, “We are
seeking information about it now.”

Making sure to put himself in the clear of having any knowledge of plans against Assange,
Schiff claimed that the committee had sought a response from “the agencies” (the CIA and
the Office of the Director of National Intelligence) after the publication of the Yahoo News
piece. As to whether the agencies had responded, Schiff was not forthcoming. “I can’t
comment on what we’ve heard back yet.”

This modest effort might show that Schiff is growing a conscience regarding the US case
against the founder of WikiLeaks, centred on charges relating to espionage and computer
intrusion. If so, it is a bit late coming, given ample evidence that US intelligence services not
only conducted surveillance on Assange while he was in the Ecuadorian embassy in London
but contemplated his potential abduction and assassination.

Had the dozing Schiff cast an eye on last year’s extradition hearings mounted by the US
Justice Department in the UK, he would have been privy to the efforts of the Spanish private
security firm UC Global, hired by US intelligence operatives, to conduct operations against
Assange. But such humble representatives should not be expected to keep abreast of the
news, even as members of a House Intelligence Committee.

For the rest of us who do, one of the former employees of the Spanish company gave
testimony at the Old Bailey claiming that he had been asked to pilfer “a nappy of a baby
which according to the company’s security personnel deployed at the embassy, regularly
visited Mr Assange”. As UC Global’s CEO David Morales, currently the subject of a
criminal investigation in Spain, explained, “the Americans wanted to establish paternity”. In
December 2017, Assange’s lengthy stay at the embassy was proving so irritating that the
“Americans … had even suggested that more extreme measures should be deployed against
the ‘guest’ to put an end to the situation”. One way of doing so would be staging an
“accident” that “would allow persons to enter from outside the embassy and kidnap the
asylee”. Very School of the Americas, that.

Congress has shown some gurgling interest in dropping the case against Assange. House
Resolution 1175, sponsored by then Democrat House Representative Tulsi Gabbard,
expressed “the sense of the House of Representatives that newsgathering activities are
protected under the First Amendment, and that the United States should drop all charges
against and attempts to extradite Julian Assange.” On the Republican side, former US Vice
Presidential candidate Sarah Palin has also become a convert. “I made a mistake some years
ago, not supporting Julian Assange – thinking that he was a bad guy.” Since then, she had
“learned a lot”. “He deserves a pardon.”

The phalanx of civil society groups is also urging US Attorney General Merrick Garland to
stop the prosecution. On October 15, Garland received a letter signed by 25 organisations including the ACLU, PEN America and Human Rights Watch, raising the US intelligence
efforts against Assange as imperilling the case. “The Yahoo News story only heightens our
concerns about the motivations behind this prosecution and about the dangerous precedent
that is being set.” As the joint signatories had stated in a previous letter in February, “News
organizations frequently and necessarily publish classified information in order to inform the
public of matters of profound significance.”

Unfortunately, a good number of the US political classes remain vengefully eager. Many
Democrats will never forgive Assange for releasing the Podesta emails and compromising
Hillary Clinton’s shoddy electoral campaign in 2016. The former CIA Director and Secretary
of State Mike Pompeo holds up the Republican line, having designated WikiLeaks “a non-
state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia”.

And no one should forget that the current US President Joe Biden sought the head of
WikiLeaks in a manner that was almost childishly enthusiastic while he was Vice President in
the Obama administration. “We are looking at that right now,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press
in December 2010. “The Justice department is taking a look at that.” Assange exposed and
therefore, we depose. It took some of the more sober individuals in the Obama
administration to throw cold water on the effort, arguing that any prosecution of WikiLeaks
raised thorny First Amendment issues. You go for this Australian’s scalp, then where do we
stop? The editorial staff of the New York Times? The news foragers at the Washington Post?

The opportunities were endlessly dangerous.

The US prosecution of Assange, centred on that First World War relic of suppression called
the Espionage Act, is about to enter its next phase in what can only be described as torture via
the procedure. (To date, Assange has been refused bail and left to languish in Belmarsh Prison.)
In the UK High Court, prosecutors are hoping to overturn the findings made by Judge
Vanessa Baraitser in her January 4 ruling against extradition, impugning expert evidence on
Assange’s mental health and the court’s assessment of it. These grounds are almost
criminally flimsy, but then again, so is this entire effort against this daring, revolutionary
publisher. Assange’s defence team will have much to work with, though Schiff and his
colleagues may be asleep as matters unfold.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He
lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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