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Assange: Will the shocking revelations of US criminality shift public opinion?

Today, London’s Royal Courts of Justice will provide the backdrop for a fresh attempt to drag Julian Assange before a US judge and face a life sentence for journalism — TIM DAWSON previews the case

CLAIR DOBBIN QC and James Lewis QC, who represent the US, are ferocious advocates. Their appeal will call into question the specialisations, motivations and reputations of expert witnesses. At an earlier hearing, the US team successfully argued that Professor Michael Kopelman’s failure to disclose facts about Assange’s family meant that his entire testimony was open to question — despite the eminent psychiatrist having a reasonable explanation for his omission.

The courtroom battle will be brutal, vicious and public. What has become clear in recent days, however, is that there is an equally fierce dispute going on elsewhere that could have an even greater impact on Assange’s future. It is taking place behind closed doors, however.

Assange is currently being held at Belmarsh prison in London, awaiting the outcome of legal manoeuvres to prosecute him in the US for charges relating to classified files that Wikileaks published in 2010. After five weeks of hearings in 2020, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser dismissed the US application to extradite the Australian. Her grounds were that the US penal regime was such that it would increase the likelihood of Assange taking his own life, which she deemed “oppressive.” It is this judgement the US is appealing.

The intent to pursue this appeal, however, is clearly not universally supported within the US establishment.

In 2013, President Obama’s administration put serious energy into building a case against Assange. It was eventually dropped because of what is known as “the New York Times” problem. This is that taking the Wikileaks founder to court would logically necessitate the same treatment being applied to the US’s most prestigious news platform, which has published the same stories. Doing that would negate the president’s claims to defend free expression.

Such reticence evaporated with the election of Donald Trump and became even more pronounced with the elevation to secretary of state of former CIA chief Mike Pompeo.

So began a crazed effort to prosecute Assange. We may never know for sure whether the US “leaned” on Sweden in respect of the sexual assault charges — many believe that it did. Once Assange was in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, however, agents acting for the US bugged the embassy, tailed Wikileaks associates, illegally cloned electronic devices and attempted to steal DNA samples. When evidence of all of the above was presented at Assange’s extradition hearings, it was not contested by the US.

Last week Yahoo News reported that surveillance was possibly the most innocent of the CIA’s intentions during the “embassy years.” Based on interviews with 30 former officers of the agency, the report suggested that plans were drawn up to kidnap or assassinate Assange. American agents discreetly awaited commands in the central London streets, British security services were brought in “in case there was any shooting” and a subtle trail of legal justifications were laid.

The idea that there might be a secret service shoot out on the streets of a major capital city is clearly horrendous (the Russians were apparently working with the Ecuadorians to spirit Assange out of the country at the same time).

It is the sheer number of sources who spoke to Yahoo News that is revealing. It can only be the product of a co-ordinated effort by individuals connected to the CIA to make this story public. And this provides the clearest indication of the tussle in which President Biden’s administration is now consumed.

The decision to turn down the application to extradite Assange was handed down a fortnight before Biden took up office. Dropping the case once he was president would have been logical and easy. That it was not perhaps suggests that Biden was on the side of the hawks when prosecution was considered in 2013. The “assassination” story suggests that those who warned of the profound dangers of this prosecution still occupy influential positions.

Earlier this week, the US House Intelligence Committee, that oversees the CIA, sought information about the alleged kidnap and assassination plans. Its chair, Representative Adam Schiff, asked why, as the committee’s most senior Democrat in 2017 he was not briefed on the kidnap and assassination plans?

This fresh heat in the US might eventually persuade Biden to drop the case. It could also be significant when Judge Holroyd comes to consider the appeal. If credible stories are circulating that there are some in US officialdom with murderous intent towards Assange, then the case that he would receive fair treatment were he extradited is surely unsustainable?

No less important is the way that these allegations might change public perceptions of Assange. He has long attracted a vociferous throng of devotees, who see conspiracies against him everywhere and believe he can do no wrong. There is greater scepticism among the wider public — some of whom are uncertain of Assange’s moral compass, or worry that he might be a conduit, unwitting or otherwise, for hostile foreign actors.

Mounting evidence of truly shocking US attempts to silence Assange could shift liberal opinion in his favour. It will also draw fresh attention to the unvarnished facts of modern warfare on which Wikileaks shone such unprecedented light.

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