It is time for President Biden to live up to his rhetoric on press freedom.
As a candidate in 2020, Biden released a powerful statement on the importance of press freedom, writing:
Reporters Without Borders tells us that at least 360 people worldwide are currently imprisoned for their work in journalism. We all stand in solidarity with these journalists for, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1786, "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."
Biden left out the fact that one of those imprisoned people is WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, and that he is languishing in solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison in London because the U.S. government wants to make an example of him.
Assange was indicted by the Trump administration in an aggressive, precedent-shattering move that was widely condemned by journalists and human rights groups. President Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland have had almost two years to do the right thing and drop this dangerous prosecution.
Instead, the Biden administration continues to lecture the world about press freedom and disinformation. Biden and his allies rightly chastise authoritarian regimes for censoring the press, cracking down on dissent and even criminalizing publishing the truth. Reporters Without Borders condemns violations of press freedom in places like Iran, China and Myanmar. But they also note that press freedom violations are not unique to such regimes. They condemn the persecution of Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa in the Philippines, and they lead a coalition of 16 journalism advocacy groups calling on the British government to free Assange.
These reports underscore the importance of a free and independent press that can expose wrongdoing, inform the public of uncomfortable realities and push back on government propaganda. In other words, a free press protects our access to the truth when the government deceives us.
For more than three years, Assange has been held in solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison known as "England's Guantánamo" — much of that during a COVID outbreak at the jail that posed a threat to his life. As I write this, he is in 24-hour isolation with COVID. Last year, he suffered a mini-stroke. UN Special Rapporteur Nils Melzer has determined that the conditions of Assange's confinement constitute torture.
Prior to being held in a maximum-security prison with murderers, Assange spent years confined in the Ecuadorian embassy, without access to adequate medical care. During that time, the U.S. government spied on his lawyers, his visitors (including me), his family and his doctors. They even seized his files and legal notes when he was arrested. Why? Because Assange's work with WikiLeaks had embarrassed the government on the world stage.
Barack Obama refused to indict Assange because of the "New York Times problem": If Obama were to indict Assange for publishing truthful information, he'd have to indict the New York Times as well. But Biden has now affirmed Trump's contention that publishing the truth is a crime. Assange is being charged under the Espionage Act of 1917. That law is controversial enough when prosecutors use it to target whistleblowers, but it has never been used successfully against a publisher. What Biden is really saying by indicting Assange is that the U.S. government can lie to the public, conceal its criminal behavior and then destroy those who would dare seek the truth.
The Justice Department has charged Assange for receiving and publishing truthful, newsworthy information leaked by whistleblower Chelsea Manning, but has never charged any of the military or government officials whose wrongdoing was exposed.
It is the 21st-century version of killing the messenger.
No one was harmed by Assange's reporting, unless you count the bruised reputations of politicians who were caught breaking the law, lying or concealing misconduct. Experts testified in British court proceedings that Assange went to extreme lengths to help protect both his sources and people who might be harmed by the disclosure of sensitive information. Instead of investigating the wrongdoing that WikiLeaks exposed and punishing those who broke the law or covered it up, the government has focused on attacking whistleblowers and the journalists who work with them.
Thomas Jefferson was right, and as a candidate Joe Biden was right to cite his words. There is no democracy without a free press to hold the government accountable. And Reporters Without Borders is right to be concerned about press freedom in the United States. Its fact sheet begins with the ominous line: "In the United States, once considered a model for press freedom and free speech, press freedom violations are increasing at a troubling rate."
There is no free press without a free Julian Assange. As long as the government can prosecute Assange for publishing truthful information in the public interest, the Biden administration's pontifications about human rights, "fake news" and propaganda are the epitome of hypocrisy.
Fake justice from the puppet-masters: The persecution of Julian Assange
Merrick Garland and those who work in the Department of Justice are the puppets, not the puppet masters. They are the façade, the fiction, that the longstanding persecution of Julian Assange has something to do with justice. Like the High Court in London, they carry out an elaborate judicial pantomime. They debate arcane legal nuances to distract from the Dickensian farce where a man who has not committed a crime, who is not a U.S. citizen, can be extradited under the Espionage Act and sentenced to life in prison for the most courageous and consequential journalism of our generation.
The engine driving the lynching of Julian is not here on Pennsylvania Avenue. It is in Langley, Virginia, located at a complex we will never be allowed to surround: the Central Intelligence Agency. It is driven by a secretive inner state, one where we do not count in the mad pursuit of empire and ruthless exploitation. Because the machine of this modern leviathan was exposed by Julian and WikiLeaks, the machine demands revenge.
The United States has undergone a corporate coup-d'état in slow motion. It is no longer a functioning democracy. The real centers of power, in the corporate, military and national security sectors, were humiliated and embarrassed by WikiLeaks. Their war crimes, lies, conspiracies to crush the democratic aspirations of the vulnerable and the poor, and rampant corruption, here and around the globe, were laid bare in troves of leaked documents.
We cannot fight on behalf of Julian unless we are clear about whom we are fighting against. It is far worse than a corrupt judiciary. The global billionaire class, who have orchestrated a social inequality rivaled by pharaonic Egypt, has internally seized all the levers of power and made us the most spied upon, monitored, watched and photographed population in human history.
When the government watches you 24 hours a day, you cannot use the word liberty. This is the relationship between a master and a slave. Julian was long a target, of course, but when WikiLeaks published the documents known as Vault 7, which exposed the hacking tools the CIA uses to monitor our phones, televisions and even cars, he — and journalism itself — was condemned to crucifixion. The object is to shut down any investigations into the inner workings of power that might hold the ruling class accountable for its crimes, eradicate public opinion and replace it with the cant fed to the mob.
From its inception, the CIA carried out assassinations, coups, torture and illegal spying and abuse, including that of U.S. citizens, activities exposed in 1975 by the Church Committee hearings in the Senate and the Pike Committee hearings in the House. All these crimes, especially after the attacks of 9/11, have returned with a vengeance. The CIA is a rogue and unaccountable paramilitary organization with its own armed units and drone program, death squads and a vast archipelago of global black sites where kidnapped victims are tortured and disappeared.
The U.S. allocates a secret black budget of about $50 billion a year to hide multiple types of clandestine projects carried out by the National Security Agency, the CIA and other intelligence agencies, usually beyond the scrutiny of Congress.
The CIA has a well-oiled apparatus to kidnap, torture and assassinate targets around the globe, which is why, since it had already set up a system of 24-hour video surveillance of Julian in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, it quite naturally discussed kidnapping and assassinating him. That is its business. Sen. Frank Church — after examining the heavily redacted CIA documents released to his committee — defined the CIA's "covert activity" as "a semantic disguise for murder, coercion, blackmail, bribery, the spreading of lies and consorting with known torturers and international terrorists."
All despotisms mask state persecution with sham court proceedings. The show trials and troikas in Stalin's Soviet Union. The raving Nazi judges in fascist Germany. The Denunciation rallies in Mao's China. State crime is cloaked in a faux legality, a judicial farce.
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If Julian is extradited and sentenced — and, given the Lubyanka-like proclivities of the Eastern District of Virginia, this is a near certainty — it means that those of us who have published classified material, as I did when I worked for the New York Times, will become criminals. It means that an iron curtain will be pulled down to mask abuses of power. It means that the state, which, through Special Administrative Measures, or SAMs, anti-terrorism laws and the Espionage Act that have created our homegrown version of Stalin's Article 58, can imprison anyone anywhere in the world who dares commit the crime of telling the truth.
We are here to fight for Julian. But we are also here to fight against powerful subterranean forces that, in demanding Julian's extradition and life imprisonment, have declared war on journalism.
We are here to fight for Julian. But we are also here to fight for the restoration of the rule of law and democracy.
We are here to fight for Julian. But we are also here to dismantle the wholesale Stasi-like state surveillance erected across the West.
We are here to fight for Julian. But we are also here to overthrow — and let me repeat that word for the benefit of those in the FBI and Homeland Security who have come here to monitor us — overthrow the corporate state and create a government of the people, by the people and for the people, that will cherish, rather than persecute, the best among us.
I spent two decades as a foreign correspondent on the outer reaches of empire in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans. I am acutely aware of the savagery of empire, how the brutal tools of repression are first tested on those Frantz Fanon called "the wretched of the earth." Wholesale surveillance. Torture. Coups. Black sites. Black propaganda.
Militarized police. Militarized drones. Assassinations. Wars. Once perfected on people of color overseas, these tools migrate back to the homeland.
By hollowing out our country from the inside through deindustrialization, austerity, deregulation, wage stagnation, the abolition of unions, massive expenditures on war and intelligence, a refusal to address the climate emergency and a virtual tax boycott for the richest individuals and corporations, these predators intend to keep us in bondage, victims of a corporate neo-feudalism. And they have perfected their instruments of Orwellian control. The tyranny imposed on others is imposed on us.
<CHRIS HEDGES> Chris Hedges is the former Middle East bureau chief of the New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a columnist at ScheerPost. He is the author of several books, including "America: The Farewell Tour," "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America" and "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning." He previously worked overseas for the Dallas Morning News, the Christian Science Monitor and NPR, and hosted the Emmy-nominated RT America show "On Contact."
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