Chris Hedges: The Most Vital Battle for Press Freedom in Our Time

If Assange is extradited and found guilty of publishing classified material it will set a legal precedent that will effectively end national security reporting.

WikiLeaks Editor in Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson addressing supporters of Julian Assange outside the London court where the U.S. appeal hearing took place, Oct. 28. (Don’t Extradite Assange Campaign)

By Chris Hedges
in Washington, D.C.

For the past two days, I have been watching the extradition hearing for Julian Assange via video link from London. The United States is appealing a lower court ruling that denied the U.S. request to extradite Assange not, unfortunately, because in the eyes of the court he is innocent of a crime, but because, as Judge Vanessa Baraitser in January concluded, Assange’s precarious psychological state would deteriorate given the “harsh conditions” of the inhumane U.S. prison system, “causing him to commit suicide.”

The United States has charged Assange with 17 counts under the Espionage Act and one count of trying to hack into a government computer, charges that could see him imprisoned for 175 years. 

Assange, with long white hair, appeared on screen the first day from the video conference room in HM Prison Belmarsh. He was wearing a white shirt with an untied tie around his neck. He looked gaunt and tired. He did not appear in court, the judges explained, because he was receiving a “high dose of medication.” On the second day he was apparently not present in the prison’s video conference room.

Assange is being extradited because his organization WikiLeaks released the Iraq War Logs in October 2010, which documented numerous U.S.  war crimes — including video images of the gunning down of two Reuters journalists and 10 other unarmed civilians in the Collateral Murder video, the routine torture of Iraqi prisoners, the covering up of thousands of civilian deaths and the killing of nearly 700 civilians who had approached too closely to U.S. checkpoints.

He is also being targeted by U.S. authorities for other leaks, especially those that exposed  the hacking tools used by the CIA known as Vault 7, which enables the spy agency to compromise cars, smart TVs, web browsers and the operating systems of most smart phones, as well as operating systems such as Microsoft Windows, macOS and Linux.  

If Assange is extradited and found guilty of publishing classified material, it will set a legal precedent that will effectively end national security reporting, allowing the government to use the Espionage Act to charge any reporter who possesses classified documents, and any whistleblower who leaks classified information.

If the appeal by the United States is won, the High Court can send the case back to Magistrate’s Court. The ruling on the appeal is not expected until at least January.

Assange’s September 2020 trial painfully exposed how vulnerable he has become after 12 years of detention, including seven in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He has in the past attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. He suffers from hallucinations and depression, takes antidepressant medication and the antipsychotic quetiapine.

After he was observed pacing his cell until he collapsed, punching himself in the face and banging his head against the wall he was transferred for several months to the medical wing of the Belmarsh prison. Prison authorities found “half of a razor blade” hidden under his socks. He has repeatedly called the suicide hotline run by the Samaritans because he thought about killing himself “hundreds of times a day.”

James Lewis, the lawyer for the United States, attempted to discredit the detailed and disturbing medical and psychological reports on Assange presented to the court in September 2020, painting him instead as a liar and malingerer. He excoriated the decision of Judge Baraitser to bar extradition, questioned her competence, and breezily dismissed the mountains of evidence that high-security prisoners in the United Sates, like Assange, subjected to Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), and held in virtual isolation in supermax prisons, suffer psychological distress.

He charged Dr. Michael Kopelman, emeritus professor of neuropsychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London, who examined Assange and testified for the defense, with deception for “concealing” that Assange fathered two children with his fiancée Stella Moris while in refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He said that, should the Australian government request Assange, he could serve his prison time in Australia, his home country, after his appeals had been exhausted, but stopped short of promising that Assange would not be held in isolation or subject to SAMs [until the last minutes of the two-day hearing concluded on Thursday.]

The authority repeatedly cited by Lewis to describe the conditions under which Assange will be held and tried in the United States was Gordon Kromberg, the assistant United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Supporters of Julian Assange block the road opposite the Royal Courts of Justice where the U.S. appeal was being heard, Oct. 28. (Don’t Extradite Assange Campaign)

Kromberg is the government’s grand inquisitor in cases of terrorism and national security. He has expressed open contempt for Muslims and Islam and decried what he calls “the Islamization of the American justice system.” He oversaw the nine-year persecution of the Palestinian activist and academic Dr. Sami Al-Arian and at one point refused his request to postpone a court date during the religious holiday of Ramadan.

“They can kill each other during Ramadan, they can appear before the grand jury. All they can’t do is eat before sunset,” Kromberg said in a 2006 conversation, according to an affidavit filed by one of Arian’s attorneys, Jack Fernandez. 

Kromberg criticized Daniel Hale, the former Air Force analyst who recently was sentenced to 45 months in a supermax prison for leaking information about the indiscriminate killings of civilians by drones, saying Hale had not contributed to public debate, but had “endanger[ed] the people doing the fight.” He ordered Chelsea Manning jailed after she refused to testify in front of a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. Manning attempted to commit suicide in March 2020 while being held in the Virginia jail.

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Having covered the case of Syed Fahad Hashmi, who was arrested in London in 2006, I have a good idea of what awaits Assange if he is extradited. Hashmi also was held in Belmarsh and extradited in 2007 to the United States where he spent three years in solitary confinement under SAMs. His “crime” was that an acquaintance who stayed in his apartment with him while he was a graduate student in London had raincoats, ponchos and waterproof socks in luggage at the apartment.

The acquaintance planned to deliver the items to Al-Qaida. But I doubt the government was concerned with waterproof socks being shipped to Pakistan. The reason, I suspect, Hashmi was targeted was because, like the Palestinian activist Dr. Sami Al-Arian, and like Assange, he was fearless and zealous in his defense of those being bombed, shot, terrorized and killed throughout the Muslim world while he was a student at Brooklyn College. 

Hashmi was deeply religious, and some of his views, including his praise of the Afghan resistance, were controversial, but he had a right to express these sentiments. More important, he had a right to expect freedom from persecution and imprisonment because of his opinions, just as Assange should have the freedom, like any publisher, to inform the public about the inner workings of power. Facing the possibility of a 70-year sentence in prison and having already spent four years in jail, much of it in solitary confinement, Hashmi accepted a plea bargain on one count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism.

Judge Loretta Preska, who sentenced the hacker Jeremy Hammond and human rights attorney Steven Donziger, gave him the maximum 15-year sentence. Hashmi was held for nine years in Guantanamo-like conditions in the supermax ADX [Administrative Maximum] facility in Florence, Colorado, where Assange, if found guilty in an American court, will almost certainly be imprisoned. Hashmi was released in 2019.

“If the government will go to this length to persecute someone who was alleged to have been involved in sending waterproof socks to Al-Qaida, what can we expect the government to do to Assange?”

The pre-trial detention conditions Hashmi endured were designed to break him. He was electronically monitored 24-hours a day. He could only receive or send mail with his immediate family. He was prohibited from speaking with other prisoners through the walls. He was forbidden from taking part in group prayer. He was permitted one hour of exercise a day, in a solitary cage without fresh air.

He has unable to see most of the evidence used to indict him which was classified under the Classified Information Procedures Act, enacted to prevent U.S.  intelligence officers under prosecution from threatening to reveal state secrets to manipulate the legal proceedings. The harsh conditions eroded his physical and psychological health. When he appeared in the final court proceeding to accept a guilty plea he was in a near catatonic state, clearly unable to follow the proceedings around him.

If the government will go to this length to persecute someone who was alleged to have been involved in sending waterproof socks to Al-Qaida, what can we expect the government to do to Assange?

A society that prohibits the capacity to speak in truth extinguishes the capacity to live in justice. The battle for Assange’s liberty has always been much more than the persecution of a publisher. It is the most important battle for press freedom of our era. And if we lose this battle, it will be devastating, not only for Assange and his family, but for us.

“There is no legal basis to hold Assange in prison. There is no legal basis to try him, an Australian citizen, under the U.S.  Espionage Act.” 

Tyrannies invert the rule of law. They turn the law into an instrument of injustice. They cloak their crimes in a faux legality. They use the decorum of the courts and trials, to mask their criminality. Those, such as Assange, who expose that criminality to the public are dangerous, for without the pretext of legitimacy the tyranny loses credibility and has nothing left in its arsenal but fear, coercion and violence.

The long campaign against Assange and WikiLeaks is a window into the collapse of the rule of law, the rise of what the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls our system of inverted totalitarianism, a form of totalitarianism that maintains the fictions of the old capitalist democracy, including its institutions, iconography, patriotic symbols and rhetoric, but internally has surrendered total control to the dictates of global corporations and the security and surveillance state.

There is no legal basis to hold Assange in prison. There is no legal basis to try him, an Australian citizen, under the U.S.  Espionage Act. The CIA spied on Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy through a Spanish company, UC Global, contracted to provide embassy security.

Jeremy Corbyn expressing support for Julian Assange outside the High Court in London where the U.S. appeal hearing was taking place, Oct. 28. (Don’t Extradite Assange Campaign)

This spying included recording the privileged conversations between Assange and his lawyers as they discussed his defense. This fact alone invalidated the trial. Assange is being held in a high security prison so the state can, as Nils Melzer, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, has testified, continue the degrading abuse and torture it hopes will lead to his psychological if not physical disintegration.

The architects of imperialism, the masters of war, the corporate-controlled legislative, judicial and executive branches of government and their obsequious courtiers in the media, are guilty of egregious crimes. Say this simple truth and you are banished, as many of us have been, to the margins of the media landscape. Prove this truth, as Assange, Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond and Edward Snowden have by allowing us to peer into the inner workings of power, and you are hunted down and persecuted.

Assange’s “crime” is that he exposed the more than 15,000 unreported deaths of Iraqi civilians. He exposed the torture and abuse of some 800 men and boys, aged between 14 and 89, at Guantánamo. He exposed that Hillary Clinton in 2009 ordered U.S.  diplomats to spy on U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and other U.N. representatives from China, France, Russia and the U.K., spying that included obtaining DNA, iris scans, fingerprints, and personal passwords, part of the long pattern of illegal surveillance that included the eavesdropping on U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in the weeks before the U.S. -led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

He exposed that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the CIA orchestrated the June 2009 military coup in Honduras that overthrew the democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya, replacing him with a murderous and corrupt military regime.

He exposed that George W. Bush, Barack Obama and General David Petraeus prosecuted a war in Iraq that under post-Nuremberg laws is defined as a criminal war of aggression, a war crime, which authorized hundreds of targeted assassinations, including those of U.S.  citizens in Yemen. He exposed that the United States secretly launched missile, bomb and drone attacks on Yemen, killing scores of civilians.

He exposed that Goldman Sachs paid Hillary Clinton $657,000 to give talks, a sum so large it can only be considered a bribe, and that she privately assured corporate leaders she would do their bidding while promising the public financial regulation and reform.

He exposed the internal campaign to discredit and destroy British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn by members of his own party. He exposed how the hacking tools used by the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency permits the wholesale government surveillance of our televisions, computers, smartphones and anti-virus software, allowing the government to record and store our conversations, images and private text messages, even from encrypted apps. 

He exposed the truth. He exposed it over and over and over until there was no question of the endemic illegality, corruption and mendacity that defines the global ruling elite. And for these truths alone he is guilty.

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 NewsThe Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show “On Contact.” 

This column is from Scheerpost, for which Chris Hedges writes a regular columnClick here to sign up for email alerts.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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11 comments for “Chris Hedges: The Most Vital Battle for Press Freedom in Our Time

  1. Matt Fischer-Credo
    October 30, 2021 at 17:15

    Thank you for writing this and doing this wonderful work. Thank you for exposing this incredible government dishonesty.

  2. Kerry Brown
    October 30, 2021 at 07:55

    Thank you. One of the best of many brilliant articles explaining why the battle to save Julian Assange is also the battle to save and restore our own freedoms.

  3. Calvin e Lash Jr
    October 30, 2021 at 02:03

    Its the United States, England, Australia and Spain that should be on trial with Assange as the lead prosecutor. The US continues its genocidal ways.

  4. Richard Lemieux
    October 29, 2021 at 20:17

    I agree on everything. However how can you have freedom of the press in political matters when the mainstream medias are all owned and controlled by just a few people. Those same people are panicked when they see their readership evaporate and turn to the Internet and now they want to introduce new laws allowing the control of free expression over the Internet (Soros and friends). The whole subject is a quagmire: Money controls both the media and the politicians; the medias control the people collective beliefs. Conclusion. The politicians and the laws reflect the will of the few.

    • N Speaks
      October 30, 2021 at 05:36

      The good citizen Mr. Lemieux, (Gaulois), writes”

      “…how can you have freedom of the press in political matters when the mainstream medias are all owned and controlled by just a few people?”

      You can’t. And we don’t. Didn’t folks at least hear about the Biden Laptop Story? (Greenwald knows all about it).

  5. Ray Peterson
    October 29, 2021 at 10:03

    No surprise here Chris, you’ve published so many pieces predicting or prophesying, this likely victory
    of the American corporate national security state (aka. MIC), crucifying the truth when it appears in
    world history, and haven’t we seen this before?
    And like O’Brien said to Winston Smith during his torture for Big Brother: the issue is power. Yes, and
    isn’t the Eastern District of Virginia where permanent wars, and weapons for profit collude, the lair of “the beast”
    Thanks for the honest presentation.

  6. bobLich
    October 29, 2021 at 09:56

    The capitalist ruling class has no limit on their endeavors. This will only get worse and more brazen.

    • N Speaks
      October 30, 2021 at 05:53

      I agree that it will get FAR worse yet, but brazen? The Enemy is deadly ruthless, but not stupid. Brazen is not good for them. This is MUCH more ‘sophisticated’ than that.

      Hedges himself often writes about the New Totalitarianism. It is not brazen. It rather tries to make itself invisible, behind the Great Democracy (all genuflect) Charade.

      None of us has a crystal ball, of course, but looking at this from the Enemy’s point of view, it might seem much smarter, at this point, to release Assange. They’ve already tortured him to within the proverbial “inch of his life”. Won’t that serve as an adequate deterrent? Before you stick that thumb drive in, won’t thinking about Assange’s torture impress you?

      I think there’s a chance they’ll release him. They couldn’t just “do nothing” as wikileaks grew more powerful. But they don’t want to be ‘brazen’. Why throw him in a dungeon to serve as a martyr? Let him out, but surround him with ‘spooks’. Keep up a longer term psy-ops going on him.

  7. NotStrained
    October 29, 2021 at 08:13

    “If Assange is extradited and found guilty of publishing classified material it will set a legal precedent that will effectively end national security reporting.”

    Mr. Hedges.

    Perhaps you forget your work in the community?

    To quote a Russian observation:

    “100 people make the law and 100 million find a way round it, and those who don’t go to prison.”

    The world and interactions within is not linear despite the “hopes” of the “elites” who deem them “strategies”.

    • Judith Gillett
      October 29, 2021 at 14:51

      Make no mistake, Assange’s greatest “crime” is his ability to unequivocally show the true origins of the DNC emails. Once the Russian hacking fairytale is shown to be false, those accustomed to expoliting their unfettered access to the NSA databases to spy on their rivals will be required to answer questions they would prefer remain unasked. Because Assange’s case is so controversial, every available tool to delay adjudication on the merits will be maximized. This will be tied up in procedural based appeals for as long as possible and once extradited, the US govt will use the magic “national security” words to delay his trial for years. This will undoubtedly include multiple lengthy discovery disputes, etc., while Assange languishes in the most torturous conditions imaginable. His inevitable conviction will result in further years of appeals, and at no time will he be released. He is not being targeted for what he has already disclosed, but because of what he may further disclose and because he has the key to exposing the unlawful behaviors of so many, they will never let that happen.

      • N Speaks
        October 30, 2021 at 06:14

        Well… Maybe you’re right… Carrot and stick work can get complicated real fast though.

        Showing ‘mercy’ was one of Caesar’s primary ‘strategies’. The legions swords? Or Caesar’s mercy? That was the choice he offered. If people know that their certain destruction awaits, they will fight ‘to the death’. But Caesar’s mercy was generous and bountiful. Those who submitted experienced better fortunes, and prosperity, (whenever it was within Caesar’s power to provide such).

        Assange in their dungeon, wasting away, suffering, will be a powerful testament to the full extent of their clownishly blatant hypocrisy for many years to come.

        We’ll see… Caesar remarked when reporting his actions at Uxelludenum, where he had the hands of all the adult men in the town cut off, that his reputation for mercy was so well-established that his punitive action at Uxelludenum would not cause him to be regarded as a cruel tyrant. He had considered just selling the entire population into slavery, but he knew those handless men would live vfor a long time, and serve as a very graphic deterrent to rebellion.

        So you think they’ll do a Mark Antony? When he had Cicero murdered, he had the famous writers head, and his right hand, (his writing hand), hung up in the Forum until they rotted away.

        People weren’t the least bit shy about totalitarianism over Rome’s subjects. Submit or die. Submitting usually brought increased prosperity.

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