Top U.S. officials are speaking at cross purposes when it comes to Julian Assange. What is really going on? asks Joe Lauria.
By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News
It was a little more than perplexing. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on Australian soil, left no doubt about how his government feels about one of Australia’s most prominent citizens.
“I understand the concerns and views of Australians,” Blinken said in Brisbane on July 31 with the Australian foreign minister at his side. “I think it’s very important that our friends here understand our concerns about this matter.” He said:
“What our Department of Justice has already said repeatedly, publicly, is this: Mr. Assange was charged with very serious criminal conduct in the United States in connection with his alleged role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of our country. So I say that only because just as we understand sensitivities here, it’s important that our friends understand sensitivities in the United States.”
In other words, when it comes to Julian Assange, the U.S. elite cares little for what Australians have to say. There are more impolite ways to describe Blinken’s response. Upwards of 88 percent of Australians and both parties in the Australian government have told Washington to free the man. And Blinken essentially told them to stuff it. The U.S. won’t drop the case.
A few days before Blinken spoke, Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Australia and daughter of slain President John F. Kennedy, was also dismissive of Australians’ concerns, telling Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio:
“I met with Parliamentary supporters of Julian Assange and I’ve listened to their concerns and I understand that this has been raised at the highest levels of our government, but it is an ongoing legal case, so the Department of Justice is really in charge but I’m sure that for Julian Assange it means a lot that he has this kind of support but we’re just going to have to wait to see what happens.”
Asked why she met with the parliamentarians at all, she said: “Well, it’s an important issue, it has, as I’ve said, been raised at the highest levels and I wanted to hear directly from them about their concerns to make sure that we all understood where each other was coming from and I thought it was a very useful conversation.”
Asked whether her meeting with the MPs had shifted her thinking on the Assange case, Kennedy said bluntly: “Not really.” She added that her “personal thinking isn’t really relevant here.”
Australia has too often behaved as a doormat to the United States, to the point where Australia is threatening its own security by going along with an aggressive U.S. policy towards China, which poses no threat to Australia.
But this time, Blinken got an earful. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese reiterated that he wanted the Assange case to be dropped. Certain members of Parliament brusquely gave it back to Blinken.
Assange was “not the villain … and if the US wasn’t obsessed with revenge it would drop the extradition charge as soon as possible,” Independent MP Andrew Wilkie told The Guardian‘s Australian edition.
“Antony Blinken’s allegation that Julian Assange risked very serious harm to US national security is patent nonsense,” said Wilkie said.
“Mr Blinken would be well aware of the inquiries in both the US and Australia which found that the relevant WikiLeaks disclosures did not result in harm to anyone,” the MP said. “The only deadly behaviour was by US forces … exposed by WikiLeaks, like the Apache crew who gunned down Iraqi civilians and Reuters journalists” in the infamous Collateral Murder video.
As was shown conclusively by defense witnesses in his September 2020 extradition hearing in London, Assange worked assiduously to redact names of U.S. informants before WikiLeaks publications on Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010. U.S. Gen. Robert Carr testified at the court martial of WikiLeaks‘ source, Chelsea Manning, that no one was harmed by the material’s publication.
Instead, Assange faces 175 years in a U.S. dungeon on charges of violating the Espionage Act, not for stealing U.S. classified material, but for the First Amendment-protected publication of it.
Labor MP Julian Hill, also part of the Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group, told The Guardian he had “a fundamentally different view of the substance of the matter than secretary Blinken expressed. But I appreciate that at least his remarks are candid and direct.”
“In the same vein, I would say back to the United States: at the very least, take Julian Assange’s health issues seriously and go into court in the United Kingdom and get him the hell out of a maximum security prison where he’s at risk of dying without medical care if he has another stroke,” Hill said.
The fierce Australian reaction to both Blinken and Kennedy’s remarks appears to have taken Washington by surprise, given how accustomed to Canberra’s supine behavior the U.S. has become. Just two weeks after Blinken’s remarks, Kennedy tried to soften the blow by muddying Blinken’s clear waters.
She told The Sydney Morning Herald in a front-page interview published on Aug. 14 that the United States was now, despite Blinken’s unequivocal words, suddenly open to a plea agreement that could free Assange, allowing him to serve a shortened sentence for a lesser crime in his home country.
The newspaper said there could be a “David Hicks-style plea bargain,” a so-called Alford Plea, in which Assange would continue to state his innocence while accepting a lesser charge that would allow him to serve additional time in Australia. The four years Assange has already served on remand at London’s maximum security Belmarsh Prison could perhaps be taken into account.
Kennedy said a decision on such a plea deal was up to the U.S. Justice Department. “So it’s not really a diplomatic issue, but I think that there absolutely could be a resolution,” she told the newspaper.
Kennedy acknowledged Blinken’s harsh comments. “But there is a way to resolve it,” she said. “You can read the [newspapers] just like I can.” It is not quite clear what in the newspapers she was reading.
Blinken is Kennedy’s boss. There is little chance she had spoken out of turn. Blinken allowed her to put out the story that the U.S. is interested in a plea bargain with Assange. But why?
First, the harsh reaction in Australia to Blinken’s words probably had something to do with it. If it was up to the U.S. Justice Department alone to handle the prosecution of Assange, as Kennedy says, why was the Secretary of State saying anything about it at all? Blinken appears to have spoken out of turn himself and sent Kennedy out to reel it back in.
Given the growing opposition to the AUKUS alliance in Australia, including within the ruling Labor Party, perhaps Blinken and the rest of the U.S. security establishment is not taking Australia’s support for granted anymore. Blinken stepped in it and had Kennedy try to clean up the mess.
Second, as suspected by many Assange supporters on social media, Kennedy’s words may have been intended as a kind of ploy, perhaps to lure Assange to the United States to give up his fight against extradition in exchange for leniency.
In its article based on Kennedy’s interview, The Sydney Morning Herald spoke to only one international law expert, a Don Rothwell, of Australian National University in Canberra, who said Assange would have to go to the United States to negotiate a plea. In a second interview on Australian television, Rothwell said Assange would also have to drop his extradition fight.
Of course, neither is true. “Usually American courts don’t act unless a defendant is inside that district and shows up to the court,” U.S. constitutional lawyer Bruce Afran told Consortium News. “However, there’s nothing strictly prohibiting it either. And in a given instance, a plea could be taken internationally. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s not barred by any laws. If all parties consent to it, then the court has jurisdiction.” But would the U.S. consent to it?
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Were Assange to give up his legal battle and voluntarily go to the U.S. it would achieve two things for Washington: 1). remove the chance of a European Court of Human Rights injunction stopping his extradition should the High Court in London reject his last appeal; and 2). it would give the U.S. an opportunity to “change its mind” once Assange was in its clutches inside the Virginia federal courthouse.
“The U.S. sometimes finds ways to get around these agreements,” Afran said. “The better approach would be that he pleads while in the U.K., we resolve the sentence by either an additional sentence of seven months, such as David Hicks had or a year to be served in the U.K. or in Australia or time served.”
Assange’s brother, Gabriel Shipton, told the Herald his brother going to the U.S. was a “non-starter.” He said: “Julian cannot go to the US under any circumstances.” Assange’s father, John Shipton, told the same to Glenn Greenwald last week.
So the U.S. won’t be getting Assange on its soil voluntarily, and perhaps not very soon either. And maybe it wants it that way. Gabriel Shipton added: “Caroline Kennedy wouldn’t be saying these things if they didn’t want a way out. The Americans want this off their plate.”
Third, the U.S. may be trying to prolong Assange’s ordeal for at least another 14 months past the November 2024 U.S. presidential election. As Greenwald told John Shipton, the last thing President Joe Biden would want in the thick of his reelection campaign next year would be a high-profile criminal trial in which he was seen trying to put a publisher away for life for printing embarrassing U.S. state secrets.
But rather than a way out, as Gabriel Shipton called it, the U.S. may have in mind something more like a Great Postponement.
The postponement could come with the High Court of England and Wales continuing to take its time to give Assange his last hearing — for all of 30 minutes — before it rendered its final judgement, months after that, on his extradition. This could be stretched over 14 months. As Assange is a U.S. campaign issue, the High Court could justify its inaction by saying it wanted to avoid interference in the election.
According to Craig Murray, a former British diplomat and close Assange associate, the United States has not, despite Kennedy’s words last month, so far offered any sort of plea deal to Assange’s legal team. Murray told WBAI radio in New York:
“There have been noises made by the U.S. ambassador to Australia saying that a plea deal is possible. And that’s what the Australian Government have been pushing for as a way to solve it. What I can tell you is that there have been no official approaches from the American government indicating any willingness to soften or ameliorate their position. The position of the Biden administration still seems to be that they wish to persecute and destroy Julian and lock him up for life for publishing the truth about war crimes …
So there’s no evidence of any sincerity on behalf of the U.S. government in these noises we’ve been hearing. It seems to be to placate public opinion in Australia, which is over 80% in favor of dropping the charges and allowing Julian to go home to his native country…
The American ambassador has made comments about, oh well, a plea deal might be possible, but this is just rubbish. This is just talk in the air. There’s been no kind of approach or indication from the Justice Department or anything like that at all. It’s just not true. It’s a false statement, in order to placate public opinion in Australia.”
Afran said a plea deal can be initiated by the Assange side as well. Assange lawyer Jennifer Robinson said in May for the first time on behalf of his legal team that they were open to discussion of a plea deal, though she said she knew of no crime Assange had committed to plead guilty to.
The U.S. would have many ways to keep prolonging talks on an Assange initiative, if one came, beyond the U.S. election. After the vote, the Justice Department could then receive Assange in Virginia courtesy of the British courts, if this the strategy the U.S. is pursuing.
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former U.N. correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and numerous other newspapers, including The Montreal Gazette, the London Daily Mail and The Star of Johannesburg. He was an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times of London, a financial reporter for Bloomberg News and began his professional work as a 19-year old stringer for The New York Times. He is the author of two books, A Political Odyssey, with Sen. Mike Gravel, foreword by Daniel Ellsberg; and How I Lost By Hillary Clinton, foreword by Julian Assange. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe
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