Why You Should Care About the Extradition of Julian Assange

The most important press freedom case in a generation is unfolding in London.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images


Julian Assange’s impending extradition to the United States could set a dangerous new precedent in international law by allowing powerful governments to demand the handing-over of foreign journalists who publish information they deem damaging to their interests. Ryan Grim discusses the Assange case with Kevin Gosztola of Shadowproof. Then, Dana Gottesfeld describes the plight of her husband Martin, a hacktivist and human rights activist currently serving time at a prison in Indiana, similar to the one Assange could end up in.

Ryan Grim: Earlier this week, the nation’s beleaguered voters were subjected to a debate the likes of which had never been seen before on a presidential stage.

Joe Biden: I want to make sure — I want to make the President —

President Donald J. Trump: You graduated last in your class, not first in your class.

Chris Wallace: Can you let him finish, sir?

DJT: — radical left — well, listen.

JB: Would you shut up, man?

DJT: Listen, who is on your list, Joe? Who is on your list?

CW: Gentleman, I think we’ve ended this.

RG: But on the plus side, we learned something interesting about Europeans.

DJT: You know in Europe they live in, forest cities, they call forest cities. They maintain their forests. They manage their forests. I was with the head of a major country. It’s a forest city.

RG: But today on the show, we’re going to flee the United States and head to a courtroom in London, where the Trump administration has launched the most consequential fight over global press freedom in several generations. The press itself has been almost entirely silent about it. So let’s do something about that.

I’m Ryan Grim. Today on Deconstructed: Why you should care about the impending extradition of Julian Assange to the United States.

In that courtroom in London, over the past month, a magistrate has been reviewing a request by U.S. prosecutors, under the direction of Attorney General William Barr, to extradite Wikileaks founder Julian Assange — an Australian citizen — and try him, in the United States, under the Espionage Act. He could face life in prison, in solitary confinement, in a Colorado or Indiana supermax prison.

Newscaster: The arrest was made “on behalf of the United States,” an effort Assange’s lawyers describe as an unprecedented effort to extradite a foreign journalist.

RG: That extradition hearing is now in its fourth week. At issue is whether Assange broke the law in obtaining and publishing leaked documents from former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Nixon administration, made an appearance at the hearing.

So did Khaled Al-Masri, the German-Lebanese man who was mistakenly abducted and handed over to the CIA in 2003, then subjected to gruesome torture by the Bush administration. We only know Al-Masri’s story in full thanks to Assange and Wikileaks. Assange’s case deals with basic questions about the nature of a free press, justice for victims of torture, and accountability for powerful governments.

So why the silence? You might think that liberals would leap at the opportunity to defend the press against a wannabe authoritarian like Trump. His constant assaults on the news media have created a new veneration for journalism on the American left — and look, as a journalist myself, I’m all for that. But when it comes to Assange and Wikileaks, the veneration ends. Why?

The Obama administration came close to prosecuting Assange. But they finally decided, in December 2013, that they couldn’t overcome what they called “The New York Times problem.” Put simply: How can the government charge Wikileaks for publishing sensitive information without also prosecuting The New York Times? Now, the Obama administration understood what it would mean to go after the Times, so ultimately they backed off of Wikileaks.

The Trump administration? No, they have no such scruples. Trump has already said he thinks that U.S. laws around press freedom are too generous to the “fake news media.” Respect for the fourth estate is definitely not holding him back.

But the main reason liberals are reluctant to defend the founder of Wikileaks is his relationship to the Clintons. In 2016, Assange released thousands of emails from the inbox of Hilary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, producing endless damaging stories in the final weeks of the campaign. Among other things, the release included excerpts from Clinton’s private speeches to Goldman Sachs, which she had previously refused to release. For sure, Democrats have good reason to believe the publication of those emails played a major role in her loss. And so as the chains have tightened around Assange, they’ve mostly looked the other way. After all, he was just getting what he had coming.

Back in 2016, when Wikileaks was disseminating embarrassing information about his rival, Donald Trump was their biggest fan.

DJT: Oh, we love WikiLeaks. Boy, they have really —

DJT: Wikileaks!

DJT: It’s been amazing what’s coming out on WikiLeaks.

DJT: This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove!

DJT: This Wikileaks is unbelievable.

DJT: I love reading those WikiLeaks.

DJT: The wonder of Wikileaks. We’ve learned so much from WikiLeaks.

But after a few years in power, his attitude? A little bit different.

Reporter: Do you still love WikiLeaks?

DJT: I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It’s not my thing.

DJT: WikiLeaks is a hoax, just like everything else.

DJT: WikiLeaks, etc. That’s not my deal in life. You know, in other words, I don’t know about Wikileaks, it was a strange name.

RG: Supporters of the prosecution of Assange make a number of arguments: That Assange is not a “real” journalist. He’s a hacker. He’s a traitor. He recklessly endangered lives and so he deserves no protection as a journalist. All of this is wrong.

The First Amendment isn’t worth the parchment it’s written on if it’s not respected, and defended, in the broader culture of the United States. People have to support it. Once that support erodes, it tends not to come back. That’s why authoritarians, when they want to curtail a particular freedom, usually find the most unsympathetic target they can, hoping nobody will come to his defense. Then once a new precedent is established, all bets are off. With Assange, Trump and Barr think they’ve found just such a man. It’s up to us not to take the bait.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: In a moment we’re going to talk to Dana Gottesfeld, whose husband, Marty Gottesfeld, a hacker, activist, and writer, is being held incommunicado in an Indiana prison that may soon play host to Assange. But first I want to speak with the journalist Kevin Gosztola of the outlet Shadow Proof, who has covered the hearing since it opened four weeks ago. Kevin, welcome to Deconstructed.

Kevin Gosztola: Yeah, thanks for having me.

RG: So Kevin, can you start out with a quick rundown of what a hearing like this looks like in a pandemic, what it’s like to cover it?

KG: Yeah, this has been a tremendously difficult hearing, cumbersome for the court to put on. This is being done — or, this was done, I believe by the time people listen to this interview, we will have concluded the witness testimony in its entirety, and the defense will then be preparing their closing arguments for the judge, for Vanessa Baraitser to review and ultimately decide whether to approve the extradition of Julian Assange.

But this Old Bailey criminal courthouse, a very old building, a fixture in London, a Dickensian kind of courthouse as it has been described to me, is one that had to be able to manage essentially bringing on dozens of witnesses for the defense who could testify using a video platform, and then simultaneously be able to bring in press who could follow video links, and, because of the pandemic, social distance within this courthouse.

RG: I want to start with the testimony of Trevor Tim, who actually writes for The Intercept on occasion, and you covered his appearance before the court. That’s when the real debate kind of over, you know, the nature of journalism began. What was the argument that Tim presented to the court?

KG: Trevor Tim took the stand and, importantly, he described how there’s over 70 media outlets that have adopted the SecureDrop system, this submission system in which you can receive leaks anonymously, and hopefully protect the identity of people who are providing documents, and that there are well established media outlets that are using this now, like The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today. And that there are organizations like the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists that would post on their website “leak to us,” that they would advertise. So they are soliciting leaks, they are asking people to give them information and it doesn’t say, you know, it doesn’t have a disclaimer — do not provide classified information to us. It’s acceptable to provide all information to these outlets, they will investigate and try to verify those documents.

And so the point being that WikiLeaks truly was a pioneer of this method of saying that we were going to accept documents from sources anonymously, and we will work to authenticate and verify those documents, and then we will publish them.

I think the key thing about Trevor Tim’s testimony is destigmatizing the work of WikiLeaks, or even demystifying it. Because what you have through the U.S. government’s targeting of Wikileaks over the past decade is a concerted effort to make it seem like what WikiLeaks does is not journalism. And so the counter to that through the defense’s case is to make it abundantly clear that this is not reasonable; that in fact, everything that WikiLeaks does, from when it accepts the documents, when it tries to authenticate them, to when it makes media partnerships, to also make sure that names are redacted, to make sure that sensitive details are understood fully before the documents are published. And I think you see that this is the way to keep investigative journalism robust in the 21st century.

RG: I thought Trevor’s point was interesting that The New York Times does not get a press badge from the U.S. government. You know, it isn’t, and it shouldn’t be, up to the U.S. government to decide who is and who is not a journalist.

And the idea of who is or is not a responsible journalist is different from what is illegal or legal conduct, which I also thought was important because the prosecution wants to say: Well, he’s an irresponsible person, so therefore, he doesn’t have these protections. And the counter is no, it’s not up to the government to say what’s responsible or irresponsible journalism. You know, the government creates laws, and if the laws are violated, then you can start your prosecution. But if not, you can’t. And it’s never been against the law to publish classified information. It’s against the law to leak it, if you have access to it. But it’s not against the law to publish it.

That’s why I thought it was also really compelling that Daniel Ellsberg testified. You know, Ellsberg has been really put on a pedestal over the last 10 or 20 years as the kind of whistleblower who did it right. And there’s a real effort among people to separate Ellsberg from people even like Edward Snowden, or from Assange to say that these are people who behave responsibly in trying to inform the public, and then these are people who behave irresponsibly and so, therefore, they’re criminals. Now Edward Snowden is a source, Assange is a publisher, but what did Ellsberg tell the court and why was his testimony relevant?

KG: In my view, Ellsberg testimony was significant because he unraveled or he undermined the kind of dichotomy that is usually perpetuated by the mass media in the sense that he’s talked about as the good leaker, and then, even though Julian Assange isn’t technically a leaker, he would be referred to as the bad leaker.

But Ellsberg made it very clear that he was no different from Assange in what he decided to disclose to the press, or what he decided to disclose to the public, for that matter. Because out of the 4000 pages, it contained thousands of names of Americans, Vietnamese, and North Vietnamese. And he even spoke in detail about a clandestine CIA officer whose name was revealed. And the reason why he didn’t hold back any names, he told the prosecutor was because he didn’t want anybody to think as they looked through the redactions in the papers, that perhaps hiding behind these black bars was a good justification for being at war in Vietnam. He wanted to make sure that no U.S. official could lie and deceive the public into believing that Ellsberg was hiding a reasonable case for remaining in Vietnam.

RG: There was an interesting exchange between Ellsberg and the prosecutor where Ellsberg was trying to lay out that there’s no evidence whatsoever that anybody has actually been harmed as a result of the WikiLeaks releases. And the judge was stopping him from saying that, which actually brought an intervention from Assange, himself, who you say is kind of in a plexiglass cage in the corner. So how did Assange respond to that, and can he be heard? Or can you only just tell that he’s agitating?

KG: Yeah. So over video, it’s difficult to understand and hear him, though I can make out some words, during the course of these proceedings.

Most of the reporting on Assange is interruptions — I don’t really call them disruptions, because I think it’s fairly frustrating. We need to be sensitive to what has gone on with his due process rights over the course of the extradition case. I believe Americans can appreciate how unusual it is to be separated from your attorneys and not be able to quickly consult with your legal team.

Normally, a defendant like Assange, if he was just in the United States, would be able to lean over and talk to his attorney. And very quickly, that attorney would be able to ask the question that needs to be put to Daniel Ellsberg. And in fact, he can’t do that without shouting from the back of the courtroom from this glass box, that, by the way, I know back in February of this year, the judge refused to allow him to leave so that he could join his legal team, even though the prosecution said that they were neutral and did not care if Julian Assange was permitted to sit with his attorneys during proceedings. As a way of enforcing her authority over Julian Assange and this extradition case, she’s kept him in the dock, or as we call it, the glass box.

RG: Right.

KG: And so essentially, if I’m recalling this correctly, I believe that Assange was just insistent that nobody had been put at risk by these disclosures. And, you know, some of these proceedings, he’s also just been frustrated at the way the prosecutors treat the witnesses, believing that the prosecutor isn’t letting witnesses speak. That’s an important thing as well.

But but just close the loop here with Ellsberg, you know, he made the correct argument, which is to say that, when you go back to Chelsea Manning’s trial, there was a witness — I forget exactly what his title was — but I know his last name was Carr. And he took the stand and made a claim in the middle of the courtroom — I remember this because I was there covering it at Fort Meade — he made the claim that someone in the Taliban had executed someone who was named in a WikiLeaks document. And then the defense objected, and there was back and forth, and then finally, it was determined, and they conceded, that the Taliban had just lied, they had said it was but that person was never named in the WikiLeaks document. And so the judge had to force this witness for the prosecution to recant.

And this came on sentencing, when Chelsea Manning was there in sentencing. And so Ellsberg is going back and forth, and, as he says — and I think this is a great context for it — you know, this small fraction of people who the government is claiming to be murdered on both sides of this conflict, what they’re trying to say is that there were, some people, maybe a few people, who ultimately might have been killed by the disclosures of these WikiLeaks documents. But we can’t lose perspective in talking about the carnage that has gone on. And in that respect, I can say, the Iraq War Logs revealed that 15,000 more people — 15,000 more civilians — were killed in that war zone than were previously known before those disclosures.

And so Ellsberg was trying to place it into the context of war that has gone on throughout the region for the last 20 years. He even spoke to the displacement of the 37 million people that has unfolded in the region, and saying he didn’t actually believe that these government agencies truly care at all about these Middle Easterners, or the people in Afghanistan.

Because, in fact, and this is an important point, Julian Assange asked for help from the State Department and the Pentagon on the redactions. And they would not provide any assistance in removing the names or giving him any information that would help him understand whether someone would be put at risk. And we’ve had this corroborated by journalists who are working on the material. So I’m not just trying to say this to be a booster of Assange. We’ve heard evidence in this case of WikiLeaks actually trying to do good diligence with the material. And yet because they don’t want Wikileaks to be treated as a journalist organization or a media organization, they would not do business basically.

What’s interesting is a lot of this hinges not on press freedom, but actually on human rights, because the United States takes a much more liberal view, so to speak, of what the state and what the prison system is allowed to do to the people who are in its charge. The rest of the kind of industrialized world does not treat prisoners the way that we do. And so the the Assange defense is saying that if you extradite Assange to the United States he will be locked in a hole, he’ll spend his life in isolation in a supermax, and eventually, probably in Colorado, where he will suffer the most kind of depraved state action that you can contemplate, short of ripping somebody’s toenails out.

RG: And so what was the argument that was being made by the defense around the prison conditions in the United States?

KG: First off, we hear the argument that was made through an attorney named Lindsay Lewis in the past week, who represented Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, who is I think more commonly known to people as Abu Hamza, and he was accused of terrorism offenses. And he had a high-profile extradition case in the UK. And in fact, she’s representing him when it comes to the very issues that Julian Assange could have, if he is brought to the U.S., put on trial, and sentenced to or placed under special administrative measures in Florence, Colorado at ADX Florence, this supermax prison.

And so she knows what Julian Assange will have to deal with. And she says that there were representations, and reference these representations that the warden who was there at the time made to these British courts about how someone who was in ill health, like Abu Hamza, even though he was accused of very serious terrorist offenses, even though there might have been evidence for him being involved in some terrible acts, he, himself had ill health and he has physical disabilities. And so he was unlikely to be at the supermax prison for more than a short period of time. And because he wouldn’t be there for a lengthy indefinite period, it was not deemed by any of the courts that reviewed the case and also heard his appeals — and this includes the European Court of Human Rights — it was deemed that there was no reason to have any concern about him. He could be allowed to be brought to the U.S., because they would do a medical evaluation if he was in the supermax prison, and then they would probably determine that he should go to a medical center and not be held in solitary confinement at the supermax facility.

None of that played out. All the assurances that were made to the courts turned out not to be true. And he is still there. After his conviction in 2014, he has been in supermax under special administrative measures, which is a way of restricting your communication with the outside world, and he’s been there for five years. And this is indefinite. And he’s challenging his detention.

And so this was put forward as a clear example of what Julian Assange could expect. And I think it’s really fair to draw this comparison, because I’ve been a bit baffled in following this, because every time there’s a witness who speaks on the prison issues, and how he would be sentenced, we’ve had multiple attorneys from the United States, and we also have people with backgrounds in following prison issues, or we even had a former Warden named Maureen Baird, who testified during the fourth week. And when they talked about how Julian Assange would be designated a national security defendant, and the U.S. government, its intelligence agencies, that make determinations about authorizing SAMs, because SAMs have to be authorized by the attorney general, when they talk about why they would want to designate him for Sams during pre trial and also for post trial, the prosecutors have denied that they would treat them like this because they’re afraid he would further disclose classified information. They have denied that they would view him as a national security threat, who would not be permitted to speak to other prisoners, because they would be afraid that he would spread sensitive information that they do not want circulating.

This was a factor in Chelsea Manning’s case. This is partially why she was held at Quantico Marine Brig in conditions of solitary confinement for a period of time, because while they said it was protective custody, there was also evidence, if you read between the lines, that made it very clear that they did not want her talking to other people who were held at the brig at Quantico about the information that she had disclosed to WikiLeaks, because it was classified information.

And so I think that they’re being deceitful. And I don’t know if the judge can tell that they’re being deceitful, but we have this clear example. And what they’ve been trying to show is that, you know, Julian Assange is likely to receive a lengthy sentence, because of how the charges could be stacked, because of how you could add enhancements to the charges, to the offenses, and that he’s likely to receive a 20- to 30-year sentence. He’s a 50-year-old man, he’s 49 years old right now, but by the time he’s on trial, let’s say it’s going to be one to two, or maybe three years from now, he would be in his 50s. If he was sentenced to 20 to 30 years, that’s essentially a life sentence.

And wherever he goes, what we’re hearing is clear evidence that before the trial at the Alexandria Detention Center, he would be put in conditions of solitary confinement. He’s a high-profile defendant, so he would be treated like Paul Manafort and Maria Butina were treated. And then if he’s convicted, he would be brought to a facility like ADX Florence, or I think that there’s evidence that is persuasive that he could be brought to a communications management unit in Terre Haute, Indiana or in Marion, Illinois.

And I’ll say in concluding that one of the rare questions that was asked of a witness by the judge, the judge doesn’t ask witnesses many questions. One question she did have was why there’s a difference between the UK and the U.S. in how we treat high-profile defendants. Because in the UK, Julian Assange has not been punished for the fact that there is a lot of publicity toward his case. However, in the U.S., it’s different. We know from whistleblower cases that people get punished. Anyone in prisons, or anyone in jail before trial, who has the ability to access media and defend themselves in the court of public opinion, is typically retaliated against by wardens and management of those facilities. And so she asked, What’s the difference?

And he said: You know, I don’t really know what the difference is. This is Yancey Ellis, he’s a public defender, now an attorney who works in the Eastern District of Virginia representing people in the Alexandria, Virginia area who have gone through that court system and who have been detained and held at the Alexandria Detention Center. And he said: I don’t really know why there’s a difference. I can just tell you that those types of defendants are treated in this manner, that they are kept in isolation, and treated that way by the detention center.

RG: We’re gonna keep watching this. And Kevin Gosztola, thank you so much for your coverage of this important hearing. And thank you for joining us here on Deconstructed.

KG: Thank you.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: That was Kevin Gosztola of the outlet Shadow Proof. The issues he just described to us are not theoretical, and they’re not unique to Julian Assange. Retaliation against high-profile prisoners, and anybody who attempts to talk to the press is real.

We’re joined next by somebody who knows that all too well. Dana Gottesfeld has been battling for years to bring attention to the case of her husband, Martin Gottesfeld, who’s serving a sentence in a federal prison in Terre Haute Indiana, in a so-called communications management unit, or CMU, where his access to visitors and other inmates is severely restricted.

Dana thanks for joining us on Deconstructed.

Dana Gottesfeld: Hi Ryan. Thank you.

RG: So Dana, I know you haven’t been in communication with Marty for a few months now. But what was the latest that you’ve heard from him about what life is like in that CMU?

DG: It never ceases to disturb me. I’ve definitely had a much different understanding of the criminal justice system now that I’ve seen it up close. Some of the things that they do, they are just so unconstitutional. And there’s so little accountability. It certainly doesn’t feel like any America that I would recognize. It’s upsetting.

But some of the things they do there are they block mail between clients and attorneys. Marty’s had mail that went out to his attorney that got stopped at the sorting facility in Vermont where his attorney is, and it never has left the facility. They read mail between attorneys and clients and between clients and the courts. It’s a very dystopian place. They won’t give out a list of written rules of what you can and can’t do, but then they’ll punish people afterwards and say, “That wasn’t allowed.” And these are all things that have happened to Marty.

RG: What’s a typical day like for Marty?

DG: Well, anytime there’s a COVID case, the entire facility gets locked down. So that’s, I think, 23 hours-a-day lockdown. I think there’s a usual amount of lockdown throughout the day anyways, but I imagine it’s not so good. I think he just sits in his cell and writes. Yeah.

RG: Has he had a cellmate the entire time or has he spent time in isolation as well?

RG: And I don’t think he has a cellmate and he has spent time in the SHU which is the special housing unit or solitary there. It’s probably one of the worst SHUs I’ve heard of. And Marty’s been in probably more than six facilities in the U.S..

RG: What is it about the Indiana prison, their solitary, that makes it so much worse in your mind?

DG: Well, there’s a huge rodent and cockroach infestation. There’s no desk to do any writing, so he has to bend over and do it over bed. They had a SWAT team go into his cell multiple times a day. He’s not leaving the cell, so it’s not like anything is changing, it’s just to, I don’t know, throw him off, upset him.

They have him chained and shackled. He was on a hunger strike in the CMU and he would drink water, but they would make it too difficult for him to actually get the water because of his chains.

They’re just so callous. And it’s not like it’s based in security for the facility or anything like that. It’s just retaliation.

RG: Marty is an awfully strong person. Have you been able to sense what it’s done to him mental-health wise?

DG: Well, I haven’t spoken to him since August 31. But I can imagine he’s probably pretty stressed and anxious. And I would like to see some kind of accountability.

RG: And where do you find that accountability? That’s what makes places like this so remarkable. Outside of the press, which he’s effectively barred from communicating with, what can a family do, or what could an inmate do, to try to remedy the unconstitutional conditions they’re living in?

DG: In my opinion, that’s one of the worst parts is how the prison has complete control over what a prisoner can do. Basically, they disabled the hotlines, so there’s no way to report violations anonymously. They intercept — [laughs] that’s funny — complaints to the Office of the Inspector General. The prison intercepts mail between him and the courts. They block mail to journalists. It’s like they’re running some kind of show where they can do bad things, and then make sure no one can hear about it.

And then if you actually are successful, if you can get it to the OIG or the Regional Director of the Bureau of Prisons, they don’t do anything. There’s people that should be removed from their position, or at least be held accountable to follow rules. One of the big things we’re seeing is made-up disciplinary actions. Like these are fraudulent, they’re fake on their head, just immediately looking at them. These are things that didn’t happen — he has written proof. And it’s so hard to get anything with that. It’s like the truth doesn’t matter. It’s like living in an alternate reality — or maybe it’s like living in a 2020 reality at this point.

RG: Right, right. Yeah, it certainly sounds that way.

DG: I think that the CMU and the prisons in the U.S. are especially bad for journalists. It’s extremely hard to get writing done and prison staff are extra retaliatory towards people like that. I think if Assange comes to the U.S., he can expect at least as bad as Marty, and it’s extremely frightening.

RG: Well, well, Dana, thank you for taking some time and joining us here on Deconstructed. Please do send our best to Marty, if and when you hear from him next.

DG: Thanks Ryan.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: That was Dana Gottesfeld, and that’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. Bureau Chief for the Intercept. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice: iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much!

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