Dylann Hanrahan ’25
For some, Julian Assange is a hero, a seeker of truth and a face of democracy. For others, he is a traitor and deserves to be punished. Julian Assange is a 52-year-old hacker from Australia. In 2006, he built Wikileaks, a website where anonymous whistleblowers could upload information that he would publish. The original goal of WikiLeaks was to expose corruption and boost transparency as it acted under no government or specific location. WikiLeaks gained attention in 2010 when Chelsea Manning, at the time a 22-year-old intelligence analyst in Iraq, sent hundreds of thousands of classified documents from military computers to WikiLeaks. The information in this leak contained brutal details of the gruesome nature of war. The Pentagon reportedly feared for the safety of troops, stating that “our enemies will mine this information looking for insights into how we operate, cultivate sources, and react in combat situations, even the capability of our equipment.” One leak I was particularly interested in was from the Department of State for the Embassy in Belgium. This revealed that the US attempted to pressure Belgium into taking some of the detainees from Guantanamo Bay to gain political prominence in Europe. This also contained Israel intelligence leaks, which CBS News referred to in 2011 as indicating that “Israel intentionally kept Gaza on [the] brink of economic collapse.”
After these leaks in 2010 and 2011, the Pentagon was livid. Around this time, public opinion on Julian Assange was mixed as he was praised by many for revealing “uncomfortable truths” or instead being a “treasonist” who damaged America’s security interests. Ironically, Hilary Clinton said that “the United States strongly condemns the illegal disclosure of classified information. There have been examples in history in which official conduct has been made public in the name of exposing wrongdoing or misdeeds. This is not one of those cases.” In 2012, Assange was in London with the possibility that he might be extradited to Sweden for an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations. Assange believed that the UK and the US were working together with Sweden to try and export him to the US to face trial. Assange had a strong inclination that he was being followed. He decided to seek asylum in the Embassy of Ecuador in London. Once inside, he technically would no longer be in the UK, a form of political asylum. Assange would then stay and live in this embassy for seven years.
From inside the embassy, he continued to run WikiLeaks and was outspoken on his hatred for Hillary Clinton. He attempted to damage her presidential campaign by publishing emails taken from Clinton’s campaign manager and the Democratic Party. This quickly caused many of his “progressive” supporters to turn on him as they supported Clinton. Then, in 2017, during Trump’s presidency, Assange leaked CIA documents containing cyberwarfare strategies. Trump, who had once exclaimed “I love WikiLeaks,” now hated WikiLeaks.
After seven years locked in Ecuador’s embassy, Assange was kicked out and immediately arrested. The original investigation into the allegations from Sweden was dropped, but the UK was able to hold him in jail because the US had asked for him to be extradited. The UK will adhere to this, but in the interim holds him at the high-security Belmarsh prison, where he remains today. In his indictment, there are 18 counts against him, amounting to a maximum of 175 years in prison. The indictment reads, “Assange… communicated the documents containing names of those sources to all the world by publishing them on the internet.”
Assange could represent a very fine line for journalists, as many rely on anonymity with their sources to convey classified information on the grounds of reporting. The fact that he was charged with publishing the information should worry the journalism community, as journalists are protected under the same free speech laws as everyone else.
I looked for updates on Assange and found that former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer said that Assange “has been deliberately isolated and, I would say, persecuted – not prosecuted, but persecuted – by several democratic states in a concerted effort to eventually break his will.” Reuters reported on Oct. 19 that Virginia Raggi, former Rome mayor, stated, “Assange is a symbol of free speech which is essential for any genuine democracy,” Julian Assange is being held in a high-security prison and has not set foot in a court. If extradited to the United States, he risks a sentence of up to 175 years in a maximum-security prison. WikiLeaks still runs today as a beacon of free speech, or a threat to democracy, whichever you prefer.