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The U.S. is Putting Journalism on Trial: Interview with Kevin Gosztola

Left Voice spoke with journalist Kevin Gosztola about the political nature behind the trial of Julian Assange, the threat that extradition poses to international press freedom, and how the Biden administration has advanced other attacks on press freedom.

Samuel Karlin

February 28, 2024
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February 20-21 marked a step closer to the possible extradition of WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, to the United States. Many press freedom organizations and journalists continue to warn that extradition, in which Assange would be tried under the Espionage Act for publishing U.S. war crimes and state secrets, would mark an unprecedented blow to international press freedom.

Left Voice spoke with Kevin Gosztola, a journalist who has spent the past 15 years covering the U.S. campaign against WikiLeaks. He is the author of Guilty of Journalism: The political case against Julian Assange and curates The Dissenter newsletter which regularly covers attacks on whistleblowers and journalists. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

February 20-21 was Day X, marking hearings in the ongoing Assange Trial that press freedom advocates and journalists like yourself had long been warning of. What was the significance of these hearings?

Last week was possibly Julian Assange’s final hearing before a UK court. We don’t know what the decision will be or when it will be issued by the British High Court of Justice. What we do know is that Julian Assange and his legal team finally had an opportunity to go before a court and make key arguments about how extradition to the United States would violate his rights. 

The UK government already authorized extradition to the United States back in 2022 and since then the case has been going through an appeals process. Supporters of Assange, particularly his wife Stella who’s been leading the campaign, but also press freedom groups like Reporters Without Borders, Freedom of the Press Foundation, and other organizations have recognized that this day could mean that Julian Assange would be extradited to the U.S. and put on trial under the Espionage Act. Many legal avenues have now been exhausted. So, before the year is over, maybe next year, the United States could proceed onward with a trial against a publisher.

What were some of the most important takeaways from the content of the proceedings?

You can break it down based on the two days. The first day of proceedings, you have the defense (Assange’s team) presenting their grounds for appeal. What I took away from that was the emphasis on the exposure of state criminality on a massive and unprecedented scale. That was how it was described, and emphasizing the political motivation that they believe has driven this case. My book also argues this is a political case, and those who are prosecuting this case and the officials who have gone after WikiLeaks shows the political nature of the case.

Assange’s team stood in court before the judges, and very clearly articulated the history that has led up to this moment. How the Justice Department has not evenly applied the Espionage Act to Julian Assange, or in an impartial manner applied it to him. So, set aside the fact that a publisher has never been prosecuted before under the Espionage Act in this manner, which is a reason to deny extradition. You also have the fact that there is evidence based upon news reporting, that the Obama administration considered charging Julian Assange but chose not to because they believed if they did, they would have to charge journalists or staff at the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. They did not indict Julian Assange, but to their discredit, they did not formally shut down the grand jury investigation against WikiLeaks.

The Trump administration came in with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then the vengeful spirit of CIA director Mike Pompeo. We got to a point where Julian Assange was a priority for arrest and they decided to not be held back by First Amendment issues. They decided that they would go forward and charge him and they had him expelled from the Ecuadorian embassy. On April 11, 2019, he was arrested by British police who dragged him out. He was taken to Belmarsh prison, where he has been for almost five years.

The reason they did this is because they do not care about what prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act would do to freedom of the press. They only mean to assert control over the U.S. government secrets, and say that someone Assange deserves this prosecution because he dared to expose what the U.S. was doing in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, how diplomacy was being conducted, the false intelligence being used to keep Guantanamo prisoners indefinitely detained and so on and so forth.

So, that was a big part of the first day. I think that really hits home the political nature of the case against Assange. We saw evidence put on the record about the Trump administration sanctioning the International Criminal Court. The Trump administration, in particular, Mike Pompeo advocated for sanctions against anybody on the International Criminal Court who dared to investigate U.S. troops in Afghanistan for war crimes. That was happening at the same time that they ramped up this push and also as they indicted and went after Julian Assange. So the suppression of disclosures around wars also coincides with making sure that nobody from the U.S. military, nobody from the U.S. government is ever held accountable for their actions in war zones. 

That, to me, is, in so many words, a major part of what the defense presented to the High Court, I don’t know if it’s the most persuasive thing, I’m not sure it’s the thing that necessarily saves him from being extradited. Ultimately, it’s probably going to be a technicality in extradition law, or in the extradition treaty between the U.S. and the United Kingdom. But to me, as an outside observer, and a person who cares about journalism and freedom of the press, I’m thinking about the fact that this is a person who published information that exposed U.S. conduct, and then faced retaliation as a result.

Now you go to the next day, and there’s not so much to say about it when you look at the government’s case, and the reason why they say extradition should proceed. You just hear more of the same old statements that have been peppered throughout these extradition proceedings. “Julian Assange is not a journalist,” for example. “WikiLeaks is not a legitimate publisher,” or “WikiLeaks is out to steal information.” They really increased the sharpness of their rhetoric, saying that they believe Julian Assange was working with Chelsea Manning to steal documents, arguing that it wasn’t even just leaking, that it was stealing. You could really tell from how they were going before the court that they wanted to remove any idea that this was news gathering, but make it seem like this is a hacker. 

Now, the facts and even their own indictment doesn’t truly reflect the kind of language they tended to use on that second day. But this is the picture they were trying to paint for the High Court in an effort to salvage their case. Still, I think they ran into some trouble because on the second day, they got caught. Because there is no assurance that has been given to make certain the death penalty isn’t imposed during a trial. And extradition law in the UK explicitly bans extraditing someone to a country where there’s a risk that the death penalty could be imposed.

You’ve been covering the trial against Assange and WikiLeaks consistently for 15 years, but were denied access to the proceedings. There were also examples of reporters on the ground facing reporting obstacles. Talk about some of the barriers journalists faced and why this is such a problem.

For the first time in my commitment to covering this case, I was denied the ability to report on the proceedings before the British High Court of Justice. I asked for remote access. I was denied access and not offered any reason why, along with every international journalist who asked for access. They wasted our time. This virtual feed for journalists was available widely during the COVID pandemic. And then even when people started traveling again and restrictions had relaxed. They were still allowing international journalists to request access and they were granting it.

I made my argument of why it would be in the interest of open justice and they responded to none of the reasons that I provided. I just received a boilerplate answer that indicated, no matter what, unless I was in the jurisdiction of England, or Wales, I was not going to have access. So if I had traveled to England, and opened up a computer in a cafe in London, they would have allowed me to join and follow the court proceedings. I could also try to go to court and cover it in person. But what was apparent to me is this restriction was intended to control the coverage of the proceedings.

By not allowing international journalists, it means that the only journalists covering the proceedings are those that can potentially be punished for violating rules or guidelines imposed by the court. If you were in the United States or Australia, where international journalists were barred from joining proceedings, you can’t be punished for doing something that the court doesn’t like. So it all came down to viewing journalists as a potential threat to order in the court.

When I consider that this is possibly the biggest press freedom case in the 21st century, you can’t ignore how journalists were being treated. It really appears that the court was stifling coverage of a high profile case.

What are the different scenarios of where the case might go from here? What is the best possible outcome?

The best possible outcome would be that the Justice Department drops their charges right now. And we do not even have to wait for the High Court of Justice to rule on this, it just becomes moot, it’s withdrawn, and we never find out what they actually thought of the evidence or the arguments that were presented. I suppose that would be unfortunate and I would feel disappointed that I didn’t get their reaction, but we could also be spared another ruling that fails to grasp the gravity of what the U.S. government is trying to do to Julian Assange and freedom of the press.

Since I don’t expect that to happen, what would be a range of scenarios that we could anticipate would be that the High Court rules in favor of all or a few of the grounds for appeal. It’s possible we get a ruling which only considers one of the several grounds for appeal that were argued. For example, we could have a hearing where it’s just about the risk that Assange could face the death penalty at a U.S. trial. It could be that minor. Remember, we already had an appeal, where we saw the U.S. argue, or have to convince the High Court that the District Court was wrong to rule that it would be oppressive for mental health reasons to extradite Julian Assange to the United States. It’s a little confusing because it’s been going on for so long.

So the High Court of Justice can grant an appeal on one or more of the grounds of appeal that have been put before them. If it’s denied, Assange has no more avenues in the UK legal system, but he can submit a petition to the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR) that would most likely delay extradition. The European Court could decide to accept the petition. But if it’s rejected, everything’s over, he’s coming to the United States for a trial.

If they accept it, it could be several years before we get a conclusion, a hearing, some kind of decision from the EHCR. And that’s why I emphasize that the outcome should be a political one, where officials recognize the pressure that’s being applied, including from the Australian Government. Remarkably, Julian Assange’s own country, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and the Australian Parliament are backing a motion that passed before the hearing which clearly said to the U.S. government “drop these charges now.”

I see the growing institutional opposition to this trial as a testament to those of us who have long been building support for Assange and convincing people that this is an attack on press freedom. Is there anything you find especially important to say to anyone who might still be skeptical that it’s important to advocate for Assange’s freedom?

The few points that I would emphasize in defense of Julian Assange and against this political prosecution is the fact that it endangers international journalism. Effectively what we’re saying is, if the United States government is able to put Julian Assange on trial (which is what extradition would mean), that’s already a setback for press freedom. But the actual trial in the United States would be an even greater blow against freedom of the press. You would see, I think, a number of countries decide that they would like to imitate the United States, or at least take actions. And then they could point to the United States in order to justify attacking journalists. This would endanger war correspondents or international correspondents that people who are living in particular countries, but are not citizens of those countries would be in the most trouble. For example, Julian Assange is Australian, but he’s in the UK. And I think the fact that he’s not in Australia where his government can protect him, it’s pretty obvious that that has been a key reason why this has been prolonged.

Take it to any regional power like Russia, China, Turkey, Israel, Brazil — if it’s ever run by someone like Bolsonaro again — just go down the list of countries that are able to throw their weight around. And you could see that they might want to follow suit, and defend their state secrets by putting journalists in prison domestically in the United States. I think the reason why people should see this as not just about Julian Assange, and part of a larger struggle, is the fact that this case is one that threatens to blow a hole in the First Amendment. And it’s in a national security context. But we know that the Justice Department won’t stop there. In other areas, they see online journalism, and the way in which nearly anybody can be a journalist now, they recognize that there needs to be some effort on their part, to impose limits, through prosecutions, so that people are discouraged from certain news gathering.

This serves the national security agencies and the U.S. military to have this pursued aggressively. But there are other ways in which the Justice Department can bring cases against people who engage in journalism. It won’t stop with Julian Assange. They’ve gone down a road where they are playing this role of deciding who is and is not a journalist. Even if they defy their own criteria for what is a reporter, who is a member of the press. They’ve proven that they can redefine somebody just so that they’re able to get away with bringing criminal charges against a person. And if that’s not frightening, or upsetting to people, that the Justice Department may be able to create ways to target journalists and be empowered after Assange, then I don’t know what to say to convince people that something has to be done to rein in the abuses of power by the Justice Department.

Along with covering this trial, you’ve covered many other attacks on press freedom which have happened under the Biden administration, including the U.S.-backed massacre of journalists in Gaza. This feels important when we consider that Biden is presenting himself as a bulwark against authoritarianism. What do you see as some of the most dangerous attacks on press freedom that have developed under Biden?

As you set it up there internationally, we see that the Israeli government has had a policy of making it extremely difficult for journalists to access Gaza. There’s been pressure to lift what’s kind of a blockade on the press. It’s been left up to Palestinian journalists who have, for lack of a better word, been exterminated by the Israeli military. I don’t think there’s any other way to view it, because we have evidence that dozens upon dozens of journalists are just being outright targeted by the military. There’s been protests by press freedom groups. And yet, millions of dollars keep going to that. So along with the great death toll among children and women and incredible civilian casualties, we see journalists being a key group of victims in this assault. I think it should shock people as much as the destruction of hospitals.

Domestically, there are two key examples to raise, and why it is clear that with Biden, it won’t stop at Assange. The Justice Department just recently indicted a journalist named Timothy Burke for scouring the internet for desirable content. He had access to an unsecured live stream and uncovered an interview that Tucker Carlson had done with Kanye West that exposed West as a rather big antisemite. When the interview played, Fox News cleaned it up to make him look a little better. And then it was uncovered that these were the segments that they had left on the cutting room floor. It got widespread media attention. The Justice Department says that Burke is not a journalist, and they’re bringing these unprecedented extraordinary charges, acting like he’s some economic cyber criminal, and they threatened to seize his laptops, computers, computer towers, iPhones, and hard drives and confiscate them if he is found guilty, which would mean the loss of reporters notes, information that were part of his news work.

He was a video person who led the department at Daily Beast. He was at Gawker, he was part of an organization called Deadspin. And this is incredible, because the reason they’re bringing the case is because they deny the reality that he is a journalist. So they believe that if they just say he’s not a journalist, they can go after him and claim that he wasn’t involved in news gathering, even though the indictment says that that’s what he was doing. He was looking for things desirable from livestreams.

And then I’ll conclude very quickly with this other example of Charles Littlejohn, an IRS whistleblower who provided Donald Trump’s tax returns to the New York Times. This was something that directly benefited Joe Biden’s campaign when he was going up against Donald Trump in 2020. It came out and they were using it to fundraise. And they tried to harness the revelations in a way that distinguished Joe Biden and showed he was a “working class” presidential candidate, but then look at Donald Trump, look at all the tax dodging, look at how he is the candidate of wealthy individuals or rich elites. 

Then, once elected, Biden’s Justice Department pursued one of the harshest sentences ever for somebody who exposed tax information from the IRS. They asked the court to treat Littlejohn like he had violated the Espionage Act. They raised prior cases like the case against NSA whistleblower Reality Winner, national security whistleblowers like John Kiriakou, and others that have been prosecuted with the Espionage Act. So the hammer came down on Charles Littlejohn and he got five years in prison for revealing information that was in the public interest. And that was under Joe Biden.

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Samuel Karlin

Samuel Karlin is a socialist with a background in journalism. He mainly writes for Left Voice about U.S. imperialism and international class struggle.

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