Court sketch of Julian Assange from January 4, 2021 (Image: Elizabeth Cook/PA via AP)

With a new president in the White House — unless Q is right and it’s all a deep fake — what chance is there that the draconian prosecution of Julian Assange can be stopped?

There was never much chance that Donald Trump would pardon the WikiLeaks founder in his final days of pardon frenzy. But it was worth a go, and his global network of supporters — from Pamela Anderson to Noam Chomsky, good lord — put on a full court press.

But the trouble with appealing to Trump was always the question of what to appeal to. His personal “anti-establishment” stance? That was always a pose. He opposed getting entangled in foreign wars (except when he hired John Bolton and Mike Pompeo) but he loved US global swagger and an air strike or two. He had no commitment to free speech or Jeffersonian democracy, having gone to war against the protective section 230 of the Communications Act, which absolves carriers and sites of libel responsibility for content.

To a degree, these general arguments were cover, as far as Trump went. The main hope was that he would pardon Assange out of a mix of appeal to his base, and sheer gonzo perversity. Hence the alleged lean on him by Mitch McConnell, to the effect that any Assange pardon would further lose him support among Republican senators in his upcoming impeachment trial.

Trump had sold Assange to his base — “I love WikiLeaks” — but Trump has a gangster logic. Ultimately, burying Assange in a supermax would have been tying up loose ends from the great Russian caper.

A Trump pardon was always a moving target. But the prospects of relief from a Biden administration aren’t rosy either. The Obama administration discontinued prosecution of Assange for “Cablegate” and other email logs, both because they’d already convicted someone, Chelsea Manning, for the leaks, and because the wider prosecution would have had a “chilling” effect on standard press activity.

That’s the official reason anyway. The US might have been mindful of what other revelations and absurdities a trial might produce.

The non-prosecution may in part have come from Obama’s somewhat distanced relationship to the myth of US beneficence. A Kenyan-Hawaiian mentored by a black communist journalist and part of the activist left for at least a few years, Obama is as distanced from uncritical American exceptionalism as his enemies say he is.

But that ain’t Joe Biden. Joe was, and is, an all-American boy who, by his own account, never took a strong view on Vietnam. He supported the Iraq War, and suggested an imperious partitioning of that country when it became a disaster. And so on. He’s pre-boomer, just, a child of JFK and the Beach Boys rather than Dylan and Nixon; of a sunny America, dominant, not divided against itself and the hope of the world. All myth, but a compelling one if you lived through it, and weren’t overburdened by intellectual curiosity.

Biden has no love for Assange, describing him during the Cablegate releases as a “high-tech terrorist”, publishing being the same as bombing — an example of the sort of American patriotism whose essence is exactly contrary to the country’s constitution.

That doesn’t augur well, given Biden’s description of the Capitol Hill insurgents as domestic terrorists, and the push by many mainstream liberals for new bespoke terrorism crimes to charge them with.

That sense of outrage sketches the limits of such liberals’ understanding of their own country. America may make mistakes, but it can never be thought of as wrong at its root. Since the Cablegate etc archives by their sheer volume made exactly that imputation — which was WikiLeaks core strategy — the wound is raw.

But the Assange case throws up problems for the Biden administration that it can’t easily ignore. Chief among them is the draconian pile-on of the multiple charges against him, and the accumulated 175 years potential incarceration, applied by the Pompeo wing of the Trump administration over the signature of the addled Donald. That fit in with the “kill them and steal their oil” swagger. It’s not a good look for a centrist liberal administration. It could perhaps get away with a single charge of 15 years or so. But the de facto death penalty is both a hard thing to sell and also difficult to climb back from, to a “moderate” position of 50 years or so.

Presumably a renewed push to have the prosecution discontinued must now focus on this contradiction. Trying to second-guess Trump is over. Now it’s a simpler matter of confronting a liberal administration with its own principles, and pushing that simple message as hard as possible.

That is a campaign that should be, must be, a prime cause for the mainstream media to push. The New York Times, The Guardian, the rest — they could, in the past, have put it down to having no love for Trump. They do not have that excuse now.

But nor will they leap to the barricades immediately. Assange, and many other left causes, are about to take some time in the shade, as centrist progressives take their moment in the sun.

The Assange/WikiLeaks cause has been a fundamental dividing line between the left and progressives as distinct formations. WikiLeaks’ full bore assault on the American empire occurred at the same time as progressives began their transition to the ruling class, and became more tuned to gender/race/identity matters. The sex crime accusations in Sweden made that division substantial, defining: a progressive elite, many based in the mainstream media, had license to turn away from the destabilising threat that WikiLeaks represented. (No one can deny that Wikileaks’s too-clever-by-half role in the 2016 election didn’t help matters.)

Finally, several of the key players in the UK-US papers working with WikiLeaks on Cablegate were crazed narcissists who started a war on Assange that some have continued to this day. Only Pompeo’s draconian extravaganza finally shamed them into taking a stand. Now what is needed is an unequivocal and united stand against the continued prosecution of Assange, who is being charged with espionage on the basis of the standard practice of investigative journalism. Something on the order of a common, clear-the-front/home-page sort of statement on as many news sites as possible.

The operant contradictions within liberalism will become live only if they are made visible; they can persist indefinitely in silence. Such a move would be part of the ongoing grassroots global campaign — but it’s something big like this that would make it possible to ;end the malarkey, by giving the administration moral public pressure it can respond to.

As always, the key responsibility for this rests with The Guardian, which was WikiLeaks’ primary partner in Cablegate and beyond. The current leadership has been ambivalent and sluggish as regards the campaign (even though several associates who worked on Cablegate are said to have avoided US travel for the past 10 years). It needs to step up.

But there’s no reason this can’t be kicked off by the editors of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. The cause is global, but Assange is a Melbourne boy, and so it’s a matter of solidarity and responsibility. Indeed, it should be a privilege to have the running on it, but that’s probably pushing it.

In any case, with Trump gone until his ’24 reelection — imagine what that will feel like — a whole new chapter in the campaign has begun, with new possibilities. And new threats. In any case, there is now a new focus for the campaign: to hold progressive liberalism up to its own standards and principles.

How should the media be covering Julian Assange? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.

Peter Fray

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