More than three years after Julian Assange and WikiLeaks began publishing classified documents provided to the organization by Pfc. Bradley Manning, the court marshal of the young Army soldier ended on Friday with an emotional plea from his lawyer that the judge consider his client’s actions through the eyes of a young man deeply affected by the loss of human life he witnessed in the material he made public.
"Is Pfc. Manning somebody who is a traitor who has no loyalty to this country or the flag and wanted to systematically harvest and download as much information as possible for his true employer, WikiLeaks?" Coombs asked the court. "Is that what evidence shows? Or is he a young, naïve, but good-intentioned soldier who had human life and his humanist beliefs center to his decisions — whose sole focus was, ‘maybe I just can make a difference, maybe make a change?’"
Meanwhile a world away, Assange, the man who built the platform that landed Manning in a Fort Meade courtroom, is desperately hoping that the court buys the latter interpretation of the single largest disclosure of classified information in the history of the United States. It was Assange who enabled Manning to broadcast his revelations to the world, and in so doing the Army private made WikiLeaks a household name. The same actions exposed WikiLeaks to the full wrath of the U.S. government, and Assange’s fear that he may one day be dragged before an American judge has led him to take refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
With Manning now facing the possibility of life in prison on the most serious charge he faces — aiding the enemy — it has become all too clear that Assange feels that he too is on trial in that Maryland courtroom. In a conference call with reporters Friday afternoon, Assange trotted out his lawyer to make the opening statement, one that reflected his client’s fears and hopes for what might transpire in the Manning trial. "It seems in the closing arguments that the government has gone out of its way to highlight the role of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in publishing truthful information," Barry Pollack, a lawyer for Assange, said while noting that the Justice Department is currently investigating the organization. "The government’s treatment of Mr. Manning reinforces for us sadly that Assange is in severe legal jeopardy in the United States," Pollack added.
The conviction of Manning, in other words, would also be a conviction of Assange. Most importantly, if Manning is found guilty on the charge of aiding the enemy, it would strike a deep blow at the stated reason for WikiLeaks’ existence. From the beginning, it was supposed to be a force for good, standing up for the little guy in the face of immense state power and terror. A court ruling that claims to prove that WikiLeaks in the pursuit of that goal in fact ended up aiding al Qaeda would hand a huge rhetorical victory to WikiLeaks’ opponents.
Assange understands this. "During the case we heard testimony that none of the material that WikiLeaks published was of tactical significance," he said Friday. "There is no allegation by the United States government that even a single person has come to harm as a result of WikiLeaks publications. This is really a case that is part of the Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers, which should be rephrased and understood to be part of the Obama administration’s war on journalism."
There is now a palpable sense that Assange sees his dream of inspiring a revolution in journalism as slipping away. Sarah Ellison, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, asked Assange what legal advice he received prior to sending a representative to meet and assist NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and how WikiLeaks had reached that decision when no similar journalistic outlet took similar action. "Thank you for that question Sarah Ellison of Vanity Fair," Assange replied in an acid tone. "I can see precisely what you are trying to do. I find it disgraceful that a fellow journalist would behave in such conduct of trying to embroil other journalists into some kind of aiding and abetting scenario for allegedly helping to protect a journalistic source."
By highlighting that no other journalistic outlet had decided to aid Snowden in WikiLeaks’ manner, Ellison touched a nerve with Assange, who wants nothing more than to have his activist methods of aggressively disclosing documents and providing legal aid to the government workers who make them available accepted as a new form of journalism. But that has not happened. Establishment media outlets have turned on Assange, and as Ellison’s question illustrates, prestige publications aren’t keen to have their brands tainted by an association with that pale Australian hacker. Vanity Fair would never send a lawyer to get Snowden out of a pinch with the Russian government. Why would you, Julian?
Already isolated in the Ecuadorean embassy where he has been hiding for a year, Assange fears becoming a complete outcast, which may end up having important legal ramifications for him. Assange’s only defense in publishing classified documents is that he is a journalist protected by his rights to freedom of speech. When journalists refuse to associate him and call his activities something other than journalism, that argument begins to fall part, as does the legal justification for his organization’s existence. A Manning conviction would only alienate him further.
That’s why Assange will probably be going to bed tonight in his embassy room a frightened man.