I turned on the news yesterday and there was Attorney General Merrick Garland somewhere in Ukraine, talking about being part of the effort to prosecute war crimes charges against the Russian invaders. Coincidentally, the night before seeing our chief prosecutor in Ukraine, I had finished reading Nils Melzer’s recently-published book, the Trial of Julian Assange, which is an eloquent and devastating exposé of endemic political corruption deep within the state apparatuses of the US, the UK, Sweden, and other countries.
The unmistakable fact is that Merrick Garland’s Justice Department is still actively pursuing the extradition of Julian Assange, in order for him to face charges under the Espionage Act and spend the rest of his life in prison. This is the same Espionage Act that the Nixon administration considered using against Daniel Ellsberg, for leaking what became known as the Pentagon Papers, which were published in the New York Times and elsewhere.
Unlike Ellsberg, Assange did not himself steal, hack, or otherwise make off with secret documents that exposed US war crimes. He only facilitated the leaking of these documents, and the eventual publication of redacted parts of them by Wikileaks, the New York Times, and most of the rest of the world’s media. But unlike with Ellsberg, the government is going ahead with prosecuting someone — a journalist and editor named Julian Assange — under the Espionage Act.
The Espionage Act is one of these laws that is on the books but is not generally considered particularly useful by prosecutors because the law is so blatantly an outrageous, draconian relic of the Red Scare, an example of the most authoritarian responses to the militant labor movement of the post-World War 1 period. Enforcing the Espionage Act makes a complete mockery of all of the most fundamental democratic institutions. It’s obviously in total conflict with the First Amendment and many other elements of the Bill of Rights. The possibility that other journalists who expose war crimes might go to prison for the rest of their lives for violating the Espionage Act is a terrifying prospect. But Garland’s prosecution of a journalist for exposing war crimes under the Espionage Act continues.
While Garland makes plans to help prosecute war crimes committed by Russian soldiers, the war crimes committed by US forces in Bagram, Kama Ado, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Fallujah, Haditha, Baghdad, and on and on and on, go almost entirely unprosecuted and unpunished, and generally unacknowledged, except when the media spotlight is temporarily impossible to ignore, and a few crocodile tears must be shed to maintain appearances. But even while occasional noises are made by officials to half-heartedly acknowledge some of the shortcomings of the US military invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, the person most responsible for bringing the knowledge of these shortcomings to the global public is being prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917.