View from The Hill: Hero or villain, Julian Assange’s cause crossed the political divide

The Julian Assange affair stands at the awkward intersection of a country’s right to keep secret national security information and the public’s right to know what is being done by a supposedly accountable government.


  • Michelle Grattan

    Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

The actions of Assange and WikiLeaks in publishing a massive trove of classified United States defence documents and other intelligence information sharply divided opinion.

His critics have insisted this was not just a breach of the law but irresponsible and potentially put lives at risk. For this school of thought, Assange was and remains a villain.

Donald Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, posted on social media after Assange’s plea deal: “Julian Assange endangered the lives of our troops in a time of war and should have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law”.

Assange supporters, on the other hand, have said the WikiLeaks action was in the public interest – that people should be able to be informed, especially when disclosures, as in this case, reveal incidents of bad behaviour by the military.

For this camp, Assange is a beacon for the free flow of information that shines needed light on dark places.

The Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance said in a Tuesday statement: “The stories published by WikiLeaks and other outlets more than a decade ago were clearly in the public interest. The charges by the US sought to curtail free speech, criminalise journalism and send a clear message to future whistleblowers and publishers that they too will be punished”.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will be given a good deal of credit for Assange’s eventual release. His government’s representations have been at a high level and sustained. The work by Australian diplomats has been intense.

Moreover, Assange’s freedom – which still requires some legal formalities – comes less than a year after the government secured the release of another Australian, Cheng Lei, who had been jailed in China.

But huge efforts to advocate on Assange’s behalf were also made by many others across the Australian parliament and community.

His cause has created unlikely allies. We saw this most obviously last year when a delegation of federal parliamentarians, including Liberal, Labor, National, Greens and independent members, collectively lobbied on his behalf in Washington.

Assange’s supporters differ in their views about what he did (and how he has behaved in the years since). But there had come to be a general belief, as the PM repeatedly said, that “enough is enough”.

It’s a version of what’s a “fair go”, and relates, in part, to how long he’s been incarcerated and what’s happened to other players in this saga.

WikiLeaks was the publisher of the documents, not the source of the leak. The leaker, former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, had her sentence commuted in 2017 by then-President Barack Obama after a number of years in jail.

The media outlets which published the documents did not suffer penalties.

Assange ended up in a stand-off with the American authorities as he fought extradition from the United Kingdom.

The US Justice Department remained inflexible. President Joe Biden, it was said, would not interfere with that department.

But, according to the Americans, a potential plea deal has apparently been on the table for a long time.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald last August, United States ambassador Caroline Kennedy pointed the way. She said: “it’s not really a diplomatic issue, but I think that there absolutely could be a resolution”.

Asked whether US authorities and Assange could strike a deal to reduce the charges against him in exchange for his pleading guilty, Kennedy said: “That’s up to the Justice Department.”

On the Assange side, there was reluctance to attempt a plea deal. Assange did not want to risk going to the US, fearing what might happen if he did.

In April, however, Biden gave a further hint the representations might be being favourably considered.

A compromise was eventually reached that Assange go to a US federal court in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, a US commonwealth in the Pacific, where the deal is set to be consummated.

For Assange, with a US presidential election fast approaching that could see a possible second Trump presidency, it was time to make a deal. There was a real danger of things getting worse for him.

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. View in full here.