With pressure mounting on the Biden administration, its pursuit of Assange was becoming both damaging and untenable

Today, in a surprise development likely weeks in the planning, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was able to leave the United Kingdom for the first time in more than a decade after reaching a plea deal with the US government.


  • Emma Shortis

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University

In the past several months, momentum has been building towards this moment. There was increasing bipartisan support in both the Australian parliament and the US Congress for the Australian citizen’s release. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has made repeated statements on his behalf, and in April, US President Joe Biden said he was “considering” a request from Australia to drop its prosecution of Assange.

This all contributed to the sense the matter might be resolved before Assange’s final UK hearing date, previously scheduled for July 9 and 10. The timing of the deal is also a welcome prelude to Albanese’s visit to Washington next week.

Such a resolution, however, was not inevitable. And it is not over yet.

A relentless, years-long pursuit

The United States’ pursuit of Assange has seemingly been relentless since WikiLeaks posted hundreds of thousands of classified military documents in 2010. It wasn’t until 2019 under the then President Donald Trump, however, that he was finally indicted on 17 counts of violating the 1917 Espionage Act.

The charges against Assange were not just considered unprecedented, they raised significant First Amendment concerns.

The apparent desire to punish Assange for the embarrassment caused by the leaks – and to deter others from taking similar action – was apparently so strong the CIA allegedly discussed plans to kidnap and even assassinate Assange during the Trump administration, according to US media reports.

In the UK courts, the US Department of Justice had argued Assange should be subject to US law and extradited to face trial for his actions. However, as a non-citizen, there were questions over whether he could rely on the legal protections afforded by those same laws – particularly the constitutional right to free speech.

The successful extradition of Assange could have set a precedent by which the US could pursue journalists anywhere in the world for publishing information it did not like, while potentially denying them their fundamental First Amendment rights.

In a crucial election year in the US that President Joe Biden is framing as an existential fight for the soul of US democracy, the continued pursuit of Assange was as inconsistent as it was ultimately untenable. Viewed from the outside, it appeared the case was causing the Biden administration international embarrassment.

Biden has been careful to maintain an appropriate distance between the presidency and the Department of Justice. He came into office promising to restore faith in the rule of law following the Trump years, and has meticulously avoided any appearance of interference in the department’s work as it has investigated and indicted his predecessor.

Assange’s case, however, is wholly different to the charges on which Trump has been indicted. It is certainly possible to interpret Biden’s comment that he was “considering” dropping the charges as a gentle public rebuke of the Department of Justice’s pursuit of the case, given its global implications for a free press.

Broader implications for the alliance

The continued pursuit of Assange was also becoming problematic in the context of Australia’s alliance with the US. That relationship is always described as one based on shared democratic values, in contrast to what Biden has repeatedly framed as the coercive and repressive instincts of “authoritarian” powers.

The decision by the US to pursue a citizen of one of its closest allies for the publication of information, while simultaneously condemning authoritarian states for doing much the same, was both hypocritical and damaging to American standing in the world.

In the context of growing concern in Australia about the terms of the AUKUS submarine deal and the Australian government’s willingness to go “all-in” with the US militarily, the continued pursuit of Assange gave the impression that Australia’s most important security ally did not take its concerns seriously. Australia appeared simply to be snapping at America’s heels.

It also added to the sense that the “capital-A Alliance” between the two countries was increasingly dominated by security concerns, often at the expense of democratic accountability.

Because of the international campaign to free Assange and the support it received in both Australian and American democratic institutions, there appears to be have been a reconsideration of this focus on security interests over democratic values.

It should be noted, though, that the US didn’t drop its prosecution in the end; Assange has agreed to plead guilty to a felony charge of violating the Espionage Act, which in itself may set a concerning precedent for press freedom.

And the fact this saga happened at all – and that it has taken more than a decade to get close to resolution – should prompt deep reflection on the values that underpin both Australia’s relationship with its most important security ally and the United States’ role in the world.

The Conversation

Emma Shortis is Senior Researcher in International and Security Affairs at The Australia Institute, an independent think tank.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. View in full here.