A group of civil liberties and human rights organizations are making an urgent appeal to Attorney General Merrick Garland to drop the criminal prosecution of Julian Assange in light of what it called a “shocking” Yahoo News story recounting how in 2017 senior CIA officials plotted to kidnap the WikiLeaks founder and even discussed possibly assassinating him.
The groups have previously asked Garland to abandon the Assange case on the grounds that his prosecution for publishing classified documents would be a threat to First Amendment press freedoms. But the groups said in a new letter sent Monday morning that the Yahoo News story disclosing “alarming discussions” within the CIA and the Trump White House about targeting Assange gave their request “new urgency.”
“The Yahoo News story only heightens our concerns about the motivations behind this prosecution and about the dangerous precedent that is being set,” states a letter to Garland signed by 24 organizations, including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA and PEN America.
The Justice Department declined to comment.
A British judge, Vanessa Baraitser, earlier this year denied a U.S. Justice Department request to extradite Assange to face trial in the United States after concluding he would be at risk of suicide in a U.S. prison. Although the indictment and the request to extradite him was made during the Trump administration, Biden’s Justice Department has continued to support efforts to bring Assange to trial in the United States. Attorney General Merrick Garland has appealed the British ruling, and a hearing on the case is scheduled to be heard by a U.K. court next week.
Expressing their disappointment in Garland’s decision to pursue the case despite its potential impact on press freedoms, “and in light of the shocking new reporting on the government’s conduct in this case, we respectfully urge you to drop the ongoing appeal of Judge Baraitser’s ruling and to dismiss the indictment of Mr. Assange,” the groups wrote.
The Yahoo News story, based on the accounts of 30 former U.S. national security and and intelligence officials, reported that then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo ordered aggressive new measures to target Assange in early 2017 after WikiLeaks published documents describing the agency’s sensitive hacking tools, known as Vault 7, used to penetrate digital networks and devices around the world.
Pompeo publicly branded WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service,” and the CIA internally developed plans to abduct Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, eight former U.S. officials told Yahoo News. The kidnapping proposals raised deep concerns among Trump White House lawyers and prompted them to prod the Justice Department to accelerate an indictment of Trump.
There were also preliminary discussions within the CIA and Trump White House about the feasibility of assassinating Assange, although the idea was never pursued. The proposed abduction plot also didn’t go forward, but the Yahoo News story confirmed the agency took other steps to surveil and try to disrupt WikiLeaks, including monitoring the communications of Assange associates throughout Europe and obtaining secret audio and video feeds of Assange’s meetings and conversations inside the Ecuadorian Embassy.
The CIA has declined to comment on the Yahoo News report. Pompeo also declined comment prior to the story’s publication but afterward told Megyn Kelly in a podcast interview that the sources who spoke to Yahoo News should be criminally prosecuted for disclosing classified information.
When asked about the Yahoo News article, Pompeo admitted to Kelly that “pieces of it are true,” but he insisted that the CIA never planned operations that would have violated U.S. law.
Assange faces criminal charges in the United States for trying to help Chelsea Manning crack the password for a classified computer network and for publishing multiple classified documents allegedly harmful to U.S. national security in violation of the World War I-era Espionage Act.
The civil liberties and press freedom groups have argued that the prosecution for publishing secret material infringes on the First Amendment freedoms of news organizations, many of which have frequently published classified information, ranging from the Pentagon Papers to details of the Bush administration’s secret warrantless wiretapping program.
But when indicting Assange, Justice Department officials argued that Assange acted differently than professional journalists, choosing to publish material that included the names of sensitive sources for the U.S. government overseas, thereby endangering their lives.
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