The U.S. Justice Department is pressuring some British journalists to cooperate with the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is accused of publishing classified U.S. military documents leaked to him by a whistleblower.
The DOJ and the FBI are using “vague threats and pressure tactics” in their efforts to receive journalists’ help in building their case against Assange, according to Rolling Stones’ James Ball, who said he is among the journalists being pressured to cooperate. Ball is sought by the DOJ as someone who had briefly worked and lived with Assange, and was a whistleblower revealing what he described as “WikiLeaks’ own ethical lapses.”
The first attempt at receiving Ball’s cooperation in Assange’s prosecution came through London’s Metropolitan Police in December 2021, he wrote. He remained silent at the time, on the advice of counsel, but has since learned that more journalists have had police show up at their doorsteps in the last month. Former Guardian investigations editor David Leigh, transparency campaigner Heather Brooke and writer Andrew O’Hagan have all been approached by police.
Assange is facing an uphill legal battle over his potential extradition from London, where he has been held at the high-security Belmarsh Prison, to the U.S. over Wikileaks’ 2010 publication of top secret cables detailing war crimes committed by the U.S. government in the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention camp, Iraq and Afghanistan. The materials, which were leaked to him by then-U.S. soldier Chelsea Manning, expose instances of the CIA engaging in torture and rendition. Wikileaks also published a video showing the U.S. military gunning down civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists.
The Australian journalist would face 17 charges for receiving, possessing and communicating classified information to the public under the espionage act and one charge alleging a conspiracy to commit computer intrusion if he is extradited to the U.S., and could be sentenced to as many as 175 years in an American maximum security prison. Manning was convicted by the Obama administration’s DOJ in 2013 of violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses over the Cablegate leak.
Assange has been held at Belmarsh Prison since he was removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy four years ago for breaching jail conditions. He had sought asylum at the embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden over allegations he raped two women because Sweden would not promise him protection from extradition to the U.S. The investigations into the sexual assault allegations were eventually dropped.
Ball was first contacted about helping in the Assange case by a Metropolitan Police officer on the special investigations team, who had called him on a blocked number Ball failed to answer. He then received a “deliberately innocuous” email from the police.
“James, I would like to meet with you to ask if you would be willing to participate in a voluntary witness interview,” the officer wrote. “You are not under investigation for anything. It is a delicate matter that I am only able to discuss with you face to face.”
A lawyer spoke to police on Ball’s behalf and learned that U.S. and U.K. authorities were asking him to testify about a story he wrote on Assange’s relationship with Israel Shamir, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ball wrote, adding that, without his testimony, the “U.S. government cannot make much use of what I revealed in the article in a court of law.”
Ball said he was “more than willing” to write about his relationship with Assange in the media, but he does not believe “it should be used to help a vindictive prosecution of Assange.”
An officer told Ball’s lawyer that U.S. intelligence agencies claimed to have discovered that “‘James Ball’ doesn’t exist,” which Ball said was a false accusation as the name is his actual birth name that has never changed. After seeking further legal advice, Ball was told by multiple attorneys not to travel to the U.S. or speak out publicly over concerns about potential prosecution for his refusal to cooperate.
“That uneasy truce has come to an end,” Ball wrote. “As a journalist, I need to be able to travel to the U.S. to work, and I am doing so this week. Also, other journalists are now being contacted in relation to the case. Both together make continued silence impossible.”
Ball said the two years he avoided traveling to the U.S. on legal advice has “stifled stories I would otherwise have written for U.S. outlets. I had a real and credible fear of prosecution.”
Last year, the editors and publishers of U.S. and European news outlets that worked with Assange on the publication of excerpts from more than 250,000 documents he obtained in the Cablegate leak — The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País — wrote an open letter calling for the U.S. to end its prosecution of Assange.
The Obama administration elected against indicting Assange after Wikileaks published the cables in 2010 because it would have had to give the same treatment to journalists from other major news outlets that worked with Assange on the documents. But former President Trump’s DOJ later moved to indict Assange under the Espionage Act, and the Biden administration has continued to pursue his prosecution.
“If President Biden wants his Department of Justice to reverse the decision of the Obama DOJ on prosecuting Assange for his 2010 actions, he should at least explain it, and say why it is worth the silencing effect it is having on mainstream journalism,” Ball wrote.
“As it stands, Biden’s DOJ is threatening the U.S. media’s First Amendment rights, even as it claims to be standing up to a Supreme Court that is threatening many other rights. The hypocrisy should not stand,” he continued.
Assange’s case has received the attention of some lawmakers on Capitol Hill, with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., leading a letter to the DOJ demanding the charges against him be dropped. Lawmakers in Australia and other countries have also pushed the U.S. to end its prosecution of Assange. Pope Francis recently met with Assange’s wife, Stella, who said the Pope expressed support for her family’s situation and concern about Assange’s suffering.
The Trump administration CIA reportedly had plans to kill Assange over the publication of sensitive agency hacking tools known as “Vault 7,” which the agency said represented “the largest data loss in CIA history,” according to a 2021 Yahoo report. The agency had discussions “at the highest levels” of the administration about plans to assassinate Assange in London. Acting on orders from then-CIA director Mike Pompeo, the agency had also drawn up kill “sketches” and “options.”
The CIA had advanced plans to kidnap and rendition Assange and had made a political decision to charge him, according to the report.