Why is Biden Prosecuting Assange for Telling the Truth about Afghanistan? | Opinion

As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, in the midst of a wrenching reassessment of our endless wars, we cannot ignore the U.S. government's persecution of those who revealed the brutality of the Afghan war and the lies on which it was founded.

The Biden administration is stubbornly pursuing the extradition of Julian Assange, who exposed the corrupt motives and doomed policies behind the War on Terror. This unprecedented political prosecution poses a grave threat to truth telling and freedom of the press.

Commentators across the media have drawn parallels between the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul and the fall of Saigon in 1975. Four years before the exit from Vietnam, The New York Times, The Washington Post and 17 other newspapers published the Pentagon Papers, a classified archive showing that U.S. intervention in Vietnam had been wrong from the start, and was prolonged for decades through deliberate deception.

One of us, Daniel Ellsberg, released those files. Fifty years after his case was dismissed due to governmental criminal misconduct, the American bombing and occupation of Vietnam is viewed near-unanimously as an ill-fated policy whose pursuit was morally wrong. The parallels between that case and the work of Assange—and his source, U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning—are striking. Thanks in large part to their revelations a decade ago, Americans are increasingly seeing our occupation and bombing of Afghanistan in a similar light to our Vietnam policy.

When Assange published hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents in 2010, the public was given an unprecedented window into the lack of justification and the futility of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The truth was hidden by a generation of governmental lies. Assange's efforts helped show the American public what their government was doing in their name.

Assange summed up his anti-war ethos at a 2011 rally in London. "The goal is justice, the method is transparency," he said. "If wars can be started by lies, peace can be started by truth."

Manning told the judge in her court-martial, "I wanted the American public to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan were targets that needed to be neutralized, but rather people who were struggling to live." Manning and Assange acted on their belief that the public deserved to see the reality of these wars and the horrors of how they were conducted.

Two of us, Ellsberg and Noam Chomsky, testified for Assange at his extradition hearing last year. In Ellsberg's words then, the WikiLeaks publications that Assange is being charged for are "amongst the most important truthful revelations of hidden criminal state behavior that have been made public in U.S. history." The American public "needed urgently to know what was being done routinely in their name, and there was no other way for them to learn it than by unauthorized disclosure."

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange approaches microphones
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange approaches microphones before addressing the media as he leaves Belmarsh Magistrates' Court, in southeast London, on Feb. 11, 2011. CARL COURT/AFP via Getty Images

When the files were first published, with Joe Biden as vice president, the Obama administration empaneled a grand jury to investigate. In 2013, it declined to prosecute due to what it called the "New York Times problem"—the dilemma of indicting Assange for the very same kind of investigative journalism that mainstream media engages frequently (though not as much as they should). But in May 2019, viewing the press as "the enemy of the people," the Trump Justice Department indicted Assange under the much-abused Espionage Act.

No media outlet or journalist has ever been successfully prosecuted under the Espionage Act for publishing truthful information in the public interest, which is protected by the First Amendment. These charges send a message to reporters around the world—Assange is an Australian citizen, not an American—that the U.S. government will decide what can and cannot be published about its misdeeds, even beyond its borders.

Assange warned the public that the goal in Afghanistan "is to have an endless war, not a successful war." Last month, as troops were beginning to pull out of Afghanistan, video of these comments went viral, with more than 3 million views in a week. Assange's warning in 2011 is conventional wisdom in 2021.

So why isn't he a free man? In January, a British judge denied the U.S. extradition request on grounds that sending Assange to the U.S. prison system would put him at risk of suicide. In Donald Trump's final days in office, the U.S. government appealed that decision.

Biden's Justice Department, which has proclaimed a renewed commitment to press freedom, could end these proceedings at any moment. Biden now owns the prosecution of Julian Assange by actively pursuing Trump's appeal.

Biden stuck to his word and finally ended the war in Afghanistan. But he cannot close this chapter with the man who told the truth about that war still in prison.

Daniel Ellsberg, Alice Walker and Noam Chomsky are co-chairs of Assange Defense.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.