WASHINGTON – As WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange faces extradition to the United States on charges of endangering national security by conspiring to obtain and disclose classified information, his lawyer is offering a bizarre defense.
Assange’s U.S. prosecution, claims his lawyer, is entirely political. In 2017, says Edward Fitzgerald, an emissary of U.S. President Donald Trump, offered Assange a pardon “or some other way out if Mr. Assange played ball and said the Russians had nothing to do with” information about the Democratic Party published by Wikileaks in 2016.
For those who still believe that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia’s influence operation in 2016, this looks like damning evidence. It suggests that Trump knew that Wikileaks was laundering emails hacked by Russia’s intelligence services and made them a centerpiece of his campaign anyway — then tried to enlist Assange in that lie.
But there is a fatal flaw in Assange’s defense: For much of 2016, Assange himself insisted that Russia was not responsible for the hacked emails.
In August 2016, Assange implied that the source for the emails was a former Democratic Party staff member who had been murdered a month before. Wikileaks even offered a $20,000 reward to anyone with information leading to the conviction of the murderer. So why would Trump offer Assange a pardon to say something Assange had already been saying?
Assange’s lawyers also say that there was an emissary who offered Assange the deal: former Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.
Rohrabacher, too, has also already spoken about the possible pardon deal, in a 2017 interview with The Wall Street Journal. He said that Assange would have been required to provide proof, preferably in the form of a hard drive or computer storage device, that the emails came from a whistleblower and not Russia.
“He would get nothing, obviously, if what he gave us was not proof,” the congressman said.
That changes the story. According to Rohrbacher, to get a pardon Assange would have needed to provide evidence debunking the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia was responsible for the hack. It’s akin to asking a witness to aid an investigation.
Of course, no hard drives have ever surfaced, further evidence that Assange was deceiving the public in 2016.
At this point, Russia’s role in the hack-and-leak scheme should not be disputed. Former special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s July 2018 indictment of a dozen Russian military intelligence officials provides considerable details. Even Trump has occasionally (and begrudgingly) accepted this truth.
A better argument for Assange’s lawyers is that he is being charged with serious crimes for providing remedial tips to his source for the 2010 disclosures of State Department cables about the war on terror.
A successful prosecution of Assange in U.S. courts could have a chilling effect on any journalist who advises a source on how to hide his or her digital footprints. Either way, in this case the Justice Department has stretched the definition of “hacking” beyond recognition.
For now, it looks like Assange’s British legal team is going with the theory that its client’s prosecution is the result of a spurned offer for a pardon. If that’s true, however, it also means that Assange didn’t believe what he was telling the world for most of 2016. Is that an argument his lawyers really want to make?
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.