by Dack Rouleau
This article was originally published on overwritten.org.
Throughout this article, I will reference Taylor Hudak’s article, “2020 Democratic Presidential Candidates Position on Julian Assange”, published originally on www.action4assange.com on 06/28/2019. You can, and should, read the full article at the link below. It is far more helpful and accurate than the similar article published by The New York Times earlier today.
You should also visit the YouTube page for Action 4 Assange, linked below:
There are only two reasons anyone has ever heard of my website. The first is a series of essays and articles I’ve written in support of Tulsi Gabbard. The second is a collection of videos I’ve uploaded to YouTube, wherein I ask the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates, “Do you support Julian Assange?” As you are likely—or, at least, ought to be—aware, the two are not disparate: although I agree with Gabbard on almost every political question, it is only because of her vocal, consistent, and unambiguous condemnation of Assange’s prosecution—imminent, but inevitable—that I have written so extensively in praise of her candidacy. I was delighted, even tickled, when she referred to Donald Trump as “Saudi Arabia’s bitch”, but only when I learned of her thoughts on Assange, disclosed in an interview with Primo Nutmeg in April, that I felt political enthusiasm for the first time in eight miserable years.
After listening to that interview, and after the British police kidnapped and imprisoned Assange, I decided to take a look at what Gabbard’s competitors for the nomination of the Democratic Party felt about Assange, and what, upon their inauguration, they would do to protect him. To my great surprise, there was almost no information available on this question, even though there were more than twenty people jockeying for the nomination. Surely a statement on Assange, particularly after his arrest, would help to differentiate a candidate from the rest of the pack? Alas, I found nothing, not even a comment from Bernie Sanders, who was supposedly the most progressive of them all.
The conspicuous and nearly universal silence of the Democratic candidates might have been even more disturbing than Assange’s arrest. At least we could make sense of the latter: we recognized it as a malicious, aggressive, threatening act of authoritarian overreach. But why was only one of the presidential candidates commenting on it? Were they too scared to comment—either to express their disfavor or to express their favor? Perhaps their inexplicable reticence was best articulated by Donald Trump when he lied: “I know nothing about WikiLeaks.”
Finally, after more than a month, and when the Department of Justice revealed that it had, in fact, been preparing to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act, a couple of presidential candidates offered comment. Elizabeth Warren released one of the most infuriating comments I’ve ever read, declaring: “Assange is a bad actor who has harmed U.S. national security—and he should be held accountable. But Trump should not be using this case as a pretext to wage war on the First Amendment and go after the free press who hold the powerful accountable every day.” It angered me because, when I met her in January of this year, she had told me that she supported WikiLeaks, or so she implied. Now, in May, she was against the organization and its founder—yet, she couldn’t resist the opportunity to scold Trump for possibly using “this case” to perpetuate realabuses in the future.
The only other comment was from Bernie Sanders, who condemned a “disturbing attack on the First Amendment” without ever mentioning Assange by name. He didn’t express support for him, either, but at the time, I was still gullible—or, perhaps, inattentive—enough to think that Sanders’s statement was equivalent to a direct defense of Assange. I have since learned better, and this lesson would become quintessential to my quest to learn where, specifically, these candidates stand on this issue.
Two months after the United Kingdom manacled Assange, the politicians were still silent, and the news media had demonstrated no interest in compelling them to speak on this issue. Apparently, if I wanted to hear these people talk about Assange, then I would have to raise the subject myself, and, if possible, videotape their statements. My first assignment was Andrew Yang, who, in June, was still a bottom-tier candidate, meaning that he would likely have no real security, and therefore, I could easily stick the microphone in his face. I had no trouble getting him on the record vis-à-vis Assange, and his response generated far more controversy than I would have imagined. Every time he tweets, Assange’s defenders voice their disgust with his belief that the man “should stand trial” and that he “did publish some information that really had no useful purpose”.
This information, this video of Yang explaining the slightness of his respect for Assange, proved to be quite useful indeed to Taylor Hudak, a woman who just so happened to be assembling an index of every presidential candidate’s position on Assange at the same time that yours truly was speaking with Yang. In a single article, Hudak quoted and sourced the statements, however scarce, that each candidate had offered on Assange, and named the many who had said nothing at all. Such a comprehensive resource is especially helpful, even indispensable, in the day of the smartphone, when information is ubiquitous, but clarity is almost mythological.
Hudak had performed far more research than I had, and despite the dearth of direct statements by most of the candidates, she had unearthed several tangential or contextual statements that exposed their hostility to whistleblowing generally, and which demonstrated, to all but the most hapless of milquetoasts, that they would make no charitable exception in Assange’s case. She had found some truly hideous gems in her travels; for example, I had no idea that Jeanne Shaheen, the senator from my home state, had cosigned a letter to Mike Pence, wherein she implored him to place pressure on the Ecuadorian government to violate international law and revoke Assange’s claim to asylum. Thanks to Hudak, I can promise Shaheen that, when she faces voters in next year’s election, she will not receive my vote, not under any circumstances.
In the three months since Hudak published her article, she has revised and expanded upon it several times. Her commitment to this project, which is reflected in the many other articles she has written and in her YouTube channel, sets an example for anyone who is serious about defending Assange. I admit, I take some pride in having contributed to her research by getting a handful of presidential candidates on the record, but there is no question that her work towards defending Assange dwarfs mine. Might I suggest that everyone watch this video of hers, released the other day, wherein she describes the sexist accusations endured by all too many of the women who support Assange?
Having crafted such an impressive body of work, Hudak was shocked to discover that, earlier this morning, The New York Times published a feature wherein twenty different presidential candidates were asked to state their positions on the ongoing and inchoate governmental prosecution of Julian Assange. Apparently, a writer named Charlie Savage sent the candidates an email on this matter in June, but for reasons unknown, he has published it only now. Hudak believes this is plagiarism, or an uncommonly comparable offense. Now, although it is entirely possible, even probable, that Savage sent his email to the candidates before Hudak published her piece, she published her article more than two months before Savage published his. This wouldn’t be an issue if he had polled the candidates on a more quotidian topic, such as climate change or gun control, but a simple Google search would have revealed that Hudak’s article was the onlyindex of these candidates’ positions on Assange. At the very least, it’s disheartening to see a vessel of the corporate media, which should have been questioning these candidates on this issue for the last five months, enter the game at so late an hour and, simply through the strength of its financial resources, command readership and precedent over Hudak, who is actually performing studious, principled, journalistic work.
You see, there are problems with the Times piece, entirely apart from the question of plagiarism. Ironically, the most efficient way, if not the only way, of proving these faults is by contrasting the statements made in the Times piece with those listed in Hudak’s article. So, without further ado, let’s crack this rotten egg wide open, shall we?
As is invariably the case when reading news produced by the corporate media, we must exercise the severest caution, lest we be beguiled by insidious propaganda. Fortunately, Savage’s piece for the Times makes its mendacity clear from the beginning, as the introduction—laughably labelled “The Context”—notes that the questions asked of the candidates are “separate from the question of whether Assange counts as a ‘journalist’”. I’m not sure why the term journalist was enclosed in quotation marks, but in any event, why on earth would Savage, a self-described journalist, everquestion Assange’s designation as such? Shouldn’t he automatically, as a man of his profession, see Assange as a contemporary? It is embarrassing, even heartbreaking, to watch a writer for the Times so much as entertain the notion that Assange may not be a journalist, but such is the political climate in which we live, here in the land of the free.
For the record, the questions Savage does ask are as follows: “Are these charges [pertaining to the Espionage Act] constitutional? Would your administration continue the Espionage Act part of the case against Assange?” These are questions of casuistry, as worthless as they are ambiguous. When I ask candidates if they support Assange, I am asking if they believe that what he did is right. This is not what Savage asks; Savage asks if the candidates would seek to prosecute Assange pursuant to the Espionage Act, which, as he clumsily explains, is but a single “part”, or indictment, in “the case against Assange”. It is perfectly possible to prosecute Assange through other laws or statutes, as is currently occurring. In other words, a candidate who declines to prosecute Assange through the Espionage Act is not necessarily a candidate who supports him.
Of course, the subtlety employed in such a snakelike wording of the question is much too elusive to be noticed by the inattentive and uneducated American people, but for a professional politician, it is so broad and shapeless as to be an irresistible softball. The glut of misinformation on Assange and WikiLeaks has rendered the Trump Administration’s prosecution of the former to be a non-issue politically: a right-wing conservative will have no sympathy for a man who exposes the tragic reality of American foreign policy, and a liberal will have nothing but contempt for the man who exposed the institutional corruption of the Democratic National Committee, which may or may not have redounded to Trump in the general election of 2016. No Republican will swap allegiances and vote for the Democratic nominee simply because he/she promises to pardon Assange, and no Democrat will vote third party simply because the nominee refuses to pardon him. In other words, the candidates can answer Savage’s question however they please, and the polling will change not a bit.
You won’t be surprised to learn that Tulsi Gabbard was the only candidate to address both of these concerns of mine, however implicitly, by stating that the prosecution of Assange “is a violation of freedom of speech” and that “[her] administration would drop this case”. She would drop this case,not decline to prosecute Assange on the basis of the Espionage Act. Meanwhile, Joe Sestak plays right into Savage’s hand—and quite knowingly, too—by declaring that “this is a very slippery slope, with regard to the use of the Espionage Act. We must not criminalize standard journalistic techniques and activities, though journalists have a duty to behave in a responsible manner …” His only objection is to the reliance upon the Espionage Act to prosecute Assange when, as stated previously, there are plenty of other legal avenues, any one of which would prove to be much less controversial. The last portion of the quote, reminding journalists of their “duty to behave in a responsible manner”, is obviously intended as a slur against Assange, who, in Sestak’s sagacious judgment, did not behave responsibly—although, of course, Sestak declines to explain why he feels Assange behaved irresponsibly.
Several other candidates issue the same immodestly veiled criticisms of Assange. Michael Bennet, who joined Shaheen in penning the fascistic letter mentioned above, defames Assange as a man “who [published] classified information without regard to whether it may put American forces in danger”. He does not define “American forces”, nor does he explain how the information released by Assange endangered anyone, including these nebulous “forces”, presumably because still, after all of these years, there is no evidence that any of the information released by WikiLeaks has ever brought harm to a single person. Of course, the contextual information—that Bennet was pushing for Assange’s prosecution long before the Ecuadorians expelled him—is missing from this piece, probably because Savage, unlike Hudak, has performed no research on this subject whatsoever.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden, in a circumlocutory piece that is far more coherent than anything that we have heard from him on the campaign trail, begins by declaring that he is “not assuming in any way that Assange is in fact a journalist”, and then goes on to differentiate WikiLeaks from “responsible journalists [who] historically have declined to publish information when publication would put lives in danger or threaten harm to the national interest”. Perhaps if I had a more cynical sense of humor, I could chuckle at the shocking irony and lack of self-awareness exhibited by this man, a genocidal war profiteer who, after facilitating the obliteration of the Libyan state, criticizes WikiLeaks for having somehow endangered people, but you probably picked up on that yourself. We should probably proceed to the end of his statement, when he scolds “Trump’s vilification of reporters” and compares Trump to Nixon, who unsuccessfully sought to prohibit the release of the Pentagon Papers.
Several of the candidates approach the question with a similar intent: to take a shot at Trump while issuing no direct or explicit criticism of his policy as specifically pertains to this case. Cory Booker, for example, insists that he would govern “in sharp contrast to President Trump, who was targeted and vilified the press at every turn”, though he goes on to admit that “it would not be appropriate for the President to direct prosecution or non-prosecution of any specific case”. In other words, he would not complain about the media, as Trump does on a daily basis, but nor would he reach out to defend Assange, whose name he doesn’t even mention in his meandering statement. Beto O’Rourke also prefers to move forward “without commenting on any specifics of any case”, but he assures us that his administration would not penalize “legitimate journalistic activities”, which is to say: only those journalistic activities which the government recognizes and arbitrarily defines as “legitimate” would be tolerated under the O’Rourke Administration.
For the record, Beto O’Rourke told me less than a week ago that he has “concerns” about Assange’s alleged (and completely unproven) interactions with the Russian government, which is at very visible odds with the sweeter-sounding statement he provided to Savage. Of course, you won’t learn about that in his article, any more than you would learn about Bennet’s collaboration with Shaheen.
Hudak is aware of my conversation with O’Rourke, and she is also aware that, in 2010, Senator Amy Klobuchar recommended imprisoning Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange’s alleged source for the Collateral Murder video, for the rest of her life. Such a sentence “would be appropriate”, she said, and she went on to envision a beautiful future in which WikiLeaks would be prohibited by law from publishing documents if such documents were acquired illegally. In Klobuchar’s view, “If there’s any way we can push that to say that you can’t put illegally obtained documents up on your website … I think that’s worth it.” Curiously, she said something very different to Savage: “As the daughter of a newspaper man, I have always believed the role of journalists is critical to our nation’s democracy. As part of my plan for the first 100 days of my presidency, I have already committed to restore former Attorney General Eric Holder’s guidance on protections for journalists so that they are not jailed for doing their jobs.”
The obvious counterargument will be that Klobuchar’s views have evolved through the years. The same counterargument probably won’t hold for O’Rourke, but even if we assume that it does, there is a very serious problem of ideological inconsistency on the part of these candidates, not the least of which is their unwillingness to acknowledge the inconsistency. I suspect that the inconsistency follows the variations of register: if they need to appeal to the intelligence agencies, then they will condemn Assange, but if they want to distinguish themselves from Trump, then they will release a bland statement affirming the First Amendment, as if anything could be less controversial than to voice support for the notion of freedom of expression without having to stand by its particular manifestations. As I mentioned in my article on Andrew Yang, saying that you are “generally” in favor of something means that you are not in favor of it at all.
Pete Buttigieg wants to have his cake and eat it, too. I don’t want you to miss any portion of his inanity, so it might be best for us to quote it directly:
“The freedom of the press is one of the most important principles protected by the Constitution. By criminalizing behavior that closely resembles common journalistic practices, the most recent indictment of Julian Assange on Espionage Act charges (as opposed to the original computer hacking charges) comes dangerously close to compromising this principle. Even if these charges ultimately withstand constitutional scrutiny—an outcome that will depend in substantial part on how the Justice Department articulates and limits its theory in the case—the prosecution could chill legitimate journalism. It is no defense of Julian Assange to question the legal theories being advanced by the current administration on this.”
Credit him for proving my warning, expressed earlier in this piece: when these candidates object to the prosecution of Assange under the Espionage Act, they are not declaring that they would not prosecute him under different statutes. Buttigieg is especially conscious of this point, advising the Department of Justice to carefully “articulat[e] and limi[t] its theory” so as not to incite a panic. He will make a fine and respectable despot, although he will have to take certain measures to hide his disapproval, stated publicly, of President Obama’s decision to commute Chelsea Manning’s sentence. Of course, the only reason I am even aware of this disapproval of Buttigieg’s is because Taylor Hudak revealed it in her article. That statement is far more illuminating than the cheesy press release that Buttigieg offered to Savage, which raises questions about why, at this point, we should even continue bothering with his article.
Tim Ryan makes perhaps the most puzzling statement when he declares—shockingly, considering his hawkish foreign policy positions—that the charges against Assange are unconstitutional, but that, in addition, he will “rely on the Attorney General serving in [his] cabinet [to make a] recommendation on this matter”. Does this mean that he would not stop his Attorney General from pressing unconstitutional charges? If so, then what kind of authority would President Ryan even possess? Why should we vote for a man who would not stop wrongdoing when he sees it, especially when he sees it in his own presidential cabinet? Look, there is no more reason for Ryan to remain in the debate. He has humiliated himself in both of his presidential debates, and with this latest demonstration of political impotence, he resembles less a president than a kid getting his underpants exposed in a show on Cartoon Network. I would go on to describe his failings further, but I’m afraid I’m not so cruel. I will, however, note that Kamala Harris, who constantly declares her dream of “prosecuting the case against four more years of Donald Trump”, insists to Savage that she “would not dictate or direct prosecutions” as President of the United States.
Is there any more to be said? Charlie Savage is a writer for The New York Times, and under the auspices of such an influential organization, he secured nothing more than tasteless platitudes and sound bites from the people competing for the presidency. Meanwhile, Taylor Hudak, who unfairly described herself as “no one from Ohio” in a tweet earlier today, had no resources other than an Internet connection, and still, she dominated Savage in every category, facet, and respect. There is no reason to read Savage’s piece, other than as a supplementary—and strictly voluntary—appendix to Hudak’s carefully researched article and reference. Charlie Savage’s failure serves only to illustrate the necessity of independent journalists in these difficult times, and where he stumbles and stutters, Taylor Hudak thrives.
Dack Rouleau is an independent journalist living in New Hampshire. He was previously a columnist for The Citizen of Laconia and has appeared on the MCSC Network. You can read his work at https://overwritten.org/.