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"The CIA has a major influence on shaping public opinion"

Dernière mise à jour : 13 mars

For more than ten years, Stella Assange has devoted her life to defending Julian Assange, who has became her husband as well as her client in 2022. Two judges of the High Court in London are currently deciding whether or not the Wikileaks founder has the right to appeal against the decision to extradite him to the United States. L'Impertinent took this opportunity to interview the lawyer and human rights defender about Julian Assange's state of health, the silence of the media and the influence of the CIA on our information.

Stella Assange
© DR


Amèle Debey, for L'Impertinent: How are you and how is Julian Assange doing?


Stella Assange: The few weeks leading up to the hearing and those following it have attracted a lot of attention. I'm delighted, because this is a particularly decisive hearing. And while no decision has yet been made, it is accelerating understanding and attention around Julian's case. In that sense, it's comforting. But the stakes are crucial: if the judges rule against him, Julian will be extradite right away. So my feelings are mixed.


The case hadn't made any significant progress until last year. And if that means he wasn't extradited for security reasons, it also means he's still in prison. That said, I can see progress in terms of attention, awareness and understanding.


As for Julian, his health is deteriorating. He has been held in a high-security prison for almost five years and is often isolated. His interactions with others are extremely limited. He is locked in a cell for more than 21 hours a day. His physical and mental health is declining, so much so that he has not even been able to attend his own court hearing.


How did it go? Are you hopeful that the judges will rule in his favour?


I don't think the outcome strictly depends on this hearing, because ultimately the goal is Julian's release for good. If he wins this round, it means he can appeal his extradition order to the UK High Court. But he will remain imprisoned for an indefinable period. On the other hand, if he loses, he will be put on a plane and sent to the United States to be held in extreme isolation.


Wouldn't there be some way of appealing to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) then?


If he loses in the UK, there is no further appeal in that country. There would be the possibility of applying to the ECHR to ask not only for his application to be accepted and admitted, but also for an emergency injunction. A precautionary measure under Article 39 to prevent the UK from extraditing him. But it is up to the ECHR to administer this measure.


Last year, sixty-three applications were lodged with this Court and only one was granted. So this is a rare occurrence. Furthermore, this measure is only granted where there is immediate irreparable harm, which is Julian's case. But it would be up to the European Court of Human Rights to determine when to act or not.


"The United Kingdom is in breach of its international obligations”


So this is not a right, but a request that must be made and complied with by the UK. If it did not comply, it would be in breach of its international obligations. And it wouldn't be the first time: the UK violated its international obligations in the case of Julian, among others.


In a way, this is a step into the unknown. Of course, I hope that all these guarantees will come into play and will be respected, but knowing that this is a political case in which transgressions have already been committed, I don't take it for granted. Julian's case is precarious and risky.


Wasn't it possible to make a plea deal with the United States?


This type of deal has to come from the United States. Over there, less than 5% of cases go to trial, because they actually rely on this plea deal system. That's how they get convictions and indictments.


In Julian's case. They brought eighteen charges equivalent to 175 years in prison. That's coercion and that's how the American criminal justice system works, which is a misnomer. It's a bit like the Mafia putting a gun to your head.


From a press freedom perspective, the charges against Julian should be dropped. Anything else is a cataclysm and sets a precedent for the press in general.


"Julian has challenged the mainstream media in a very significant way from the beginning"


This case, brought by the United States, makes it a criminal offence to receive information, possess it and communicate it to the public, including information of the utmost public importance. In this case, involving war crimes and the murder of tens of thousands of innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also torture and complicity in torture.


There can be no case so clearly in the public interest. Yet it has been criminalized.


Journalists are not unanimous in their support of Julian Assange. How do you explain this?


Julian has challenged the mainstream media in a very significant way from the start. He has a different model of journalism, which he calls science journalism, and which involves a bibliographical aspect to the publication of official documents initially suppressed alongside analysis. The model of traditional journalism is to publish analyses, but these are liable to be corrupted or influenced by various biases. Some aspects of the truth are suppressed while others are emphasized or reinforced.


Julian comes from a scientific background, so he believes that journalistic articles should be peer-reviewed, as in the case of scientific or academic journals, and of course this challenges the model of journalism as a guardian of authority.


If you have an oppositional relationship with the government in power, you can't be invited to a big banquet and have everything go well. There is a certain degree of closeness between the powers in place and a large part of the press, which Julian challenged, discredited and exposed in a very direct way.


"Julian represented a major inconvenience to all the powerful and influential journalists in the media landscape"


Julian represented a major inconvenience for all those powerful - or formerly powerful - and influential journalists in the media landscape. Bill Keller, the editor of the New York Times at the time, said that Julian Assange was not "his kind of journalist". But he was still a journalist nonetheless. I have to say that, although Julian never said it out loud, Bill Keller is not his kind of journalist either.


That said, I think the debates between those who think Julian is a journalist and those who think he isn't are out of date. It's irrelevant now that the US has decided to criminalise journalism through Julian. By describing traditional journalistic activities as criminal and rendering the public interest obsolete. What they are saying is that the information revealed by Wikileaks belongs to them and has no place in the public domain, even if it exposes war crimes and the criminal activities of the state. This is the position of the US government.


The International Federation of Journalists, as well as some twenty organisations representing the media in Europe - in addition to the Australian Unions - count Julian as one of them. Many press freedom groups have alarmed the public that this case is an attack on journalism in general.


What do you have to say to those who claim that Julian's actions have caused harm, endangered lives and that he is far from being totally innocent?


I say that they are ill-informed people who accept the Pentagon's propaganda without questioning it. The US has admitted under oath that it has not found a single piece of evidence that anyone has been harmed by Julian's revelations. This argument, raised since the beginning of the case, is a kind of generalisation so vague that it is not possible to question it, and this is deliberate.


That's why mentioning this argument shows a poor knowledge of the case. Because it was mentioned at Chelsea Manning's court martial hearing in 2013 and again at Julian's hearing recently. The only evidence of harm that emerges from these revelations is the one of the US attacks, which killed tens of thousands of people and for which no one has been held accountable. Everything else is an attempt to distract from the real harm that was caused by the US and which it is trying to cover up.


When people who have injured and killed innocent civilians are not investigated, prosecuted or put in prison, this is a cover-up. And here we are dealing with systematic attempts to cover up these crimes. By imprisoning Julian, those responsible are trying to guarantee their impunity, because the Wikileaks revelations would require them to be held accountable.


If these crimes, which have been demonstrated by the evidence published by Wikileaks, are allowed to continue without anyone having to answer for them, without anyone being brought to justice, then we have every right to ask questions. The vendetta against Julian allows us to change the subject and continue to let the real criminals off the hook.


Does Julian Assange feel betrayed by the media system? In particular by the newspapers that have used his work, such as Le Monde, The Guardian, El Pais, Der Spiegel and others?


Julian, like Nelson Mandela in his time (the comparison has been made and I think it's important to understand the similarities between the two cases), didn't give a damn about blaming people. The idea was to look to the future. I can't speak for Julian, but as far as I'm concerned I'm beyond the blaming point.


"I'm more interested in Julian's freedom than in blaming anyone else for his imprisonment"


However, I do believe that if most publications had not failed to critically question and report Julian's persecution, he would not be in prison today. The fact is, I care more about Julian's freedom than I do about blaming anyone else for his imprisonment. His survival is the only thing that matters.


You know, in a way, worrying about betrayal is a luxury that someone whose life is at stake can't afford. What matters is that some people are now calling for his release. Other people can write the details of the story that led to all this, but all I want is for Julian to be freed.


You have mentioned on several occasions that the CIA has attempted to murder Assange. What evidence do you have of this?


It's quite extraordinary, because when we were at the embassy (Julian Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London from 2012 to 2019, editor's note), I had the feeling that Julian's life was in danger. Of course, I had no reason to think so at the time, but that feeling never left me: we were all in danger, and Julian in particular.


There was a change of government in Ecuador, then they changed all the diplomatic staff and the replacements were, by their own admissions to the Ecuadorian courts, hired in connection with Julian's ongoing court case. They created a hostile environment for Julian in order to push him out. I didn't know at the time whether the threat I felt was to throw him out, coerce him or kill him. But knowing the environment inside the embassy, I was aware that if it was a question of taking his life, it could be done without any real possibility of independent investigation, since anything can happen in an embassy. It all depends on the willingness of the country concerned to investigate.

In this case, it was a government hostile to Julian that had made several rather extraordinary statements at the time, including announcing an unprecedented strategic alliance with the United States, even though it was supposed to be protecting Julian from the persecution he was suffering.


Two events have taken place since then, which not only corroborated my then subjective impression of danger, but also provided irrefutable evidence of a plot against Julian.


"A very serious plan has been hatched to kidnap and murder Julian."


The first is the testimony of several people working for the Spanish security company inside the embassy at the time of Julian's arrest. These people became whistle-blowers because they didn't expect Julian to be arrested and put in prison, only to be threatened with extradition, and were uncomfortable with their own position and the feeling that they had been complicit in the arrest. They went to El Pais and revealed that they had spied on Julian and his lawyers, as well as being involved in various activities ordered by american CIA officials.


These included spying on conversations between Julian and his lawyers, collecting DNA from our then six-month-old baby, recording exchanges, installing cameras and microphones, and taking hard drives back to the US. It was El Pais that first broke the story, and then these whistle-blowers went to the Spanish police and provided material proof of what they were saying, as at least one of them had saved some of the recordings in question.


The Spanish police opened an investigation, then searched the offices of the director of this security company and obtained even more evidence of these espionage activities, including e-mails from the United States showing that Ecuador was unaware of this intermediary's involvement.


One of the things these emails exposed was talk of Julian being poisoned. There was also talk of leaving the door open at the embassy so that he could be removed discreetly, in a way that could have been disproved. This was the first indication of the existence of a very serious plan to kidnap and murder Julian, coming from internal embassy employees. The case came out in 2019 and didn't get much traction outside Spain.


A few years later, Yahoo news brought out a major investigation into those responsible for this operation: the United States. It was penned by three journalists with long reputations as very serious national security investigators, who published their findings only after very, very solid corroboration. They waited until they had more than thirty sources, some of whom were cited by name and were of very high rank, both within the CIA and the National Security Council.


"One of the CIA's primary functions is to shape public opinion"


It emerged that, during Mike Pompeo's time as head of the CIA, he was obsessed with taking down Julian and Wikileaks. This was just after the site published the biggest leak affecting the CIA in about 20 years, called Vault 7.


Mike Pompeo had discussed Julian's assassination at the highest levels of the White House and had also tasked his agency with developing elaborate plans to get rid of Julian.


The two articles, both the one relaying the testimonies of embassy employees, and the one evoking the planning of the assassination, match. In the Yahoo News investigation, there is no reference to the El Pais one. So we have two independent sources to verify that it happened at the same time.


The fact is that the CIA has not denied this information, and Mike Pompeo has asked that the sources be prosecuted under the Espionage Act, meaning for divulging state secrets, not for lying, nor for defamation.


Do you think the CIA has any influence on the mainstream media?


There's no doubt that the CIA has a major influence on shaping public opinion. In fact, this has been one of its primary functions from the beginning. The CIA was founded during the Cold War, and a number of whistle-blowers who worked there were involved in this control via the media. But there is also a structural problem. If we take, for example, this recent New York Times article on the CIA's six spy bases in eastern Ukraine, it's an important story. Journalists were invited to these bases to write their stories.


There is a close relationship between the CIA and the press. In many cases, for example within the New York Times, the CIA is seen as a reliable partner. The problem, of course, is that so-called "leaks" from intelligence agencies to the mainstream media are often authorized by the agencies themselves in order to affect policy, to shape it, to construct it. Like when they know something damaging is going to come out and they want to forge the narrative and set the stage before it does.


"The codependent relationship between intelligence agencies and the media poses serious ethical problems"


The CIA's long-standing relationship with the mainstream media has been well documented over the years. And then of course, the moment the CIA is one of your enemies, believe it or not, they have the means to use the media as weapons to undermine your reputation. This is what happened to Julian over the years, leading to his arrest in 2019.


Numerous fabricated, trumped-up stories were spread to damage his reputation. The Yahoo News investigation mentions that one of the aspects, in addition to the kidnapping and assassination, also consisted of this undermining work in the media. There are pre-existing links between certain journalists and intelligence agencies. It's a codependent relationship that's very difficult to manage and poses serious ethical problems for the media, in terms of their responsibility to the public.


If Julian Assange ends up dying in prison, he will become a martyr. Isn't this a miscalculation on the part of those who are trying to stifle his work and the spirit of his action?


I think you need to understand exactly what function Julian's imprisonment serves, from the point of view of these intelligence agencies:


First and foremost, they want to stop leaks. To prevent whistleblowers from providing information to journalists, as well as to prevent journalists from publishing that information. So it doesn't matter if Julian becomes a martyr, because no other journalist would want such a fate. Therein lies their logic. To be unaccountable and stop monitoring the kind of activities they engage in. Especially those that are illegal and contrary to democracy.


Whether Julian's imprisonment is bad for America's public image is irrelevant, since it still serves its primary function of deterring the publication of new information. Various interests are at stake.


Several appeals for donations are regularly made in Julian's name, and I was wondering how the money received is used.


There are different funds. Those reserved for the campaign and those allocated to the legal defense.


The US has unlimited funds to attack Julian, whether to spread false information in the media, spy on his conversations or pursue him for years. We have a fund in Britain strictly dedicated to the extradition case which pays lawyers' fees. Campaign costs are obviously separate from legal costs.


There's the Vow Holland Foundation, which is an independently audited German charitable foundation funded by donations. There's the Courage Foundation in the USA, which also receives donations there, and there's a campaign in Australia, as well as participatory funding. So it's a global campaign with different players. It's not too centralized either, because it's international and there are different jurisdictions.


But the organizations are doing an extraordinary job. In Italy, for example, many cities have granted Julian honorary citizenship, including Rome, Naples, Reggio Emilia and a number of others.


Yes, I've seen that. There's also the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who recently spoke out in favor of his release. Are these more symbolic actions, or can they really have an impact on Julian's situation?


One should not underestimated the importance of the symbol in such a political matter. It's a question of positioning.


Let's not forget that Julian's imprisonment and persecution can only continue as long as those who keep him locked up think they can get away with it. So if you have more and more support from heads of state like Lula or Scholtz, from governments like Australia and Albania, or from the UN, it becomes less and less tenable for them.


It's not just a matter of declarations, it's a matter of consensus-building and a general understanding of the legitimacy of what has been done to Julian. And these elements add up over time.


A quote attributed to Julian circulates on the internet. He is quoted as saying "Forget Russia, the real threat to the US comes from Israel and the Israel lobby". What do you know about the true origin of this phrase? Did he really say that?


Not to my knowledge. I've seen this statement passed around too, without any dated source or reference to a particular speech. So I'm rather skeptical. Which is not to say that Julian doesn't have anything to say on the current situation in the Middle East. I'm just saying that there is a certain tendency to put words in his mouth. Until there's a video or a signature from him, I'd tend to view these quotes with skepticism.


Your life is now dedicated to defending your husband. Do you sometimes feel that it no longer belongs to you?


No, because it has become my mission. Nothing is more important to me than freeing Julian and bringing him home to our children.


But there's also the fact of knowing who Julian is, what he represents and what his freedom means, which is something that's important to everyone. There's no sacrifice on my part, because I don't think there's anything I can do that's more important than what I'm doing right now.


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