What’s at stake with the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange?

The five newspaper editors who published the WikiLeaks revelations in 2010 warn of the risks to press freedom posed by Assange being turned over to the U.S. justice system

Julian Assange
Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange demonstrate in London on February 21, 2010.ISABEL INFANTES (REUTERS)
Marc Bassets

It’s not just Julian Assange’s future that is at stake if he ends up extradited to the U.S. for allegedly violating the Espionage Act of 1917. It’s the future of press freedom, according to the editors of the newspapers that published the U.S. foreign policy revelations in 2010, leaked to them by the organization Assange founded, WikiLeaks.

The revelations may cost Assange extradition and possible conviction for obtaining and disseminating classified U.S. State information. But the cost may have wider implications, according to those who 14 years ago were at the helm of Der Spiegel, Le Monde, The Guardian, The New York Times and EL PAÍS, all newspapers that studied, verified and contextualized the war-related activity reports and 250,000 U.S. State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks.

“Sometimes we don’t defend a person or their actions first and foremost, but a principle,” says Georg Mascolo, who was editor of the German weekly Der Spiegel at the time. “If this [Assange’s extradition and conviction in the U.S.] succeeds, I don’t see why I myself or my colleagues at EL PAÍS, Le Monde, The Guardian and The New York Times would not be charged.”

EL PAÍS has interviewed Mascolo and his fellow editors after the hearings last week before London’s High Court, where it will be decided whether or not Assange can continue to appeal in the U.K. against his extradition to the U.S. All agree on the potential repercussions of his extradition and conviction on 18 charges — which according to his lawyers could result in 175 years in prison.

“A terrible idea,” says Bill Keller, who was running The New York Times in 2010. “The relationship between Julian and the editors we worked with to publish the information we got from WikiLeaks was delicate,” he admits. “He was not easy to deal with, but this does not justify criminalizing journalism, which is what using the Espionage Act against Assange entails.”

From left to right, editors Bill Keller ('The New York Times'), Alan Rusbridger ('The Guardian'), George Mascolo ('Der Spiegel'), Javier Moreno (EL PAÍS) and Sylvie Kauffmann ('Le Monde').
From left to right, editors Bill Keller ('The New York Times'), Alan Rusbridger ('The Guardian'), George Mascolo ('Der Spiegel'), Javier Moreno (EL PAÍS) and Sylvie Kauffmann ('Le Monde').CLAUDIO ÁLVAREZ

The Espionage Act was adopted in the U.S. during World War I to deal with spies and traitors. It has never before been used to charge a newspaper publisher. Although Assange is neither a newspaper publisher nor a journalist in the traditional sense, his revelations were published in traditional and prestigious media outlets, and were subjected to a rigorous editing and fact-checking process.

“I think his extradition and, obviously, the conviction that would follow, would be serious for press freedom,” says Sylvie Kauffmann, former editor-in-chief of France’s Le Monde who was at the forefront of the effort to publish the relevant news contained within the WikiLeaks documents.

Javier Moreno, director of EL PAÍS at the time, points out: “The precedent it sets is brutal. The message to the public is, ‘Get ready, because we are heading towards a world in which things that we have taken for granted or thought were guaranteed will no longer be so.’”

“Whatever you think of Assange, the precedent is dangerous,” says Alan Rusbridger of Britain’s The Guardian. “[Extradition] would have the effect of intimidating people who wanted to publish this kind of news.”

Longterm jail time

The U.K. leg of Assange’s journey began in 2012 when he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to escape a demand for his extradition by Sweden for alleged rape — a case dropped in 2019. The 52-year-old Australian was granted asylum and spent seven years living at the Ecuadorian embassy behind Harrods until he found himself sentenced to 50 weeks in jail for skipping bail in the Swedish case and has since been locked up in Belmarsh Maximum Security Prison, in South London, awaiting the resolution of the U.S. extradition request.

In 2019, with Donald Trump in the White House, the U.S. justice system charged Assange with participating in the theft of State Department cables and other secret documents in 2010. The indictment was later expanded to include, among the charges, the publication of these documents.

The expanded indictment is what worries media editors and investigative journalists. In the future, the Espionage Act could apply to traditional media and affect their work.

After the 2010 revelations, Wikileaks continued to publish private and secret documents itself, without the cooperation of the aforementioned newspapers. In 2016, it released emails about the then candidate for the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Democrat Hillary Clinton, allegedly obtained from people linked to Russian intelligence services. In the midst of the election campaign, they were a boon for Republican candidate, Donald Trump.

The discussion about how to describe Assange comes up in conversations with the former newspaper editors. Computer hacker? Activist? Journalist? Media entrepreneur and editor of WikiLeaks? Whistleblower? A simple source of information? Or even agent, voluntary or otherwise, of Vladimir Putin’s Russia?

“I can’t speak for all the editors, but I don’t think any of us saw him as a colleague. He was a source. A delicate source who had to be treated with care,” says former New York Times chief Keller, who adds, “I try to be a little humble in deciding who is a journalist. Is Tucker Carlson [the pro-Trump TV host who recently interviewed Putin] one? He traffics in disinformation. He’s a propagandist, recently for Putin.”

According to The Guardian’s Rusbridger, “[Assange] defies classification, he’s like an actor: sometimes a publisher, sometimes a journalist, sometimes an activist, sometimes an entrepreneur. But he is being prosecuted for being a publisher [of a media outlet] and there is no doubt that, when all five of us newspapers worked with him, he behaved like a journalist.”

Former EL PAÍS boss Moreno points out: “It is true that Assange is an uncomfortable character, a victim who is not easy to defend, a personality with complicated edges.” Moreno adds that there is “a degree of separation” between the work done by Assange and his colleagues, and that of the journalists of the newspapers who published this information. But, he says, “This degree of separation does not seem reassuring to me... We are not the same, but there is not a huge amount differntiating him from the journalists who reported the information he provided. They are different, of course. But, are they so different that we can relax if something happens to him? I would say no; neither us nor democracy in general.”

The five of editors had to decide 14 years ago which of the tens of thousands of documents could be newsworthy and how to publish them. They had to assess whether they were putting the security of their countries at risk, and, of course, they had to cross-check them.

Mascolo recalls that, in 2010, his fellow editors and he had many discussions with Assange about how far they could go in publishing the cables “and there were certainly disagreements. But imputation is simply a mistake, and a very dangerous one,” he concludes.

“Julian Assange is a symbol, an imperfect symbol,” says former Le Monde editor, Kauffman, who remembers him as an unusual character, but also recalls that the relationship was correct. Subsequently, there were what she describes as “strange deviations, the Russian deviation among them,” she says. “It was a mistake on his part.”

But Kauffman insists on the importance of the 2010 revelations. “The U.S. administration was furious, which is understandable, but this was public service work,” she says. “It did not put U.S. national security at risk. Instead, it provided an extraordinary number of very instructive insights into how American diplomacy and relations with other countries worked.”

The Wikileaks papers: every diplomat’s nightmare

The list of revelations, regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and U.S. diplomacy, is long. Eleven years before the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, WikiLeaks reported on rampant corruption in the Western-backed Afghan government. They showed how Saudi Arabian money financed terrorist groups, and how the U.S. administration ordered the U.N. Secretary General himself to be spied upon.

The WikiLeaks papers, wrote Moreno at the time, “comprehensively reveal, as never before, the extent to which the political classes in the advanced democracies of the West have been misleading their citizens.” In The Guardian, historian Timothy Garton Ash described them as follows: “Every historian’s dream. Every diplomat’s nightmare. How can diplomacy be carried out under these conditions?” That is, knowing that at any moment private communications could be made public.

“We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information,” the White House said in a statement in 2010. The president was Barack Obama, whose administration avoided, however, condemning Assange. Had it done so, it would have had to condemn the journalists and newspapers that published the news. “Its position attached great importance to freedom of the press despite the unpleasant consequences,” said an open letter published by the five editors in 2022. The Trump administration took a different view.

Above all, Wikileaks shed light, at times embarrassing, at others fascinating, on the inner workings of the western world. It might have seemed that a new era of transparency driven by the digital revolution was dawning, but two years later, in an article, Keller warned: “The opposite is true.” After Assange and Wikileaks came Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding the National Security Agency in 2013. But the 2010 leaks prompted a backlash against transparency and a heavy hand against whistleblowers in general.

Rusbridger argues that after Assange, and after Snowden, “governments are trying to curb [journalism investigating national security secrets], making it impossible via severe sanctions and legislation that was not designed to prevent the press from working.”

In the event of Assange being extradited and convicted, Keller says: “This is not the end of journalism but it will certainly make a certain type of journalism more difficult. And this, at a time when we need investigative journalism more than ever. These are tough times for journalism. The business model is complicated. The market is flooded by entertainment news, propaganda and disinformation. And several countries have authoritarian regimes that persecute the press. Adding the Espionage Act to the arsenal to attack the press is a big mistake that will have consequences.”

Fourteen years on, none of the five journalists are still at the helm of the newspapers that broke the Wikileaks story. After founding the non-profit The Marshall Project, Keller is retired, writes books and teaches in prisons. Moreno directs the UAM-EL PAÍS School of Journalism. Mascolo continues to work as a journalist, as does Sylvie Kauffmann as editorial director of Le Monde. Rusbridger runs Prospect magazine. And Assange awaits the judges’ decision. Either he will be able to seek a new appeal in the U.K. or he will be extradited to the U.S., although he can still resort to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

As Moreno observes, “This man has already been locked up for 12 years in one way or another. If he is now extradited and ends up serving 175 years, it will all have been so the readers of this newspaper, and others, were able to read the articles they read. We have to consider that.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS