The Guardian • Current Issue

‘Collateral Murder’: the Wikileaks background

Julian Assange at the Embassy of Ecuador in London 2013.

Julian Assange at the Embassy of Ecuador in London 2013. Photo: Xavier Granja Cedeño/Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores – (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, received from Chelsea Manning, a US Army intelligence analyst, hundreds of thousands of classified or sensitive military and diplomatic documents, some of which implicated the US in war crimes.

Manning downloaded four nearly complete US government databases that contained, among other things, approximately 90,000 Afghanistan war-related significant activity reports, 400,000 Iraq war-related significant activity reports, 800 Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF GTMO) detainee assessment briefs, and 250,000 US Department of State cables.

Manning also provided a video that went viral on its release, showing US helicopter gunships firing on a group of civilians, including two Reuters journalists, killing eight people. WikiLeaks called the video “Collateral Murder.”

Manning was convicted of 17 charges under the Espionage Act and sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment. Her sentence was commuted after seven years by then US president Barack Obama. She insisted that she acted of her own volition and had offered documents to other publications before contacting Wikileaks.

WikiLeaks joined several mainstream media organisations, including The New York Times, British Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde in releasing the documents. Only Assange was pursued by the US.

Initially rape charges were brought against Assange in Sweden which sought his extradition from the UK. Assange feared that he would then be extradited to the US from Sweden. He responded by handing himself over to authorities in London, and commenced proceedings in the UK courts to avoid extradition to Sweden.

In June 2012, Assange skipped bail and sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he remained a virtual prisoner for the next 7 years. Up until then no espionage charges had been laid – although Assange feared they would be.

WikiLeaks continued to publish during that period, including emails, amongst them thousands of emails that were particularly damaging to then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Wikileaks also revealed that the US National Security Agency had been spying on world leaders, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, then German chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and three French presidents.

It was not until mid 2019, under then President Donald Trump, that Assange was indicted on 18 charges. Ecuador rescinded his political asylum and kicked him out. He was immediately arrested for having breached bail in relation to the rape allegations and incarcerated in Belmarsh prison.

Court hearings and appeals were held over a space of 4 years with most recent hearings finding in favour of the US. This May, Assange was granted leave to appeal. The court had asked the US Department of Justice whether Assange would be granted protection under the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees free speech and a free press. The guarantee was not provided. A hearing date was set down for June.

In the meantime, a plea deal was negotiated involving the Australian and US governments and Assange’s legal team. The outcome was an agreement that Assange be transferred on bail to Saipan, the capital of the Marianas Islands where he would plead guilty to one charge in the local court.

During a three-hour hearing in Saipan, Assange pleaded guilty to one criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified national defence documents but said he had believed the US Constitution’s First Amendment, which protects free speech, shielded his activities.

“He [Assange] has suffered tremendously in his fight for free speech, for freedom of the press, and to ensure that the American public and the world community gets truthful and important newsworthy information,” his lawyer Pollack said outside court in Saipan.

Part of the plea deal is that Assange will not seek a presidential pardon. It will be up to the media and the movement that fought so hard for his release to now fight for one.


What’s the bottom line? The long, drawn-out Assange affair has shown that the US preaches the rule of law but has no respect for the law of other sovereign nations. The ‘crime’ of journalism was not committed in the US. Extradition involves handing over a person accused or found guilty of a crime to the jurisdiction of the foreign state in which the crime was committed.

The United States puts its geostrategic interests over the lives of people, and in Assange’s case, over the lives of Australian citizens.

Assange played an important role in the exposure of US crimes. He is not the criminal.

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More