- Sabrina Kutscher
To Extradite or Not to Extradite - The Case of Wikileaks and Assange
For a while, there was a lot of silence surrounding Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks and fugitive from US law enforcement due to illegally obtaining and disclosing classified information. In June of this year, however, there has been new media attention as the UK, Assange’s current country of residence, decided to approve the extradition request by the US. This would mean that the whistleblower would have to face 18 criminal charges with a maximum sentence of 175 years. Although an ending to the court battle is not yet in sight, as Assange’s legal team prepares to appeal and to potentially even bring it before the European Court of Human Rights, this blog will give you an overview of Wikileaks so that you can make your own personal judgment on the case of Assange.
The Story Behind Wikileaks
Wikileaks was founded in 2006 by Australian computer programmer Julian Assange. It is an international media company that specializes in publishing classified documents and other information kept from the public. Documents that were leaked on Wikileaks include secret internal records from Amazon, unpublished documents from an international arbitration dispute concerning an arms deal between a state-owned French company and the United Arab Emirates, and files containing information about surveillance contractors in Russia. The motive behind disclosing all this information in its original form is the belief in scientific journalism, whereby documents are published with minimum editorial commentary for maximum neutrality of information. Thus, the primary aim of this extensive database is to provide access to otherwise restricted material to increase public scrutiny of governmental and multinational actors that occupy powerful positions in politics and economy.
Why Assange Has Been On the Run
One year after Wikileaks was founded, documents were released which described classified military procedures at the Guantanamo detention center. Wikileaks further published information on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars including sources on US informants such as locals, journalists, and human rights advocates. As a consequence, the US department of justice issued an indictment on 18 counts relating to “illegally obtaining, receiving and disclosing classified information”. Assange’s operation was described as “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States” and as such constituted a threat to national security. Due to anticipating legal issues related to publication of classified documents, Assange moved to Sweden because of its strong privacy law. Yet, in 2010, Swedish police initiated proceedings against the Wikileaks founder in relation to alleged sexual assault and rape. Assange then traveled to the UK where he tried to appeal his extradition to Sweden, which was denied. Assange found refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he stayed for several years until his asylum offer was withdrawn. He is currently incarcerated in the UK and his case may come to a close depending on whether Assange will be successful in appealing his extradition to the US.
Guilty or Not Guilty?
Wikileaks’ revelations under Assange have equally been criticized and praised. The platform as well as its authors and publishers have won numerous awards such as the Economist New Media Award, the Amnesty New Media Award, and Assange has been voted TIME Magazine Person of the Year. And there is ample reason to appreciate the work that Wikileaks has done. For example, various leaks exposed the human rights violations and civilian killings associated with the US war on terror. The human rights violations in question range from cases of torture at different military sites around the world and detainment of knowingly innocent people by the miliatry to the revelation of NSA surveillance practices and leaking Hillary Clinton’s emails. Not only does the public have a legitimate interest in knowing about these often illegal acts, it also contributed to improved public scrutiny and enabled victims to seek justice by providing important evidence. As such, Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange can be regarded as essential figures that safeguard freedom of expression and contribute to public truth-finding processes. The online platform has therefore been essential in accelerating information flow with maximum access to the public.
On the other hand, however, there are reasons as to why governments decide to classify certain information as highly secret. As already mentioned, some of the leaks involved the names and other personal information of informants who risked their lives to provide intelligence to military personnel. In light of current EU privacy law, these leaks included personal information that is strongly protected under the GDPR. Although the GDPR was not in force at the time and not relevant for the leaks on the US military, it is still useful to understand how these actions would be considered under current law. By collecting and disclosing information that included personal data, Wikileaks is considered a processor under the GDPR. As such, several legally-binding principles apply, such as the principle of data minimization which states that processing of information should be limited to what is necessary given the purpose of processing the data. By exposing their identities, Wikileaks clearly put some of these individuals in grave danger without legitimate reasons. Furthermore, certain activities on state level ought to remain secret because their disclosure could be to the detriment of national security and thus to citizens alike. Therefore, whistleblowing activities can be contradictory in the sense that they can be regarded both as beneficial to society due to taking advantage of freedom of expression and duly informing the public, and at the same time as harmful to the people being exposed and to national security.
Although it is unclear as to how the EU positions itself in the case of Assange, it has greatly benefited from the revelations regarding the NSA affair. Furthermore, the European Commission emphasizes the importance of whistleblowers as guardians of the public who make sure that unlawful activities of governments or companies don’t remain hidden. In response, the EU even implemented a Directive on the protection of whistleblowers which entered into force at the end of 2021. While it lays down minimum standards of protection for individuals leaking information on unlawful activities, the Directive doesn’t affect inter alia applicability of laws on classified documents or should hinder Member States in ensuring national security according to Art. 3(2) and (3). Hypothetically, this would mean that Assange would most likely not enjoy protection under EU law as his actions impeded on national security.
This shows the contradictions that arise in the case of whistleblowers. On the one hand, Assange together with Wikileaks raised public awareness regarding the unlawful activities of the US military and secret service which greatly benefited all of us and held people accountable. On the other hand, his leaks also caused severe security breaches and put many people in danger by exposing their information. In the end, it is a question on what is being valued more and hopefully this short piece helped in showing what values are at stake.