Espionage Act: the US muzzle

Originale italiano

The article reproduces the text of the speech by Alessia Pesando at the meeting on “The indictment of Julian Assange and the risks for the freedom of the press” that was held in Bussoleno (TO) on Saturday, December 14th 2019.


At the beginning of this event, a short video called Collateral Murder will be played; because of its contents, it’s preferable for a sensitive audience to abstain from watching it. The video lasts about 10 minutes; I’d therefore like to invite whoever feels uncomfortable about what we are showing now, to walk out of the conference room and come back once the footage is over. Thank you for your cooperation.

Link: Collateral Murder Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rXPrfnU3G0&has_verified=1

This video was published in 2010 by Wikileaks and shows the indiscriminate killing of 12 Iraqi civilians by US soldiers in the neighbourhood of New Baghdad.

It’s part of the Iraq War Logs. Please, watch it carefully; I’ll make ample reference to it in the following of my speech.

To illustrate the role and the significance of Wikileaks in nowadays society, I’d like to quote this passage from Marco Travaglio’s book “The disappearing of facts: please, suppress news in order not to upset opinions”:

If we all gather inside a soundproof room for a couple of days, after shutting doors and windows, rolling shutters down and switching off mobile phones, TV sets and radios, and we start talking of the weather outside, everyone can legitimately argue either that it’s a sunny day or it’s raining (or snowing or hailing). Any opinion will have the same credibility and reliability and the debate will go on unabated for days, even weeks. At least, as long as one of the prisoners with a sudden move decides to open wide a door or a window or to turn on the TV or the radio or the PC connecting to the Internet in order to find out what the weather is really like. Let’s assume that they find out it is actually raining; everyone will have to acknowledge it and from this very moment on, no one will be able to claim that it’s sunny or it’s snowing or hailing. End of the debate.
If, however, it can be made sure that no one can get in touch with the world outside, the weather will remain forever a matter of discussion among opposing viewpoints which, in the absence of factual data to be compared to, will all keep their credibility unchallenged.

It is precisely in such a situation that Wikileaks appears as a clarifying element providing the citizens of any country in the world with a platform where anyone can upload files revealing unethical actions carried out by governments or corporates. The website is edited by journalists, activists, scientists, whose identities are mostly undisclosed.

Wikileaks co-founder and former editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, is currently held in Belmarsh Prison in London and is facing a trial in the UK for the extradition request to the United States, where he is accused of releasing classified documents.

Among these files, there is the infamous video known as “Collateral Murder” which was released thanks to Chelsea Manning. While she was working as an analyst for the US army, she noticed that the file was saved in a directory accessed by the “Army legal division” and was able to trace back the exact date of the incident: 12th of July 2007. On that day an article was published on NYT reporting that Two Iraqi journalists were killed in a shootout between US forces and a militia. According to the article, US troops were patrolling the area, when they were attacked with grenades and mortar shells; after summoning two Apache helicopters for help, a face-off occurred and resulted in the killing of two Reuters employees and 9 rebels and the injuring of two little girls. Disgracefully the two wounded children were first taken to the local police station before receiving medical assistance.
The video, however, clearly shows that no attack from civilians ever occurred on that day and the quality of the footage leaves no doubt whatsoever about what really happened. Moreover it shows how two children were hit inside a van and the blatant depravity of the soldiers laughing at some of the victims. The military command will state as a justification that a camera lens was mistaken for a gunsight and this led to opening fire; they also stated that all rules of engagement were carefully observed.

After the release of war cables about the conflict in the Middle East, US government arrested Chelsea Manning and accused her of high treason. They later went after Julian Assange forcing him to seek political asylum inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he stayed until April 11th 2019, when he was forcefully dragged out and arrested. On May 23rd the US Department of Justice unsealed an indictment charging Assange with 17 offences in accordance with the Espionage Act, a law passed in 1917 which was devised to punish anyone who hands over information to the enemy. Assange faces up to 175 years in jail.

The Espionage Act is the same law that the United States tried to use in 1973 against Daniel Ellsberg for the disclosure of the Pentagon Papers, a series of top secret documents on the Vietnam war. This decision originated a harsh debate over the press of the freedom which was disputed in the courts of law and concerned the right to publish those files, despite their classification as top secret materials.

The decision to indict Julian Assange under the Espionage Act is highly controversial, because by this journalism is equated to spying.

The Espionage Act does not recognize any right and it was promulgated solely to cover up State secrets; it does not contemplate the public interest and bypasses any international law, to the point that anyone can be theoretically charged under it for disclosing US government’s classified materials. Because of this, its application to journalists is extremely controversial and in fact this is the first time in US history that it has been applied to a journalist. Whether this will start in regard to Assange and Wikileaks an historical battle whose meaning can be compared to the Pentagon Papers case and whether the media that partnered with Wikileaks in the publication of US government secret files will be prosecuted remains to be seen.

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