The truth, it turns out, won’t set you free: under capitalism it can get you locked up. That’s what Julian Assange discovered when he spoke truth to power. 

Today, the Wikileaks founder is languishing in Britain’s notorious Belmarsh Prison, awaiting extradition to the United States to face charges that could send him to prison for 175 years. He is charged with 18 felonies, including seventeen counts of espionage, over the publication of hundreds of thousands of classified documents in 2010. If convicted, he will join the likes of socialist Eugene Debs, anarchist Emma Goldmann and Wikileaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning, all of whom have fallen foul of the 1917 Espionage Act due to their opposition to war. 

According to his wife, lawyer Stella Assange, extradition would be a death sentence. Assange is physically and mentally destroyed. He has now spent five years in the maximum security Belmarsh Prison, often described as Britain’s Guantanamo Bay, where many inmates spend up to 22 hours a day in solitary confinement. 

His crime is journalism. Assange and Wikileaks did more to expose the lies and war crimes of the US and its allies during the War on Terror than all of the rest of the media combined. This included thousands of leaked diplomatic cables, torture manuals, classified military reports and war zone footage of civilians being murdered. 

One of the most widely viewed Wikileaks releases was the Collateral Murder video. The footage was from inside an Apache helicopter flying over Baghdad, Iraq, in 2007. It recorded an exchange between two US military personnel as they were given permission to open fire on a group of Iraqi men: 

“Light ’em all up.” 

“Keep shoot’n. Keep shoot’n.”

“Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards.” 


The aerial assault resulted in the murder of seven civilians, including two Reuters journalists. When help arrived to assist the wounded, the soldiers were again given clearance to shoot. This time two adult civilians who stopped to assist the wounded were killed, along with two of their children. 

Collateral Murder was just the tip of the iceberg, demonstrating how commonplace the murder of civilians was in the occupation of Iraq. 

In 2010, Wikileaks released hundreds of documents revealing beatings, burnings and lashings of detainees by their Iraqi captors under American tutelage. One report by US soldiers in June 2007 documented that a victim “... received extensive medical care at the Mosul General Hospital resulting in amputation of his right leg below the knee[,] several toes on his left foot, as well as amputation of several fingers on both hands. Extensive scars resulted from the chemical/acid burns, which were diagnosed as 3rd degree chemical burns along with skin decay”.

In another release, the leaked manual from Guantanamo Bay prison showed that the US army had a policy of hiding some prisoners from Red Cross inspectors and holding new prisoners in isolation for two weeks to make them more compliant for interrogators.

The Afghan War Logs, released by Wikileaks in 2010, included 91,000 classified documents that revealed a civilian death toll significantly higher than that being reported by the US military. In one instance in 2007, US special forces dropped 2,000 pounds of bombs on a compound where a “high-value individual” was allegedly sheltering. While the US senior commander reported the incident caused the death of 150 Taliban fighters, the Wikileaks document revealed the death toll included at least 300 civilians. As Assange noted, the Afghan Files were “the most comprehensive history of a war ever to be published during the course of the war”.

Wikileaks was also one of the first outlets to expose the financial and military support the US gave to the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. The Yemen Files revealed the true scale of the US’s covert military involvement in the Middle East’s poorest nation. In one cable, the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is reported as saying to the US ambassador, “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours”. Years before it became public knowledge, Wikileaks exposed that the US was shipping arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen while the US continued to deny any role in the conflict.

After profiting enormously from Wikileaks’ revelations, most of the mainstream media nevertheless hung Assange out to dry—parroting the unsubstantiated claim that his journalism put American secret agents and collaborators in danger. Just last year, a Sydney Morning Herald editorial wrote that Julian’s “recklessness” had him “[t]rapped in a limbo of his own making”. 

With the passage of time, most Australian news outlets have come out in favour of his return to Australia. The powerful he exposed are no longer themselves in power, which helps. But the media for the most part still don’t see Assange as one of their own, more a hacker with a vendetta than a journalist. In some ways, they’re right. Assange and his Wikileaks sources like Chelsea Manning did what no well-resourced liberal newspaper like the Guardian or the Washington Post was willing to do. They published the secrets of US imperialism with no concern for the damage done to the credibility of the US military, or the personal repercussions it would have on their careers and ability to access the powerful. 

At a time when ABC radio presenters are being sacked for tweeting about Israel’s actions in Gaza, it would do well to remember the record of the media establishment during the last major US war in the Middle East. 

According to a Brown University report released last year, 4.5 million to 4.6million people have been killed as a result of the War on Terror. In the early days of the war, the US empire and its junior partners like Australia could rely on a largely compliant and loyal media to help them get away with this atrocity. 

One of the early innovations of that war was “embedded journalism”. This was the practice of war correspondents being attached to specific units of the military—an in-house service in effect. In 2003, at the start of the war on Iraq, there were 775 reporters and photographers travelling as embedded journalists. When asked why the US military initiated this practice, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Long of the US Marine Corps was surprisingly honest. “Frankly, our job is to win the war”, he said. “Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment.” 

Assange’s reporting and subsequent persecution expose the hollowness at the core of Western democracy. It shows that the values our rulers profess to uphold—democracy, transparency, accountability, free speech and human rights—are highly conditional and subordinate to advancing empire and the political and corporate interests that underpin it. 

So while the West cooperates to crush dissent and make examples of those who engage in it, it has no qualms about criticising its rivals that engage in the same practices. When Putin critic Alexei Navalny was found dead in an Arctic prison after suffering what Russian authorities have called “sudden death syndrome”, Biden was quick to express his moral outrage and declare Putin responsible. He even invited Navalny’s widow to his State of the Union address, which she rightly turned down. 

Biden’s hypocrisy is breathtaking. It’s not just that the US is currently starving and obliterating the children of Gaza, giving it no credibility to talk about human rights. But it is also the case that in 2021, a former national security adviser revealed that senior CIA figures had considered options for assassinating Assange if they couldn’t leverage the Ecuadorian government to kick him out of its London embassy—exactly what the US is supposedly so morally outraged about when another regime does it. 

The Australian political class also bears responsibility for Assange’s fate. His Australian citizenship counts for nothing when stacked up against the importance of the US alliance. Federal parliament recently passed a toothless and face-saving motion calling on the UK and US to bring “this matter to a close so that Mr Assange can return home”. Weakly worded motions aside, Albanese has refused to exert any public pressure on the Biden administration. 

When asked on the ABC’s Insiders program if it was time for Biden to intervene in the case to drop charges against Assange, Albanese’s answer was “no”. 

The Australian ruling class are happy quietly to step aside and let the US make an example of Assange. After all, the Australian parliament has passed anti-whistleblower and surveillance legislation that rivals the Bush-era Patriot Act. The Australian state is keen to cover up its own crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and get on with the business of preparing for the next war. And the Australian Federal Police were happy to conduct raids on ABC journalists to prosecute those who leaked the Afghan Files, the documents that exposed the war crimes of Ben Roberts-Smith and his SAS cronies. 

Secrecy and lies are essential to the functioning of capitalism. It is a system that depends on large-scale violence as part of the competitive struggle for profit and access to markets by different states. The war on Iraq was launched on a lie—that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction—promoted by the Bush administration and parroted by its allies in the UK and Australia.  The war was carried out with Orwellian euphemisms: kidnapping and torture became “extraordinary rendition”, mass murder was “winning hearts and minds”, invasion and occupation were “regime change”, “liberation” and “bringing democracy”. Unlike the bulk of the mainstream media that largely repeated these lies and spin, Assange told the truth, and for that he is paying an enormous price. He deserves our full support.