Rep. Rashida Tlaib is collecting signatures on a letter calling on Attorney General Merrick Garland to end the extradition drive against WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange

REP. RASHIDA TLAIB, D-Mich., is circulating a letter among her House colleagues that calls on the Department of Justice to drop charges against Julian Assange and end its effort to extradite him from his detention in Belmarsh prison in the United Kingdom.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Intercept, is still in the signature-gathering phase and has yet to be sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland.

The Justice Department has charged Assange, the publisher of WikiLeaks, for publishing classified information. The Obama administration had previously decided not to prosecute Assange, concerned with what was dubbed internally as the “New York Times problem.” The Times had partnered with Assange when it came to publishing classified information and itself routinely publishes classified information. Publishing classified information is a violation of the Espionage Act, though it has never been challenged in the Supreme Court, and constitutional experts broadly consider that element of the law to be unconstitutional.

“The Espionage Act, as it’s written, has always been applicable to such a broad range of discussion of important matters, many of which have been wrongly kept secret for a long time, that it should be regarded as unconstitutional,” explained Daniel Ellsberg, the famed civil liberties advocate who leaked the Pentagon Papers.

The Obama administration could not find a way to charge Assange without also implicating standard journalistic practices. The Trump administration, unburdened by such concerns around press freedom, pushed ahead with the indictment and extradition request. The Biden administration, driven by the zealous prosecutor Gordon Kromberg, has aggressively pursued Trump’s prosecution. Assange won a reprieve from extradition in a lower British court but lost at the High Court. He is appealing there as well as to the European Court of Human Rights. Assange’s brother, Gabriel Shipton, who has been campaigning globally for his release, said that Assange’s mental and physical health have deteriorated in the face of the conditions he faces at Belmarsh.

Tlaib, in working to build support, urged her colleagues to put their differences with Assange the individual aside and defend the principle of the free press, enshrined in the Constitution. “I know many of us have very strong feelings about Mr. Assange, but what we think of him and his actions is really besides the point here,” she wrote to her colleagues in early March. “The fact of the matter is that the [way] in which Mr. Assange is being prosecuted under the notoriously undemocratic Espionage Act seriously undermines freedom of the press and the First Amendment.”

Tlaib noted that the Times, The Guardian, El País, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel had put out a joint statement condemning the charges, and alluded to the same problem that gave the Obama administration pause. “The prosecution of Mr. Assange, if successful, not only sets a legal precedent whereby journalists or publishers can be prosecuted, but a political one as well,” she wrote. “In the future, the New York Times or Washington Post could be prosecuted when they publish important stories based on classified information. Or, just as dangerous, they may refrain from publishing such stories for fear of prosecution.”

So far, the letter has collected signatures from Democratic Reps. Jamaal Bowman, Ilhan Omar, and Cori Bush. Rep. Ro Khanna said he had yet to see the letter but added that he has previously said Assange should not be prosecuted because the charges are over-broad and a threat to press freedom. Rep. Pramila Jayapal is not listed as a signee but told a Seattle audience recently she believes the charges should be dropped. A spokesperson for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that she intends to sign before the letter closes.

Chip Gibbons, policy director for Defending Rights & Dissent, said that the relative silence from Congress on the Assange prosecution has undermined U.S. claims to be defending democracy abroad. “In spite of the rhetoric about opposing authoritarianism and defending democracy and press freedom, we really haven’t seen a comparable outcry from Congress — until now,” said Gibbons, whose organization has launched a petition calling on the Justice Department to drop charges. “Rep. Tlaib’s letter isn’t just a breath of fresh air, it’s extremely important for members of Congress to be raising their voices on this, especially those from the same party of the current administration, at this critical juncture in a case that will determine the future of press freedom in the United States.”

A significant number of Democrats continue to hold a hostile view of Assange, accusing him of publishing material that was purloined by Russian agents from the inbox of Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. The indictment, however, relates to his publication of government secrets leaked by Chelsea Manning more than a decade ago. “In July 2010, WikiLeaks published approximately 75,000 significant activity reports related to the war in Afghanistan, classified up to the SECRET level, illegally provided to WikiLeaks by Manning,” the indictment reads. “In November 2010, WikiLeaks started publishing redacted versions of U.S. State Department cables, classified up to the SECRET level, illegally provided to WikiLeaks by Manning.”

The U.S. government has made the general claim that Assange’s publication of classified information put sources and allies of the U.S. in harm’s way, though the government has been unable to provide any example of that. Meanwhile, the U.S. government itself has left thousands of Afghan civilians, who collaborated with the U.S., to their fates after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, raising questions about the sincerity of their lamentations over the security of those who work with the U.S.

The word “publish” appears more than two dozen times in the superseding indictment of Assange, in which he is accused of “having unauthorized possession of significant activity reports, classified up to the SECRET level [and] publishing them and causing them to be published on the Internet.”

The full letter is below.