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A few thoughts on Julian Assange

This appears to be the end of a saga that has now dragged on for nearly fifteen years. Julian Assange is back in Australia after pleading guilty to conspiring to obtain and disseminate classified information. That admission was part of a plea deal that had been worked out between Assange, the UK, and the United States. He will not serve any additional time behind bars for his actions. 

So is this justice? 

I've been covering the stories of Assange and Chelsea Manning here for many years and watching all of this play out has frequently been frustrating for me. Since this seems to be the end of the road, I'll share a few final reflections on what all of this means in terms of secrecy, journalism, and national security. 

First, here's a brief summary of the plea deal and the history of Assange and WikiLeaks from the Associated Press:

The guilty plea by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange brings a stunning conclusion to an international saga of the quixotic hacker who exposed government secrets.

The deal reached with the U.S. Justice Department came after Assange spent 12 years either in self-exile or a British prison.

He pleaded guilty to conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified information relating to the national defense of the United States. The deal required him to admit guilt but also permitted him to return to Australia without any time in an American prison.

Let's start with Chelsea Manning (originally Bradley). In 2010, he betrayed his country and the military he served by releasing tens of thousands of classified documents and other records without authorization. Some of those records included the names and locations of American assets overseas including confidential human sources. Our adversaries were no doubt celebrating as soon as that trove was published and we will likely never know the full extent of the damage that was caused. Manning was convicted of these serious crimes and properly sentenced to decades in prison at Leavenworth. Barack Obama did the world no favors when he commuted Manning's sentence decades early and allowed him to go free.

Julian Assange's part in all of this is a bit more complicated. He was an Australian who never served in the military and took no oaths of fealty to America. But that doesn't mean that he should have been free to violate our laws. If all of those files had mysteriously shown up in his in-box one day without warning, he could have published them because I suppose you could think of him as a journalist of sorts if you are so inclined. But that's not what happened. Investigators build a compelling case showing that not only did Assange work with Manning to help him figure out how to download all of the data, but he also helped him crack a Defense Department passcode. That constitutes conspiracy and he knew precisely what he was conspiring to do and how his website would benefit from it.

I've always believed that Assange was just as guilty as Manning. Now that he has confessed, whether he really believes he is guilty or not, I suppose we can put that question to rest as well. But is this resolution truly justice under the circumstances? Probably not. Had Assange been successfully extradited and found guilty in the United States, he could have received a sentence every bit as harsh as Chelsea Manning was originally given. 

Yet a deal is a deal, after all, and Assange took the deal that was placed on the table. I was reflecting on this after the news broke and I eventually concluded that Julian Assange wound up spending more than a decade in confinement of one sort or another. His final years until this week were spent in an actual prison in the UK. Before that, he was holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for years and that couldn't have been much fun. It was a nicer prison, but it still served as a prison of sorts. With all of that in mind, I'm mostly at peace with the idea of Assange being let off with time served. Send him back to Australia with a warning not to darken our doorstep. Frankly, I'm sick of him and the entire WikiLeaks saga. Let's hope we've heard the last of it. 

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