Defense lawyers for Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder facing possible extradition to the U.S. from the UK on 18 charges related to his leaks of U.S. military and security secrets, plan to argue they have evidence new acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell abused his power to interfere in the case on behalf of Donald Trump, Politico reported on Monday.
In 2010, Assange fled to the Ecuadorean embassy in London after Swedish prosecutors sought him for questioning in an unrelated, since-dropped rape investigation, saying it was a pretext to ship him to the U.S. to face espionage charges. UK police later manhandled him out of the embassy by force and he is now being held by British authorities for possible extradition to the U.S., where federal prosecutors have slapped him with 18 charges (including a hacking-related one and violations of the Espionage Act) that could land him a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison. Assange’s team claims that he was engaging in protected journalistic activity and that the U.S. case against him is simply political revenge for humiliating the powerful U.S. defense establishment.
The case has obvious, massive, and ominous implications for anyone in the business of publishing leaked classified information, like national security reporters, news organizations, or activists. Doctors and other visitors to Assange during his period of confinement claim him to be in dire health and having faced de facto psychological torture.
Assange’s team has already claimed that Trump dispatched now-former Representative Dana Rohrabacher to the UK in 2017 to offer a pardon if Assange assisted the president in debunking the persistent claims that the 2016 hack of Democratic Party computer systems was a Russian intelligence operation. (WikiLeaks released the files obtained in the hack, which U.S. prosecutors have charged Russian military officials with committing; at the time Trump was desperately trying to distance himself from claims of electoral collusion with Russia.) According to Politico, Assange’s lawyers plan to introduce evidence that Grenell, then the U.S. ambassador to Germany, promised Ecuadorean officials in 2018 that the U.S. would not seek the death penalty for Assange if they allowed UK police to raid the embassy.
That agreement was never more than verbal, according to Politico and a prior ABC News report from 2019. Assange’s team plans to introduce evidence that Grenell improperly inserted himself into the extradition request and that the U.S. “agreed in advance to take a particular sentence off the table before even allowing a trial and sentencing to play out” for politico reasons, Politico wrote.
The defense team hopes to show that this shows the U.S. aim in the extradition process was to score a political victory—looking tough by obtaining Assange—and not neutrally enforcing the law. However, the claim is based on evidence that is sure to be hotly contested as it includes material from Cassandra Fairbanks, a far-right activist who recorded calls with Arthur Schwartz, an associate of Grenell’s. (Disclosure: Fairbanks unsuccessfully sued a reporter for Gizmodo’s former sister website Splinter, Emma Roller, for defamation in a case dismissed in 2018.)
According to Politico, Fairbanks recorded two phone calls with Schwartz and took screenshots of additional conversations in which Schwartz (a Trump-affiliated GOP political operative, not a national security official) informed her of Grenell’s meetings with Ecuadorean officials. Schwartz later complained that she had tweeted “classified information” in a post in which she claimed that Grenell was “taking orders from the president” and he feared that the leak would be connected to him.
“I don’t want to go to jail,” Schwartz said in the call. According to Politico, he now claims he was simply trying to get her to stop trash-talking Grenell: “Knowing that she’s not too bright and easily manipulated, I threw a bunch of nonsense at her that I thought would get her to stop.”
In other words, this is a whole mess that won’t be easily sorted out. It would not look good for Grenell’s career trajectory as DNI if he was indeed shopping around sensitive information on the U.S. intelligence establishment to random pro-Trump political goons that happened to be his buddies. But like much of the evidence offered both against Assange and in his defense, the trail of evidence here is a bit murky. (It should be noted that if Assange is indeed extradited, his chances of escaping conviction on procedural grounds, let alone claims about arbitrary political machinations by U.S. authorities, would plummet.)
Politico said that Fairbanks also passed her information on to Property of the People, a nonprofit transparency organization that works with journalists to expose government misconduct. In a statement to Politico, executive director Ryan Shapiro said that “the nation’s new top spy [Grenell] is a former Fox News contributor and far-right public relations flack who appears to have leaked classified information to a Trump family political fixer who subsequently shared it with a prominent alt-right blogger.” He added that his group aimed to stop the White House’s “ongoing seizure of power or suffer the United States’ descent into genuine authoritarianism.”
In the opening of Assange’s extradition hearings on Monday, attorneys representing the U.S. argued their own view of things: namely, that he was a reckless leaker motivated by political vengeance and who put U.S. intelligence assets at risk by publishing unredacted documents. According to the Guardian, Assange’s defense team has other arguments planned, including testimony from a Spanish security firm staffer who says the U.S. conducted surveillance on Assange at the embassy and discussions involving extreme measures to capture him, such as kidnapping or poisoning. The defense also plans to argue that Assange never published unredacted documents until after they had been made public by other sources.