Perhaps the greatest crime that Julian Assange committed in the eyes of both Democratic and Republican governments was this: he dared to tell the American people some of the terrible things their government had done.
The first time I was asked to comment publicly on Julian Assange and Wikileaks was on MSNBC in April 2010. Wikileaks had just released the Collateral Murder video. The video, leaked by Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, was taken from the gunsight of a US Apache helicopter as the helicopter’s crew killed 12 unarmed Iraqi civilians on a Baghdad street in 2007. Two Reuters journalists were killed and two small children were severely wounded (the Apache’s crew killed the children’s father as he attempted to assist wounded civilians). For three years, until Wikileaks released the video, the U.S. military claimed a battle had taken place and that aside from the two journalists, all the dead were insurgents.
The Army declared the journalists killed in the crossfire. The wounded children were ignored, even though the Apache’s crew had recognized at the time they had shot children. “Well, it’s their fault [for] bringing their kids to a battle.” the helicopter pilots said on the video minutes after shooting them. There had been no battle.
In the studio, the MSNBC host asked another veteran and me for our thoughts on the video. Her question was about the apparent shock American audiences were experiencing watching the brutal reality of the Iraq War. We were both incredulous that more than seven years into the war, such a video would be shocking. What did you think we were doing over there?
I went to war three times. I have seen mothers with their dead children and have heard their cries in Arabic, Pashto, and English. Those cries were all the same. The hell of war that has consumed men, women, and children for decades and continues in unending forms is unimaginable to many of us. Even harder to swallow is knowing these acts of organized murder and mass suffering, perpetrated in our names, were not cruel accidents of war but the result of planned and deliberate policies.
The millions of victims of the US wars throughout the Muslim World are familiar with the violence of these wars. For Americans at home, such familiarity with the wars, their violence, and the consequences, did not exist. Julian Assange and Wikileaks helped to change that.
For publishing the victims of the wars and war crimes caused by the U.S. and the West, Julian Assange is being held in Britain’s notorious Belmarsh prison, awaiting extradition to the United States. Assange’s harrowing captivity began more than 12 years ago when a US rendition forced him to seek sanctuary in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. I had the privilege of meeting him there in 2014. That visit allowed me to thank him for his witness through Wikileaks for the millions of war victims ignored, unnamed, and rendered voiceless. Over a decade on, his mental and physical health is failing, and Biden, despite his commitment to press freedom, has yet to budge on a pardon.
New York Times Vietnam war correspondent Neil Sheehan said the Pentagon Papers taught him that secrets were not kept by a government to protect its people from adversaries but rather to protect the government’s actions from the knowledge of its people. Perhaps this is the greatest crime that Julian Assange committed in the eyes of both Democratic and Republican governments: he dared to tell the American people what their government had done.
The effects on the First Amendment and press freedom will be severe if Julian Assange is extradited and successfully prosecuted. His persecution and torture already serve as a warning to journalists worldwide. And morally, Julian Assange’s imprisonment obstructs any reckoning we in the U.S. must do to contend with our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and their victims.
Matthew Hoh is a Senior Fellow with the Center for International Policy and a member of the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). He is a 100% disabled Marine combat veteran and, in 2009, he resigned his position with the State Department in Afghanistan in protest of the escalation of the war.