September 8, 2020
Clive Stafford-Smith explains using WikiLeaks docs in legal cases
Clive Stafford Smith, a U.S.-U.K. dual national and the founder of Reprieve, which defends prisoners detained by the U.S. at Guantánamo Bay and others in secretive detention localities around the world, testified about the importance of WikiLeaks material in their litigation. He first discussed the utility of WikiLeaks disclosures in litigation in Pakistan relating to drone strikes and the “seachange” in attitudes towards US drone strikes in Pakistan.
Regarding rendition, assassinations, torture exposed in WikiLeaks documents, Stafford-Smith said, “Speaking as a U.S. citizen, it is incredibly important that it stopped … I feel that my country’s reputation was undermined and criminal offenses were taking place.”
“The litigation in Pakistan would have been very, very difficult and different” if it weren’t for WikiLeaks disclosures.
“The most disturbing thing is that the assassination program with respect to terrorists leaked over to narcotics….they were targeting people for death for their involvement in drug trade because it was seen as funding terrorism. I could go on…”
Assassination programs “are not only unlawful but morally and ethically reprehensible,” he said, and journalists being targeted in war zones by the US is “deeply troubling, a monumental criminal offense.”
The defense questioning then turned to the importance of WikiLeaks releases on Guantanamo.
“It is difficult and hostile sometimes – this is one of the cases I have received death threats for representing these people…but your problem is always two-fold, the prisoners in Guantanamo don’t know what they are charged with….second, unfortunately people never get to meet prisoners in Guantanamo and judge their credibility, so proving what happened involved more than just saying it but travelling round the world and gathering proof”
Stafford-Smith explained that it’s complicated as to whether the GTMO releases are positive or negative in his view:
“Those leaks are the very worst that the US authorities confect about the prisoners I have represented. But on the other hand, they are really important because the world didn’t know the allegations that were being made against my client.”
The best example I am able to give you,I was frustrated when I first read those WikiLeaks documents because I thought they would leak what I get to see….what was useful was the 13 pages that the US government alleged against my client, which up until that point I couldn’t discuss it with anyone, and finally I was able to declassify their assertions and prove that each of their allegations was total nonsense. No one has been ordered for release in America but it was certainly helpful to be able to disprove it.”
“I found it immensely frustrating that the world didn’t know about the unreliability of the evidence against my clients…what others have done by taking the WikiLeaks documents, and I credit here Andy Worthington, is to analyze the number of times certain informants were the named basis for detaining prisoners.”
“While it is important representing the client, and it doesn’t show the world what is actually going on there. My experience with Guantanamo is that if we can open it up to public inspection to see what is really happening there, then they will close it down because its just not what it is advertised as.”
“I say this more in sadness than in anger. Before 2001, I would never have believed that my government would do what it did. We are talking about criminal offenses of torture, kidnapping, rendition, holding people without the rule of law and, sad to say, murder.”
On enhanced interrogation techniques:
“I have had a project of comparing the methodologies that my government uses on my clients to what they used in Spanish Inquisition…hanging people by the wrist while their shoulders slowly dislocate….the first thing I do is to apologize.”
“As you go through the documentation Wikileaks leaked, there are all sorts of things identified, including where people are taken and renditioned…and that was the case in Binyam’s case.”
Clive Stafford-Smith says WikiLeaks and those associated could be subjected to U.S. sanctions under the new ICC sanctions regime because of the role Wikileaks has played in the accountability efforts of U.S. officials involved in war crimes.
“To threaten and impose sanctions is unlawful, and what you are doing here today could justify sanction under the terms of the Executive Order.”
Anyone can be sanctioned who is seeking to assist in an investigation which could lead to ICC investigation, which is what Wikileaks does, so that is covered by the US sanction regime.”
Prosecution cross-examination misleads on the charges
U.S. prosecutor James Lewis repeatedly tried to get Stafford-Smith to concede that none of the WikiLeaks cables mentioned in his witness statement are the subject of charges. Lewis is trying to establish that the indictment of Assange only deals with cables that name specific names of informants. But the defense points out that the prosecution is incorrectly stating that there is no reference to publishing – Assange is in fact being charged for “communicating” and “obtaining” classified information, and these charges capture all the documents, not just specific cables referenced in the pure publication counts.
Furthermore, Stafford-Smith repeatedly explained to the prosecutor that Lewis doesn’t understand how the U.S. prosecutes these cases — just because they aren’t in the indictment they will be used against him. Lewis kept saying that he’s only charged with naming names so the other cables released are irrelevant.
Fed up with this back and forth, Assange himself spoke from the dock to say, “This is nonsense,” the US pretense that he’s not being charged with publishing classified information, just naming names, is “nonsense.”
“Apparently my role is to sit here and legitimate what is illegitimate by proxy,” Assange said.
The judge interrupted Assange to reprimand him for speaking out of turn.
“I understand of course you will hear things most likely many things that you do not like and you would like to intervene but it is not your role.
“Your remaining in court is something the court would wish for. But the court could proceed without you.”
The prosecution closed its cross-examination by citing David Leigh’s book with reference to Assange’s comments on informants, asks if Stafford-Smith agrees with Leigh’s or Assange’s view of informants. Stafford-Smith says he wouldn’t judge anyone based on a book.
Feldstein gives historical context for WikiLeaks’ journalism
Journalism professor Mark Feldstein took the stand to continue his testimony which began yesterday, picking up where he left off on the long history of journalists using classified information in their reporting.
Feldstein confirmed that soliciting information is “standard journalistic behavior.” When teaching journalism, Feldstein talks about asking sources for evidence, actively seeking information, working with them to find documents that are newsworthy, and directing them as to what to find out. “It’s all routine,” he said.
Also routine are efforts to conceal sources’ identities. “Trying to protect your source is a journalistic obligation” Feldstein said, adding, “We use all kinds of techniques to protect them, including payphones, anonymity, encryption, removing fingerprints from documents, reporters do this all the time.”
Later, the prosecution would attempt to draw substantial differences between the New York Times and WikiLeaks, suggesting journalists don’t steal or unlawfully obtain information. While agreeing that journalists are not above the law, Feldstein says that it’s a “slippery slope” as to what constitutes “soliciting” information.
“We journalists are not passive stenographers,” he said. “To suggest receiving anonymously in the mail is the only way is wrong.”
Asked if he himself has published this type of information, he said, “Yeah, I didn’t publish a lot of classified documents but my entire career virtually was soliciting and publishing secret information.”
On the question of allegations that publishing names necessarily causes harm, Feldstein said that it’s easy for the government to claim possible harm because it’s impossible to prove. “Scant evidence that national security is harmed” by government disclosures, he said, and “national security is often used as a shield to hide” embarrassing or bad actions.
Feldstein used the Pentagon Papers as an example, where the government prosecutors at the time went to court alleging that these documents exposed war plans, identified CIA officials, and could even prolong the war. Prosecutors told the court that it would cause “immediate and irreparable harm,” and only years later did one such prosecutor admit he saw no harm from the releases. But why lie at the time? We now know that President Nixon himself instructed his attorney general to smear the New York Times as “disloyal,” in any way he could.
The Trump administration’s “politically motivated prosecution”
The prosecution made repeated efforts to characterize the investigation into WikiLeaks from 2010 to 2020 as one ongoing case, which just happened to finally result in charges with President Trump in power. But Feldstein testified to his view that the Obama administration explicitly decided not to prosecute Assange, citing this 2013 article on the Obama administration deciding not to prosecute, whereas “everything changed” under the Trump administration.
The 2013 piece begins, “The [Obama administration’s] Justice Department has all but concluded it will not bring charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for publishing classified documents because government lawyers said they could not do so without also prosecuting U.S. news organizations and journalists.”
In 2017, by contrast, the FBI wanted a “head on a pike”, President Trump wanted journalists in jail, then-CIA director Mike Pompeo called WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence agency”, and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions made Assange’s arrest a “priority.”
Even in this administration, the decision was controversial. This 2019 Post article explicitly names James Trump and Daniel Grooms as federal prosecutors who disagreed with prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act, because it was “so susceptible to First Amendment and other complicated legal and factual challenges.”
The prosecution attempted to show that WikiLeaks, Assange and his lawyers believed charges were still coming, but Feldstein said that while of course lawyers would protect their client, and while WikiLeaks would likely always fear charges, the “proof is in the pudding” that the Obama admin did not bring charges and Trump did, with no new evidence coming forward in between.
In answering closing questions, Feldstein was very clear as to why he believed the prosecution of Assange was politically motivated, citing several reasons: the unprecedented scope of these charges, the fact that a prosecution was rejected by the Obama administration, the framing of the superseding indictment, and President Trump’s “known vitriol toward the press.” Finally, he said, the only attempts to prosecute journalists in the past were “obviously highly political.”
The prosecution suggested Feldstein was speculating and returned to the idea that names published in the documents would cause harm and an objective grand jury could see that. Feldstein responded that if that was the real intention, the U.S. could have indicted Assange under the much narrower Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, which criminalizes the exposure of certain intelligence figures.
Expanding on the dangers of this broad scope in the indictment, Feldstein said, “recruiting and conspiracy are scary terms, used for terrorists.” By contrast, journalists direct sources, say what they need, send back for more information. “So if that becomes criminalized, if that becomes conspiring, then most of what investigative journalists do would be criminal.”
Assange has been re-arrested, the previous extradition warrant has been withdrawn and the new warrant has been served.
NGOs access to Assange hearing revoked
Judge Vanessa Baraitser then announced that some 40 individuals were granted remove (video) access to the proceedings by mistake, and their access has been revoked. Courage has learned that those whose access was rescinded include representatives from Amnesty International and PEN Norway.
“I know that others are attending this hearing remotely and in an adjacent courtroom. I am allowing this to take place for social distancing and technology allows us to watch this remotely. Those who attend remotely are still bound to the usual rules relevant to court hearings. I remind you that it is a criminal offense to record or broadcast any part of this hearing, including screenshots on any device. As you know I am aware that a photograph has been taken of Mr Assange inside court and shared on social media in breach of these rules.
I have received a list of 40 people who wish to attend this remotely by cloud. This is something I can consider but only after I have received an application. I have granted a number of remote access to lawyers and a small number of people including lawyers who have acted for Mr Assange in closely related proceedings. In error, the court sent out to others who had sought access. During this pandemic, there have been changes about how people can access proceedings. I remain concerned about my ability to maintain the integrity of the court if they are able to attend remotely. Normally, I can see what is happening in the court room to ensure the integrity of courtroom is maintained. Once livestreaming takes place, the court cannot manage this breach even less when the person is outside the jurisdiction. I want to make it clear that the public interest and allowing remote access is unlikely to meet the interests of justice tests. There are many jurisdictions allowing travel to the UK during COVID, so lessening restrictions on travel. For those who consider they still not travel to the UK to attend the hearing, then they need to apply again and I will consider it.
I have regretfully refused the current remaining applications for access to the cloud access.”
WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnnson explains that parliamentarians were denied access as well.
Debate over whether witness statements will be read in court
The defense has asked that the witnesses be permitted to be taken through their witness statements so that the court, Assange and the public will hear the evidence in full before cross examination starts. “To plunge into cross examination would not assist yourself, the public or Mr Assange and would not be fair.”
Prosecutor James Lewis QC opposes this, saying it is contrary to Divisional Court jurisprudence and that it would allow witnesses to give additional evidence beyond their written statements and require constant adjournments to allow the prosecution to consider the evidence given on the stand before cross examination can begin.
The judge decides,
“Each of the witness statements will be made public. Mr Assange has been given a copy of those witness statements. In my view there is no benefit whatsoever to allowing the witnesses give evidence in chief. I will give the witnesses time to settle and orientate themselves and will allow no more than 30 minutes.”
Superseding indictment comes well after proceedings were underway
Six months after opening submissions, 18 months before this hearing started and a matter of weeks before the matter was listed, the US announced a new indictment.
Defense counsel Mark Summers QC says,
“It is a curiosity that the US had, in previous hearings, been content for the hearings to go ahead in February and in May, presumably knowing that this was coming.”
It wasn’t immediately obvious what had changed. Of course the conduct outlined in it, but as far as the charges in it, it was difficult to discern what was going on….
“It became clear to everyone on 21 August, just over 2 weeks ago, whether or not we were justified in thinking the charges had changed. The material was expressly now not just background material but was being put before you as potential standalone basis for criminality, that is to say, that even if the US court rejects in their entirely the existing Manning allegations, Mr Assange can be extradited and potentially convicted for this conduct on its own and this is a resounding and new development in this case. The reason I am on my feet is of course the timing of this development.”
The defense also putlined the various other criminal allegations now included in the new indictment – including assisting a whistleblower attempting to evade arrest (Snowden).
“It would be extraordinary for this court to be beginning an extradition hearing in relation to allegations like that within weeks of their announcement without warning and even more extraordinary to do in circumstances where the defendant is in custody.”
To remedy this issue, the defense proposes the court excise the new conduct alleged in the newest indictment. “It impossible for the defense team to deal with the allegations being put to him and in relation to material for which you have been provided no explanation for their late arrival.”
“It is fundamentally unfair to introduce separate criminal allegations, without notice, without time to prepare evidence, where the defense cannot properly deal with the new aspects of the case.”
“What is happening here is abnormal, unfair and liable to create real injustice if it is allowed to continue.”
“The appropriate course is for the court to exercise its powers to excise the new allegations.”
Judge refuses to excise new conduct alleged in newest indictment
Judge Baraitser says the defense should have asked for more time despite Assange still being in custody. If conduct is to be excised, she says, it must be in context of a statutory bar or abuse of process argument. The judge refuses the defense proposal to excise any new conduct in the newest superseding indictment.
Defense requests adjournment
In light of the judge’s refusal to excise the new conduct alleged, the defense asks the court for an adjournment until January.
“This is an application that we do not make lightly because Mr Assange will bear the brunt of the consequences of it. In light of your ruling, we do apply for an adjournment to allow us to gather the evidence that we need to answer the new allegations.”
We have not been able to answer the allegations which have only been made in the last few weeks. This has been made worse because of the conditions we are all having to work under.
“I can say without fear of contradiction that no one in this case has been involved in a case of this magnitude dealing with the gathering of evidence at this late stage of the process.”
The defense explained why they haven’t made this application before today’s hearing:
“First, throughout that period, Mr Assange had not seen the new request. I have mentioned more than once that the only way he gets to see documents is by posting documents into Belmarsh. We have not had opportunity to meet and consult with him. He still hasn’t received, for example, the revised opening note and the documents which accompanied it and it was that document that made clear that we were dealing with conduct that was mere narrative as we had believed it to be but was standalone criminality capable of sustaining a conviction if accepted in its own right. Instructions taken from Assange on that basis could only have commenced on 21 August, which was last week, and we took the view that we had the ability to first apply to exclude that material. We have recognized that the solution, if there is one, is adjournment.
I could of course appraise you with more detail of the difficulties the defence team has been operating under the past few months.”
Acknowledging that they haven’t seen their client in person, the judge asks if the defense has been able to speak to Assange by phone. They respond yes, but only twice in very short conversations:
“It is not easy and even coherent on the phone. I don’t want to belabor the difficulties we have had in communicating with our client in the past week, but they have been very significant in the time period you are concerned with. He was, in essence, over that unsatisfactory medium, he was having to take in information from us on – any view – complex documents and to make him aware of the issues and to take a decision on them.”
The defense explained there is no videolink, only these short, difficult conversations by phone. The judge adjourned for 10 minutes to consider the defense’s application.
Judge denies defense request for adjournment
The judge says the defense had time to apply to adjourn previously and they did not do so. Rejecting the defense’s reasoning for applying now, she says she ruled not to excise new conduct now but this can’t have come as a surprise and the defense should have acted as if we would proceed. Judge denies defense application to adjourn.
Journalism professor begins testimony
Mark Feldstein, journalism historian and professor at the University of Maryland, gives testimony. See his witness statement here as to his determination that what Assange and WikiLeaks practice is journalism: Mark Feldstein witness statement
Feldstein testifies to the ubiquity of leaks of classified information:
“There are so many of them – thousands upon thousands – it is routine; every study in the last 60 years has said the leaks of classified information inform the public about government decision making but they also evidence government dishonesty….and they go back to George Washington’s presidency.”
Some journalists make a career of this?
Feldstein says, “Yes, Pulitzer prize winners and some of the most respected journalists in the nation.”
Would you expect publishers to be prosecuted for this criminal conduct?
“Well no…because the First Amendment protects a free press and it is vital that the press expise wrongdoing….not because journalists are somehow privileged but that the public has a right to be informed.”
Has there ever been a precedent of the prosecution of a publisher?
“There has always been a divide, the source-distributor divide….they have charged whistleblowers or sources, but have never charged a publisher, a journalistic or other news outlet.”
There have been other attempts to prosecute journalists before?
“There have been extraordinary efforts to punish presidential enemies…”
Presidents going after journalists but never to the point of a grand jury returning charges?
At this point, the court had technical issues with Prof. Feldstein’s videolink, and adjourned for the day. Court resumes tomorrow, 10am London time.