Almost six years ago the US Justice Department commenced an investigation into the publication by WikiLeaks, and its founder and publisher Julian Assange, of reams of materials concerning the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Normally a criminal investigation, unless it involves a cold case, would by now have progressed, at the very least, to laying of charges. In most cases the investigation would have been completed.
Yet, as Mr Assange’s US lawyer Barry Pollack said on Tuesday that while he has “repeatedly sought information from the Department of Justice regarding this now nearly-six-year-old investigation … the Department has provided [him] no substantive information whatsoever about the status of the investigation”.
Because of this extraordinary conduct – or perhaps misconduct is better word – Mr Pollack has written to the US Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking that the investigation be wound up on two grounds.
The first is that the Assange case is like that of US Presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was cleared after an investigation found she had no criminal intent in mishandling classified information. Nor did WikiLeaks or Mr Assange. It published material because it was newsworthy and of great public interest.
Secondly, because the Department of Justice has, since early 2015, had regulations that aim “to protect newsgathering and reporting activities from law enforcement tools that might unreasonably impair newsgathering”.
But while Mr Pollack’s request focuses rightly on specific grounds, there are broader policy and humanity issues at play here.
Mr Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London – a small flat in central London with no natural light or outdoor areas – for four years because he sought asylum fearing that the US would extradite him from Sweden or the US, and subject him to cruelty and torture in detention as it had done to Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, the former US soldier who was convicted of leaking materials to WikiLeaks.
(Editor’s note: Mr Assange is wanted by Swedish authorities for questioning over allegations that he committed rape in 2010. He denies this. He and his supporters fear that if he’s extradited to Sweden, he could be sent to the US and face the death penalty.)
Even if Mr Assange had not taken rational steps to protect himself from US mistreatment in detention and was living in the community, for a law enforcement and prosecutorial agency to keep someone under investigation for six years and not tell their lawyers anything about progress amounts to grossly unprofessional and unethical conduct.
The refusal to communicate with Mr Assange or his legal team regarding the six-year investigation makes a mockery of the Department of Justice’s so called ‘Values’ which it highlights on its website.
So much for ensuring that it is “dedicated to ensuring that the federal justice system is accessible and fair to all”, or that officers from the Department of Justice “adhere to the highest standards of ethical behaviour”, or that the Department communicates “with the public in an open and candid way”.
Those running the Assange and WikiLeaks investigation in Washington need to find other fish to fry. Mr Assange’s health is compromised by virtue of his living conditions over the past four years. He, like every other person who is subject to any form of official investigation, is entitled to have closure so he can move on with his life, irrespective of how much those in the Department of Justice might dislike WikiLeaks and its activities.
Oh, and a reminder to the Turnbull government and the Australian High Commission in London. Mr Assange is an Australian and he is an Australian being treated unconscionably by your friends in Washington.
Greg Barns is a barrister and managed the WikiLeaks Party 2013 federal election campaign. He remains an advisor to Mr Assange and Wikileaks.