C.I.A. whistleblower Jeffery Sterling, who was sentenced to 3½ years in prison, says punishing Julian Assange for publishing critical information is designed to keep us enslaved in ignorance. He gave the following address to the Belmarsh Tribunal on January 20, 2023 at the National Press Club in Washington.
These remarks were originally published in Consortium News.
It is an absolute honor to be here today. Here at the Press Club. Years ago, my wife spoke on my behalf about the injustice that happened to me. I spent two and a half years in prison after being wrongfully convicted on no evidence of violating the Espionage Act. It was a travesty of a trial, and that sentence was held up as a shining example of the ‘reasonableness and fairness’ that Julian Assange will face being tried here for violating that same Espionage Act.
I remain sickened to this day that my persecution was held up as the benchmark of what Julian Assange is going to face in trial here. Of course, the benchmarks they did not talk about include my experience fighting against the Espionage Act, a biased criminal justice system, and the realities of being behind bars here in the United States. I can tell you that any claims of fair or humane treatment in store for Julian Assange here within our criminal justice system in prisons were outright lies.
But I would like to focus on the law that Julian Assange has supposedly violated. First and foremost, it is virtually impossible to defend against the Espionage Act. Truth is no defense. In fact, any defense related to truth will be prohibited. In addition, he won’t have access to any of the so-called evidence used against him and to make it even more difficult, the government doesn’t have to show any harm.
It is a law and prosecution in which the government says what it wants. It’s a ‘because we say so law,’ not to be questioned, not to be challenged. The trial will be nothing more than an affirmation and continuation of the character assassination that the government has launched against Julian Assange from the moment that he spoke up.
So what are we really talking about here? I mean, what is this law, the Espionage Act that he’s accused of violating, and that I was accused of violating? You know, we’re led to believe that Julian and other whistleblowers are threats to the national security of this country, hence being charged with violating the Espionage Act. But I’m living proof of what national security actually means here in the United States.
Here’s a real benchmark they don’t tell you about. In my example, I sued the C.I.A. for racial discrimination because they said I was too big and black to serve my country, according to the government in that instance, and upheld by the same courts that they’re intending to try Julian Assange in — that a black man fighting for his constitutional rights is a threat to national security.
Not a surprise, really. One of the original and enduring threats to the national security of this country is and has always been, African-Americans. And to punish me as an African-American for having the audacity to sue the C.I.A., I was falsely accused of and put on trial for violating the Espionage Act and by default, our national security.
The only evidence needed to convict me was the color of my skin. Julian won’t be afforded any so-called constitutional rights that I had. What chance is he going to have to fight against these charges of violating the Espionage Act? And when I think about how national security dictated that I can be blatantly discriminated against, it painfully reminds me of the horrors of slavery and the laws that were designed to preserve it.
When examining the Espionage Act and how it’s being used, it’s not unreasonable to be reminded of the anti-literacy laws that were enforced during slavery in this country. Those laws were used to prevent educating slaves because of the fear that an educated slave population would threaten the nation’s security. Keeping us uneducated and ignorant was a tenet of national security then, and we see the same thing with how the Espionage Act is being used now against whistleblowers and against Julian Assange.
Truly, the more things change, the more they stay the same. When we look at it, the Espionage Act is no different than those anti-slavery laws. They both represent, and they are the very embodiment of white supremacism that has always been a part of the identity and governance of this country. The Espionage Act has not been used to fight espionage.
It’s being used against whistleblowers and Julian Assange to keep the subjugated, ignorant of its wrongdoings and illegalities in order to maintain its hold on authority all in the name of national security. I mean, think about it. None of the Espionage Act prosecutions have or are even allowed to examine the truth of the matter brought to light by the whistleblower.
The focus is always only on what was done for the sake of education and accountability. The white slave owners knew the truth. An educated slave won’t be a slave for long. That is what this Espionage Act is about. What this endless persecution of Assange and whistleblowers everywhere has always been about, all in the name again of national security.
And thanks to complicity like from the United Kingdom, which has been all too willing to serve Julian up to the U.S., that same ideology is expanding beyond the bounds of slavery and fomenting racial discord in this country to reach perceived threats anywhere under perfidious claims of national security. I think it compelling that this tribunal was happening the same week that the nation celebrates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
When he said in the letter from a Birmingham jail that one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws, he was talking about laws like the Espionage Act.
What makes the Espionage Act unjust is that it is not being used to protect this nation. It does not apply to the powerbrokers in this nation. It is being used to keep us all slaves. It is therefore an unjust law and should be disobeyed. The most immediate and meaningful way this wrongful law can be disobeyed is by the release of Julian Assange.
The U.S. government has already demonstrated a boundless intent to persecute those who dare reveal its transgressions. And it won’t end with Julian Assange. Free the man. None of us will be free until he is released and the Espionage Act is abolished. Set the man free. Thank you.
Jeffrey Sterling is an attorney and former CIA employee who was convicted under the Espionage Act. He is the author of Unwanted Spy: the Persecution of an American Whistle Blower.