New Espionage Charges Against Assange Are Bad for Journalists, Worse for Citizens

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The Justice Department this afternoon announced an 18-charge indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, accusing him of violating U.S. espionage laws by releasing and publishing classified military reports he received from Chelsea Manning.

Assange had already been charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a prosecution which was already troubling, as it was based entirely on giving Manning a suggestion on how to crack a password. Assange himself is not accused of direct hacking.

This new superseding indictment is a huge deal because it treats the publication of classified information by a media outlet as a federal crime. This is almost unheard of—the Espionage Act is typically used to punish the leakers themselves, people like Edward Snowden, Reality Winner, and most recently Daniel Hale. No journalist has been successfully prosecuted by the federal government for the act of publishing classified information (See: The Pentagon Papers).

If there’s any doubt that the federal government is trying to punish Assange for engaging in acts of journalism, here’s a piece of the Justice Department’s announcement (and there’s a link to the indictment itself at the bottom of the linked page):

After agreeing to receive classified documents from Manning and aiding, abetting, and causing Manning to provide classified documents, the superseding indictment charges that Assange then published on WikiLeaks classified documents that contained the unredacted names of human sources who provided information to United States forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to U.S. State Department diplomats around the world.  These human sources included local Afghans and Iraqis, journalists, religious leaders, human rights advocates, and political dissidents from repressive regimes.  According to the superseding indictment, Assange’s actions risked serious harm to United States national security to the benefit of our adversaries and put the unredacted named human sources at a grave and imminent risk of serious physical harm and/or arbitrary detention.

The superseding indictment alleges that beginning in late 2009, Assange and WikiLeaks actively solicited United States classified information, including by publishing a list of “Most Wanted Leaks” that sought, among other things, classified documents.  Manning responded to Assange’s solicitations by using access granted to her as an intelligence analyst to search for United States classified documents, and provided to Assange and WikiLeaks databases containing approximately 90,000 Afghanistan war-related significant activity reports, 400,000 Iraq war-related significant activities reports, 800 Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs, and 250,000 U.S. Department of State cables.

Many of these documents were classified at the Secret level, meaning that their unauthorized disclosure could cause serious damage to United States national security.  Manning also provided rules of engagement files for the Iraq war, most of which were also classified at the Secret level and which delineated the circumstances and limitations under which United States forces would initiate or conduct combat engagement with other forces.

Regardless of how one might feel about Assange or Manning, this is clearly a threat to the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press. If the prosecution is successful, we could see President Donald Trump’s administration to attempt to go after other media outlets who reveal state secrets. Expect to see many, many responses about how this could be used to go after The New York Times or the Washington Post or any media outlet Trump may be feuding with.

I think it’s equally important to understand that fundamentally, it is also an attack on your right to know what your government is doing. You, as a citizen, have every right to know much more than your government has been telling you about what the government does in your name. That’s the ultimate threat here, so be wary when media outlets make this solely about them.

Furthermore, be extremely wary of the government attempting to tell you who is and is not a journalist. Government officials have insisted for years that Assange doesn’t count as a journalist, and they’re saying that again today (John Demers, head of DOJ’s National Security Division, bluntly said “Julian Assange is no journalist”). Journalism is an act, not just an occupation, and the government does not have the authority to decide who is and is not a legitimate journalist. Any number of media outlets have requested, received, and published classified information in the manner of WikiLeaks, and in fact, many media outlets have published stories based on information released by WikiLeaks and Assange.

Right now, Assange sits in jail in the United Kingdom for jumping bail in a Swedish rape case dating back years. The United States is looking to have him extradited here to stand trial.

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