This debate has spanned the decade: Is Julian Assange a villainous hack working in concert with countries that regularly squash a free press? Or is he a symbol of freedom of speech and the public’s right to know?
The debate is back on now that Assange has been arrested in the UK and charged in the US – not under the Espionage Act for publishing classified material, as many press freedom advocates had feared, but under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
On Thursday morning, shortly after Assange was taken into custody, prosecutors alleged that Assange “engaged in a conspiracy with Chelsea Manning, a former intelligence analyst in the US Army, to assist Manning in cracking a password” on classified DOD computer systems. Notably, according to this timeline, Manning had already started to download information off the servers. Assange allegedly coaxed Manning to keep going.
One of Assange’s lawyers, Barry Pollack, says the charges just “boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identify of that source. Journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by these unprecedented criminal charges.”
Others beg to differ. They say Assange is a tool of Russian intelligence, among other things. Here’s an in-depth look at the still-developing story from all sides…
Floyd Abrams’ view
We asked eminent First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams for his reaction to the news.
“First,” he said, “a sigh of relief that the indictment seems narrow in scope and was not rooted in an Espionage Act claim simply based on receiving and publishing classified data.”
“Second,” he said, “it is based on Assange’s alleged activities in personally participating in accessing the classified information and cracking a classified password. Assange is thus accused of not just receiving classified information and disseminating it but in essence of breaking into the secured computers of the government. That is fortunately not commonplace journalistic conduct.”
“Third,” Abrams added, “notwithstanding the unique features of the case, much of it is based on not uncommon journalistic conduct — receiving and publishing classified material. To that extent, the case still has some level of broader risk for journalists. On balance, though, it seems to me that the government has used significant restraint in making only this single rather unique charge against Assange and the ultimate impact on the press may thus be limited.”
Reactions from press freedom groups
Several prominent groups that advocate for the press say they are very concerned about the implications of Thursday’s charges, even though, as the Committee to Protect Journalists noted, “the indictment does not explicitly charge Assange for publication.”
What it does do, CPJ said, is construe Assange’s interactions with Manning “as part of a criminal conspiracy.”
Robert Mahoney, CPJ’s deputy director, said “the potential implications for press freedom of this allegation of conspiracy between publisher and source are deeply troubling. With this prosecution of Julian Assange, the U.S. government could set out broad legal arguments about journalists soliciting information or interacting with sources that could have chilling consequences for investigative reporting and the publication of information of public interest.”
Reporters Without Borders expressed a similar set of concerns. “The persecution of those who provide or publish information of public interest comes at the expense of the investigative journalism that allows a democracy to thrive,” the group said.
The UK’s National Union of Journalists said it is “shocked and concerned by the actions of the authorities today… The NUJ recognises the inherent link between and importance of leaked confidential documents and journalism reporting in the public interest. It should be remembered that in April 2010 WikiLeaks released Collateral Murder, a video showing a 2007 US Apache helicopter attack upon individuals in Baghdad, more than 23 people were killed including two Reuters journalists. The manner in which Assange is treated will be of great significance to the practice of journalism.”
Top Twitter reactions, part one
– Peter Sterne, who formerly ran the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker: “The CFAA charge is clearly a pretext, a way of punishing Assange for publishing classified documents without actually charging him for it. But the fact that DOJ went out of its way to avoid charging him for publishing means this doesn’t set a dangerous precedent.”
– Sen. Lindsey Graham: “I’m glad to see the wheels of justice are finally turning when it comes to Julian Assange. In my book, he has NEVER been a hero. His actions – releasing classified information – put our troops at risk and jeopardized the lives of those who helped us in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
– MSNBC’s Ari Melber: “The U.S. government indictment of Julian Assange is an aggressive and potentially chilling legal document for journalists in the U.S. and abroad.”
Snowden says the US case is shockingly weak
Assange ally Edward Snowden tweeted, “The weakness of the US charge against Assange is shocking. The allegation he tried (and failed?) to help crack a password during their world-famous reporting has been public for nearly a decade: it is the count Obama’s DOJ refused to charge, saying it endangered journalism. Here’s his Twitter feed…
DOJ officials “expect to bring additional charges”
CNN’s Evan Perez reports: “Justice Department officials expect to bring additional charges against Assange, a US official briefed on the matter said. It is unclear when such charges would be brought.”
Regarding the assertion from Snowden (and others) that the Obama administration refused to charge Assange: “The Justice Department had struggled for years with the question of whether Assange and WikiLeaks should be treated as journalists and publishers,” Perez wrote. “News organizations similarly published stolen classified documents; some even worked with WikiLeaks to get access to documents and publish stories. The view among prosecutors began changing late in the Obama administration, in part due to new evidence the FBI believed showed Assange was not entitled to journalistic protections.” And then WikiLeaks’ publication of stolen CIA hacking codes in 2017 “helped propel the case against Assange, according to current and former US law enforcement officials.”
Perez’s sources referenced new evidence. What kind? Here’s more from Perez: “The years-long FBI investigation into Assange transformed in recent years with the recovery of communications that prosecutors believe show Assange had been been a more active participant in a conspiracy to hack computers and violating US law, law enforcement officials say.”
Charges in other countries, too?
Obama White House aide turned CNN analyst Samantha Vinograd wonders if Assange could be charged for crimes in other countries, as well. Vinograd writes: WikiLeaks “served as a Russian information laundromat during the 2016 campaign – we don’t know if Assange will be charged with conspiring with the GRU to release DNC emails, for example – and Wikileaks doesn’t just target the US…”
What The Intercept is saying
The Intercept website has been a home for detailed and sometimes supportive coverage of WikiLeaks and Assange over the years. Right now there’s a “WAR ON WIKILEAKS” section on its home page. Here is the site’s main story about the arrest, written by Robert Mackey.
– The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald has been active on Twitter ever since the arrest news broke. Here’s a representative post: “The DOJ says part of what Assange did to justify his prosecution - beyond allegedly helping Manning get the documents – is he encouraged Manning to get more docs for him to publish. Journalists do this with sources constantly: it’s the criminalization of journalism.”
– Greenwald also highlighted this statement from the ACLU’s Ben Wizner: “Prosecuting a foreign publisher for violating U.S. secrecy laws would set an especially dangerous precedent for U.S. journalists, who routinely violate foreign secrecy laws to deliver information vital to the public’s interest.”
How WikiLeaks has changed over the years
Micah Sifry wrote the book “WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency” way back in 2011. The evolution of his POV about WikiLeaks and Assange reflects the evolution of many American tech experts and media junkies.
“I used to be in the ‘anti-anti-WikiLeaks’ camp,” he said, “back when the U.S. government brought extraordinary pressure on businesses like Visa and Mastercard to stop processing donations to the platform after it published the newsworthy and responsibly redacted cache of State Department cables. But I lost all faith in him when he gave away access to the full, unredacted archive in September 2011, and condemned him publicly as WikiLeaks’ single point of failure in 2012 when he refused to separate himself from WikiLeaks to face sexual assault charges in Sweden. WikiLeaks ceased being a serious transparency project long before Assange threw himself into helping tilt the 2016 election against Hillary Clinton.”
By then – when figures like Trump were promoting WikiLeaks – the conventional view in media circles was that WikiLeaks was in Russia’s pocket. Remember what Jim Sciutto and co. reported in October 2016: “There is mounting evidence that the Russian government is supplying WikiLeaks with hacked emails pertaining to the US presidential election.” In 2017, Trump’s then-CIA director Mike Pompeo called the website a “nonstate hostile intelligence service.”
In some ways it’s a disappointment to people – journalists and others – who had high hopes for the site a decade ago. Sifry is in that camp.
He added, however, “I worry that Assange will not be able to present a full defense should he be successfully extradited to the United States, as there may be cases where serious journalists should publish classified documents however they are obtained.”
Top Twitter reactions, part two
– Sen. Ben Sasse: “This arrest is good news for freedom-loving people. Julian Assange has long been a wicked tool of Vladimir Putin and the Russian intelligence services. He deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison.”
– Historian and CNN analyst Julian Zelizer tweeted: WikiLeaks “is one of the few issues that doesn’t fall neatly into the left/right divide. But Trump’s incessant attacks on the free press will make it difficult for Assange’s critics to make their case…”
– The headline on Tim O’Brien’s Bloomberg column: “If Assange Burgled Some Computers, He Stopped Being a Journalist.”
There’s much more to come…
And we will unpack it all in the next edition of our “Reliable Sources” newsletter. Subscribe for free right here!