April 16, 2019

It seems as if these days, every news story, no matter how serious, has to include an element of WWE-level cartoonishness.  And so, with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrested and facing likely extradition to the US, we’re told he partly lost his sanctuary in Ecuador’s London Embassy because he was the world’s worst house guest.  He stayed for seven years and his hosts accused him of “putting excrement on walls, leaving soiled laundry in the bathroom, and not properly looking after his cat.”


Having a story with such major international ramifications for journalism and the First Amendment get launched due to dirty laundry and cat poop seems as crazy as derailing the entire US economic system to reduce cow farts.  Oh, wait…


As I’ve mentioned before, the Julian Assange saga is extremely complicated, with no easily-defined, clear-cut lines.  Some say he’s a journalist who helps keep the public informed by publishing material the powerful want to keep secret.  Others say he’s a dangerous leaker who does “document dumps” of stolen classified information without redacting data that could put America’s security and the lives of confidential sources and intelligence operatives at risk.  In fact, it’s likely that both are true, depending on the circumstances.  So what is the exact charge for which the US wants to put him on trial?

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You might be surprised at how minor it is.  As a general rule, the law protects journalists who publish leaks of confidential information, but they can be charged if they helped the leaker commit an illegal act to obtain the information.  So while Assange has been assailed for a number of things, the US indictment hinges on the 2010 leak of Defense Department information by former US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.  But Assange is not charged for distributing all that damaging classified military data.  He’s charged with conspiring with Manning to help figure out a password to obtain more data, a hacking attempt that didn’t even work. 


If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison, or two years less than he spent hiding out with his untidy cat at the Ecuadoran Embassy.  Of course, the US might file other charges, but it’s likely they’d have to reveal them before the UK decides whether to allow his extradition, and it’s not easy to see what they would be.   


At the link is a good explanation by Emily Stewart of of the charge, the cases for and against Manning being a journalist, and the possible ramifications of prosecuting him for publishing leaks and why the issues are so murky.  The writer makes a good point that the charge he’s facing is like the feds nailing Al Capone for tax evasion: it’s not what authorities wanted to charge him with, but it was the charge they could get a conviction on.


It’s a reasonably unbiased article for Vox, although the author did feel the need to include this quote from an ACLU official: “Any prosecution of WikiLeaks for publishing government secrets would set a dangerous precedent that the Trump administration would surely use to target other news organizations.”


I thought we had already established that the Trump DOJ was prosecuting Assange for only one charge, conspiracy to aid a hacker, not for publishing news.  For all the scare talk about Trump’s targeting of news organizations, all he’s ever done that I can see is criticize the media for doing a lousy job, which he has a perfect right to do under the First Amendment (recall that he revoked a CNN reporter’s White House credentials not for anything he reported but for being a rude, disruptive jerk.)  And if the media feel restrained against criticizing Trump, they sure don’t act like it.  


It was the Obama Administration that actually targeted numerous journalists.  In case the ACLU has forgotten, here’s a round-up of Obama’s greatest hits on journalists.


They didn’t just call the press “enemies of the people” for undermining trust in our elections with fake news.  They actually had Fox News reporter James Rosen secretly branded as a “criminal co-conspirator” under the Espionage Act of 1917 just so they could spy on his communications to try to discover his State Department source. 


The ACLU’s concerns about the President “targeting” journalists would be a lot more believable if they’d aimed them at the President who actually did it.


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