The indictment of Julian Assange unsealed today by the Trump Justice Department poses grave threats to press freedoms, not only in the US but around the world. The charging document and accompanying extradition request from the US Government, used by the UK police to arrest Assange once Ecuador officially withdrew its asylum protection, seeks to criminalize numerous activities at the core of investigative journalism.
So much of what has been reported today about this indictment has been false. Two facts in particular have been utterly distorted by the DOJ and then misreported by numerous media organizations.
The first crucial fact about the indictment is that its key allegation – that Assange did not merely receive classified documents from Chelsea Manning but tried to help her crack a password in order to cover her tracks – is not new. It was long known by the Obama DOJ and was explicitly part of Manning’s trial, yet the Obama DOJ – not exactly renowned for being stalwart guardians of press freedoms – concluded it could not and should not prosecute Assange because indicting him would pose serious threats to press freedom. In sum, today’s indictment contains no new evidence or facts about Assange’s actions; all of it has been known for years.
The other key fact being widely misreported is that the indictment accuses Assange of trying to help Manning obtain access to document databases to which she had no valid access: i.e., hacking rather than journalism. But the indictment alleges no such thing. Rather, it simply accuses Assange of trying to help Manning log into the Defense Department’s computers using a different user name so that she could maintain her anonymity while downloading documents in the public interest and then furnish them to WikiLeaks to publish.
In other words, the indictment seeks to criminalize what journalists are not only permitted but ethically required to do: take steps to help their sources maintain their anonymity. As long-time Assange lawyer Barry Pollack put it: “the factual allegations…boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identity of that source. Journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by these unprecedented criminal charges.”
That’s why the indictment poses such a grave threat to press freedom. It characterizes as a felony many actions that journalists are not just permitted but required to take in order to conduct sensitive reporting in the digital age.
But because the DOJ issued a press release with a headline that claimed that Assange was accused of “hacking” crimes, media outlets mindlessly repeated this claim even though the indictment contains no such allegation. It merely accuses Assange of trying to help Manning avoid detection. That’s not “hacking.” That’s called a core obligation of journalism.
The history of the case is vital for understanding what actually happened today. The US Government has been determined to indict Julian Assange and WikiLeaks since at least 2010, when the group published hundreds of thousands of war logs and diplomatic cables revealing numerous war crimes and other acts of corruption by the US, the UK and other governments around the world. To achieve that goal, the Obama DOJ empaneled a Grand Jury in 2011 and conducted a sweeping investigation into WikiLeaks, Assange and Manning.
But in 2013, the Obama DOJ concluded that it could not prosecute Assange in connection with publication of those documents because there was no way to distinguish what WikiLeaks did from what the New York Times, the Guardian and numerous media outlets around the world routinely do: namely, work with sources to publish classified documents.
The Obama DOJ tried for years to find evidence to justify a claim that Assange did more than act as a journalist – that he, for instance, illegally worked with Manning to steal the documents – but found nothing to justify that accusation and thus never indicted Assange (as noted, the Obama DOJ since at least 2011 was well aware of the core allegation of today’s indictment – that Assange tried to help Manning circumvent a password wall so she could use a different user name – because that was all part of Manning’s charges).
So Obama ended eight years in office without indicting Assange or WikiLeaks.
Fair Use Excerpt. Read the entire article at The Intercept.