New Assange Indictment Makes Insane, Unprecedented Use Of Espionage Act On Things Journalists Do All The Time
from the whoa dept
As we noted when Julian Assange was arrested in the UK last month, it was notable how… lacking the charges were. The whole thing revolved around an apparently failed attempt to help Chelsea Manning crack a CIA password. We still had significant concerns about the way the CFAA was being used, and the fact that the description of the “conspiracy” involved actions that tons of journalists do every day — but the original indictment didn’t have what was most feared: use of the Espionage Act against the actions of a news organization. At the time, some knowledgeable observers pointed out that it was likely a superseding indictment would come, and it wouldn’t surprise them if it had Espionage Act charges. And they were right.
On Thursday the DOJ unsealed the new indictment against Assange and it should absolutely terrify anyone who believes in a free press and the 1st Amendment. It takes a whole variety of things that journalists at major publications do every single day — finding and cultivating sources, getting information and publishing that information — as evidence of Espionage Act violations. We’ve always had issues with the Espionage Act, which we believe is almost certainly unconstitutional. In the past, we’ve highlighted how it’s been used in ridiculous ways against many whistleblowers, and it doesn’t even allow for a defendant to give a reason for why they leaked documents (i.e., they can’t say they did it to blow the whistle on government malfeasance — it’s just automatically treated as espionage, which is nonsensical).
However, this indictment goes much further. It’s not going after an actual leaker, it’s going after a publisher. It’s so bad that even Obama-era officials (who used the Espionage Act against leakers more times than any other President in history combined) seem horrified. This is from the former DOJ spokesperson in the Obama admin:
As I?ve been saying for several years, there are very good reasons we didn?t charge this theory in the Obama admin. And it?s not like we had a record reporters loved on these issues. https://t.co/V11PvEF28x
— Matthew Miller (@matthewamiller) May 23, 2019
Much of the indictment focuses on Wikileaks/Assange cultivating sources and requesting information — which is what lots of reporters do all the time. For example, the first count includes the following actions:
To willfully communicate documents relating to the national defense?namely, detainee assessment briefs related to detainees who were held at Guantanamo Bay, U.S. State Department cables, Iraq rules of engagement files, and documents containing the names of individuals in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere around the world, who risked their safety and freedom by providing information to the United States and our allies, which were classified up to the SECRET level?from persons having lawful possession of or access to such documents, to persons not entitled to receive them
But, that’s what lots of reporters do all the time in cultivating sources within the government. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein became celebrated and famous by getting government officials to leak classified information. Indeed, it’s what a bunch of reporters at the NY Times, Washington Post, etc. are doing right now to try to find information about this White House. And, yes, President Trump likes to refer to them as “fake news,” and if you buy that you are too stupid to read this site, so go away. This is a full frontal attack on the First Amendment and basic reporting. If this works it sets a precedent to go after any investigative reporting of the government.
It’s also notable — and ridiculous — that the indictment focuses on the supposed “danger” that Assange/Wikileaks put people into by publishing the documents that Chelsea Manning leaked.
The significant activity reports from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that ASSANGE published included names of local Afghans and Iraqis who had provided information to U.S. and coalition forces. The State Department cables that WikiLeaks published included names of persons throughout the world who provided information to the U.S. government in circumstances in which they could reasonably expect that their identities would be kept confidential. These sources included journalists, religious leaders, human rights advocates, and political dissidents who were living in repressive regimes and reported to the United States the abuses of their own government, and the political conditions within their countries, at great risk to their own safety. By publishing these documents without redacting the human sources’ names or other identifying information, ASSANGE created a grave and imminent risk that the innocent people he named would suffer serious physical harm and/or arbitrary detention.
News publishers often have to make difficult decisions about publishing certain info that could cause harm, but it does not violate the Espionage Act to do so in the service of informing the public. Even worse, as has been detailed for many years now, the US government admitted back in 2013 that not a single death was caused by Manning’s leaks, and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates even called claims of harm “overwrought” and said:
?Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.??
In fact, Reuters reported (via its own cultivated sources and leaks) that the “damage” claims were purposefully exaggerated by Obama admin officials in the hopes that it would create enough to bring these bogus charges against Assange:
A congressional official briefed on the reviews said the administration felt compelled to say publicly that the revelations had seriously damaged American interests in order to bolster legal efforts to shut down the WikiLeaks website and bring charges against the leakers.
?I think they just want to present the toughest front they can muster,? the official said.
But State Department officials have privately told Congress they expect overall damage to U.S. foreign policy to be containable, said the official, one of two congressional aides familiar with the briefings who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The only “evidence” of harm shown in the indictment is just that Osama bin-Laden had some copies of the Wikileaks files when the US killed him:
On May 2, 2011, United States armed forces raided the compound of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. During the raid, they collected a number of items of digital media, which included the following: (1) a letter from bin Laden to another member of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda in which bin Laden requested that the member gather the DoD material posted to WikiLeaks, (2) a letter from that same member of al-Qaeda to Bin Laden with information from the Afghanistan War Documents provided by Manning to WikiLeaks and released by WikiLeaks, and (3) Department of State information provided by Manning to WikiLeaks and released by WikiLeaks.
There are a few other claims of people made “vulnerable” by Wikileaks publishing the Manning documents, but no evidence of actual harm.
So, let’s be clear here: the US government has admitted to making bullshit claims about non-existent “harms” done by Wikileaks, and now it’s using that to charge a news publisher with espionage for doing the same sort of work that tons of reporters do every day. It’s an incredible attack on the 1st Amendment from this administration, and one that hopefully the courts will shut down.