Civil Rights Groups Argue That Biden Should Drop Assange Prosecution; Noting That It Is An Attack On Journalism

from the do-it dept

It’s easy to dislike and distrust Julian Assange. He’s done many things to inspire both reactions. Still, it’s important to separate out personal feelings towards the guy with the question of whether or not he broke US law with publishing the things he did via Wikileaks. For years, the Obama DOJ refused to indict him, in part due to the recognition that nearly all of Assange’s activities were similar to the kinds of things that journalists do all the time. The Trump DOJ had no such restraint (even as some prosecutors warned of problems with the idea), and as we and others have pointed out the indictment is a huge threat to investigative journalism and things like source protection.

Now that Biden is President, a whole bunch of civil rights groups have sent a letter to Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson, asking him to drop the case against Assange. The letter notes that many of the signatories do not agree with Assange or Wikileaks, but that doesn’t mean the case is a good one:

While our organizations have different perspectives on Mr. Assange and his organization, we share the view that the government?s indictment of him poses a grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad. We urge you to drop the appeal of the decision by Judge Vanessa Baraitser of the Westminster Magistrates? Court to reject the Trump administration?s extradition request. We also urge you to dismiss the underlying indictment.

The indictment of Mr. Assange threatens press freedom because much of the conduct described in the indictment is conduct that journalists engage in routinely?and that they must engage in in order to do the work the public needs them to do. Journalists at major news publications regularly speak with sources, ask for clarification or more documentation, and receive and publish documents the government considers secret. In our view, such a precedent in this case could effectively criminalize these common journalistic practices.

In addition, some of the charges included in the indictment turn entirely on Mr. Assange?s decision to publish classified information. News organizations frequently and necessarily publish classified information in order to inform the public of matters of profound public significance. We appreciate that the government has a legitimate interest in protecting bona fide national security interests, but the proceedings against Mr. Assange jeopardize journalism that is crucial to democracy.

Jameel Jaffer, who heads the Knight First Amendment Institute, which was on of the signatories on the letter, has written an article also detailing why the Biden DOJ should drop the case that is worth reading:

Of Trump?s many attacks on press freedom, however, it?s his Justice Department?s indictment of Julian Assange that could have the most significant implications over the long term. As I explained here and here, the Justice Department?s indictment of Assange focuses principally on activity that national security journalists engage in ?routinely and as a necessary part of their work??cultivating sources, communicating with them confidentially, soliciting information from them, protecting their identities from disclosure, and publishing classified information. As a result, a successful prosecution of Assange would have far-reaching implications both for national security journalists and for the news organizations that publish their work. This isn?t an accident. It?s likely why the Trump administration filed the indictment, as Jack Goldsmith observed here.

President Joe Biden plainly does not share Trump?s attitude toward the press. But the Assange case will present the Biden administration with an early test. One of the first questions Biden?s new attorney general will confront is whether to authorize prosecutors to continue to contest the decision of the Westminster Magistrates? Court, issued earlier this year, denying the United States? request for Assange?s extradition. In an interview with NPR, the outgoing U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Zachary Terwilliger, wondered whether the new administration would abandon the appeal. ?Some of this does come down to resources and where you?re going to focus your energies,? Terwilliger noted.

Again, whether you agree with Assange’s view of the world, or how you feel about Wikileaks’ apparent decision to cozy up with Russians is a separate issue from whether the indictment itself is a threat to journalism. It is. And the new DOJ should drop the case. It would be unfortunately if Biden continued along the same path the Obama administration did in pretending that journalism is a form of espionage. Dumping the Assange suit would send a clear signal that Biden actually recognizes the value and importance of adversarial investigative journalism, even if it might embarrass him.

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Comments on “Civil Rights Groups Argue That Biden Should Drop Assange Prosecution; Noting That It Is An Attack On Journalism”

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37 Comments
sumgai (profile) says:

For years, the Obama DOJ refused to indict him, in part due to the recognition that nearly all of Assange’s activities were similar to the kinds of things that journalists do all the time.

It would be unfortunately if Biden continued along the same path the Obama administration did in pretending that journalism is a form of espionage.

I think my sentence parsing mechanism just blew a gasket – it’s insisting that these are two opposing viewpoints. Either that, or the second sentence should’ve used the name of a different former president. I dunno.

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Upstream (profile) says:

Re: Re:

While Trump frequently called the press "the enemy of the people," Obama (aka Bush the Third) headed up what was probably the most opaque administration ever. Nixon would have been envious. Here are just a few of the links on the first page of a web search for "Obama versus journalists."

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Americans Are Criminals says:

"It’s easy to dislike and distrust Julian Assange. He’s done many things to inspire both reactions."

What a repugnant & cowardly way to open, even when your article ultimately goes on to attempt a lame defense of this poor man. Assange’s only "crime" consists of speaking out openly about the CRIMINALITY of the demented American’t government & the actions of it’s gender-fluid citizenry overseas. A pox on your nation of half-wits. A pox on ALL Anglo nations ..you’re ALL half-wits. It is truly a PLEASURE watching your collapse.

TFG says:

Re: Re:

Assange’s only "crime"

The man was under investigation for rape, molestation, and coercion in Sweden, and the cases were only dropped due to prevention of interviews/extradition to Sweden, lasting long enough that statutes of limitations expired.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assange_v_Swedish_Prosecution_Authority

I personally don’t have a problem with Wikileaks exposure of American governmental malfeasance, and I agree that the US Government’s case against him is an attack on journalistic practice, but I dislike and distrust Assange because there was reasonable suspicion that he’s a rapist, which was never able to be properly investigated.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"The suspect’s presence and / or cooperation is usually not expected, required, or obtained for a proper investigation."

Which is precisely why even those who don’t like Assange were understanding on why he didn’t want to be extradited back to Sweden. He was available for questioning in the UK, and the only reason a trial could not proceed was because the swedish courts stonewalled on it until his feet were on swedish soil.

Extraordinary rendition from Sweden is easy. Laughably so. It takes exactly one call from the US embassy and swedish police will pick up the foreigner, drive him to bromma, and frog-march him onto an unmarked plane headed for wherever. No questions asked.

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Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re:

The man was under investigation for rape, molestation, and coercion in Sweden, and the cases were only dropped due to prevention of interviews/extradition to Sweden, lasting long enough that statutes of limitations expired.

The interesting thing about the investigation is that it all started when the two women happened to talk to each other on the phone and compared notes, before that they where gushing on social media what a great guy he was. Those posts where deleted more or less at the same time the Swedish prosecutor filed the charges. One of the women had blogged a year earlier how to more or less frame someone for rape, and that was cross-posted to another site which wasn’t scrubbed until after the rape-allegations.

Since the Swedish prosecutor never really did any discovery (with the excuse she couldn’t without interviewing Assange), the above was never investigated.

Considering the events that transpired up to the moment the women started talking to each other, I can only conclude that Assange’s behavior was that of an asshole, not a rapist. Which more or less was what the first senior prosecutor said before dropping the charges. The charges where later picked up by another prosecutor, which led us to where we are now.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"I can only conclude that Assange’s behavior was that of an asshole, not a rapist."

I’d be careful. The woman in question was already in a sexual relationship with Assange, this is true, but any sexual interaction without consent is rape, no matter if they’d had consensual intercourse earlier that night or not.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"… but I dislike and distrust Assange because there was reasonable suspicion that he’s a rapist, which was never able to be properly investigated."

And one major reason for which is the utterly hamfisted way swedish authorities handled the thing. After his first hearing Assange asked if he was free to leave, divulging his flight plans to the UK. The swedish prosecutors said yeah, sure.

Then, when he was in the UK, there was suddenly an international APB out on him and he was wanted for extradition? If I were Assange, guilty or not, no way would I risk finding myself on the soil of the nation which carried out the Bromma Extraordinary Rendition.

Compounded by the fact that it is possible to carry out a trial in absentia and Assange was available for questioning, but the swedish courts were explicitly refusing to perform such a one unless Assange had been imported right back to Sweden. For no reason given.

I’m no fan of Assange either, but it’s pretty clear the man would not have gotten his day in court. Just a blindfold, a set of adult diapers, and a one-way ticket on an unmarked plane headed for whatever Abu Ghraib analogue was convenient. Just as Sweden has done before, whenever Uncle Sam requested it.

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Upstream (profile) says:

Re: Re:

hopefully Biden will be able to resist it and order the case to be dropped.

I wish he would, and maybe give Edward Snowden amnesty and a medal, then pardon Ross Ulbricht and the countless non-violent drug "offenders" in Federal prisons (and whoever else shouldn’t be there), too.

But I am not holding my breath on any of the above. After all, Biden, his veep, and most of his confirmed or nominated Cabinet members are career authoritarians. Authoritarians only like lapdog journalists and people who blow the whistle on the other team.

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Anonymous Coward says:

It is a journalistic practice to seek a position where you’re granted classified information, then publicly release classified information without permission in spite of all the agreements you willingly made to get access to it and flee to a foreign power to avoid the results of violating said agreements?

Learn something new everyday. The people writing this letter should have been a bit more clear and explicit about exactly what they consider journalistic practices because as written it’s far too open to interpretation.

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Upstream (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It is a journalistic practice to seek a position where you’re granted classified information, then publicly release classified information without permission in spite of all the agreements you willingly made to get access to it and flee to a foreign power to avoid the results of violating said agreements?

Yes. Or to put it another way: It is like when a cop infiltrates the Mafia, learns their secrets, then tells the courts, violating "Omerta," then hides in the Witness Protection Program to avoid being killed.

(Damn, I wish I could find my notes on strikethrough!)

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Sorry

"Not on one immune to facts as yourself, no. But perhaps to one less gullible."

So I take it that Abu Ghraib and the various war crimes on video released as part of Assange’s efforts were just deep fakes, then?

Sorry, Toom1275. Assange may be a douche but the revelations are legit, and the main reason the US government has to dislike him is that it revealed about parts of the US military what has been bitingly obvious about US law enforcement.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Thank you for not having sympathy

There are many unsympathetic people in this world. Thank you for self-identifying.

Julian Assange created an organization that brings transparency to governmental abuse of power. I’m sorry you can’t have any sympathy.

He violated laws, created by governments, to prevent transparency of their abuses of power. I’m sorry you think that’s "illegal manipulation".

His crimes against women have been withdrawn, so … innocent until proven guilty… not much to opine there until he’s convicted.

Thus far he’s an innocent guy who’s spent nearly a decade in a prison (of sorts).

But hey, you can’t have sympathy for him. When you look in the mirror next time ask yourself who the "good guy" really is… the guy who risked a decade of his life in a room in the UK, or the armchair quarterback who "can’t have any sympathy."

I have sympathy for you.

Ehud

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