The US Charging Assange For Publishing Documents Would Be An Unprecedented Attempt To Chill A Free Press
from the I-guess-we're-'opening-up'-the-First-Amendment-now dept
Obama waged a war on whistleblowers during his eight-year run. Sure, it was done under a sunny facade of "transparency," but the former president set the gold standard for whistleblower prosecutions, performing more than every other president until then… combined.
Punishing whistleblowers is for amateurs. The Trump Administration will show everyone how it's done.
US authorities have prepared charges to seek the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, US officials familiar with the matter tell CNN.
For what, you may ask? Publication of leaked documents? Well, there's a little more to it than that.
The US view of WikiLeaks and Assange began to change after investigators found what they believe was proof that WikiLeaks played an active role in helping Edward Snowden, a former NSA analyst, disclose a massive cache of classified documents.
Hmm. But the Washington Post, Intercept, Guardian, and New York Times also did this. There's been some online speculation this actually refers to Assange's Russian-host-maneuvering and flight plan assistance -- that brief moment where journalists and g-men packed a plane to Cuba only to find themselves Snowden-less. But Ellen Nakashima's article for the Washington Post digs a little deeper into the proposed charges, citing evidence in Chelsea Manning's trial, where Assange assisted Manning with password cracking to sweep up digital breadcrumbs. (A 2012 DOJ warrant gives a bit more insight into the possible charges, which include espionage, CFAA violations, and "conversion" of stolen documents.)
But, again, this is nothing out of the ordinary for journalists who publish leaked documents. As Nakashima points out, helping sources erase their digital footprints is just something good journalists do. Prosecuting Assange for these efforts would set a terrible precedent.
[J]ournalists routinely employ methods — or tell sources to employ methods — that will help them avoid being identified. Justice Department officials in the previous administration believed that prosecuting Assange or other members of WikiLeaks could open the door to prosecuting news organizations and journalists who published classified information, and so they opted instead to target people, such as Manning, who had clearances to access such information and gave it to reporters.
Obama may have gone after a bunch of whistleblowers, but he was unwilling to cross the First Amendment line by punishing those who published leaked documents. Apparently, Trump and his DOJ have no such qualms.
Prosecutors have struggled with whether the First Amendment precluded the prosecution of Assange, but now believe they have found a way to move forward.
And they may have, without amending the First Amendment. But it will take a whole lot of cooperation to bring Assange in. The Ecuadorian embassy has managed to hold off Sweden for years and the country's government isn't exactly best friends with the US nor is it exactly respectful of US law.
Assange isn't a US citizen, so he's not automatically guaranteed First Amendment protections, even if the distribution of leaked documents is very much a journalistic enterprise. The US government doesn't automatically refuse to extend constitutional protections to foreign citizens, but it might be able to pick and choose which of those it wants to extend to Assange (though if he's charged in the US, he does get the benefit of all Constitutional protections). Even if the current DOJ can find a lawful way to prosecute Assange for still-unnamed charges related to leaked documents, this is an extremely dangerous direction for the federal government to be moving in.
This unofficial announcement by the DOJ is an implicit threat to journalists everywhere. You may hate Assange and/or Wikileaks, but it may be your favorite leak-friendly news sources facing charges next. Distinguishing your favorite source from Wikileaks is not nearly as easy as you might think.