There Are Many Reasons To Be Concerned About The Impact On Press Freedoms In The Assange Indictment

from the normal-journalistic-activity dept

Yesterday, we wrote a bit about the Julian Assange indictment, noting that it was focused on CFAA and conspiracy arguments, rather than (what many people expected) Espionage Act claims. The CFAA charge of trying to help hack a hashed CIA password that Assange instructed Chelsea Manning to supply does raise some real legal questions. However, as we noted, there were still some significant press freedom concerns linked to the case (and we fully expect those concerns to grow as the inevitable superseding indictment is released).

Among the many concerns are that from what's in the initial indictment, it appears that the DOJ is, in fact, presenting perfectly normal, reasonable and legal, steps that many journalists take to cultivate and protect sources, and using that as evidence of the "conspiracy" here. From the indictment:

It was part of the conspiracy that Assange and Manning used the "Jabber" online chat service to collaborate on the acquisition and dissemination of the classified records, and to enter into the agreement to crack the password stored on the United States Department of Defense computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network.

It was part of the conspiracy that Assange and Manning took measures to conceal Manning as the source of the disclosure of classified records to WikiLeaks, including removing usernames from the disclosed information and deleting chat logs between Assange and Manning.

It was part of the conspiracy that Assange encouraged Manning to provide information and records from departments and agencies of the United States.

It was part of the conspiracy that Assange and Manning used a special folder on a cloud drop box of WikiLeaks to transmit classified records containing information related to the national defense of the United States.

Again, the CFAA claims of a failed attempt to actually crack a password seem like they could be problematic for Assange (even if the maximum sentence for such things is less than Assange has already spent locked up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London). That goes beyond standard journalism practices. But basically everything else described above as evidence of the "conspiracy" are very standard journalistic practices around cultivating and protecting sources.

Many press freedom organizations are reasonably worried. The Freedom of the Press Foundation put out the following statement:

For years, the Obama administration considered indicting WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, before rightly concluding it could not do so without encroaching on core press freedoms. Now almost nine years in, the Trump administration has used the same information to manufacture a flimsy and pretextual indictment involving a “conspiracy” to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act—based entirely on alleged conversations between a journalist and source. While the Trump administration has so far not attempted to explicitly declare the act of publishing illegal, a core part of its argument would criminalize many common journalist-source interactions that reporters rely on all the time. Requesting more documents from a source, using an encrypted chat messenger, or trying to keep a source’s identity anonymous are not crimes; they are vital to the journalistic process. Whether or not you like Assange, the charge against him is a serious press freedom threat and should be vigorously protested by all those who care about the First Amendment.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is similarly concerned about the same issues:

"The potential implications for press freedom of this allegation of conspiracy between publisher and source are deeply troubling," said Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "With this prosecution of Julian Assange, the U.S. government could set out broad legal arguments about journalists soliciting information or interacting with sources that could have chilling consequences for investigative reporting and the publication of information of public interest."

The Knight First Amendment Center also raises similar concerns:

“The indictment and the Justice Department’s press release treat everyday journalistic practices as part of a criminal conspiracy. Whether the government will be able to establish a violation of the hacking statute remains to be seen, but it’s very troubling that the indictment sweeps in activities that are not just lawful but essential to press freedom—activities like cultivating sources, protecting sources’ identities, and communicating with sources securely.”

EFF is also concerned:

While the indictment of Julian Assange centers on an alleged attempt to break a password—an attempt that was not apparently successful—it is still, at root, an attack on the publication of leaked material and the most recent act in an almost decade-long effort to punish a whistleblower and the publisher of her leaked material. Several parts of the indictment describe very common journalistic behavior, like using cloud storage or knowingly receiving classified information or redacting identifying information about a source. Other parts make common free software tools like Linux and Jabber seem suspect. And while we are relieved that the government has not chosen to include publication-based charges today, if Assange is indeed extradited, the government can issue superseding indictments. It should not do so. Leaks are a vital part of the free flow of information that is essential to our democracy. Reporting on leaked materials, including reporting on classified information, is an essential role of American journalism.

So, yes, the DOJ could have gone farther and did not. But the very fact that it has spent all this time and the best thing it could come up with to charge Assange was an alleged attempt to hack a password, is pretty weak. The attempt to puff even that up into a "conspiracy" by describing common journalistic practices is a real worry, as is anything the DOJ later decides to throw on the pile with future charges.

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Filed Under: cfaa, conspiracy, doj, free speech, indictment, journalism, julian assange, source protection
Companies: wikileaks

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