Imagine a society in which journalists or publishers are threatened by the government with life in prison for reporting on massive war crimes. Actually, you don’t have to imagine this nightmarish scenario. This is now the reality in America 2019, with the May 23 indictment of Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, for working with Chelsea Manning to bring to light U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as troves of other information relating to treatment of detainees at Guantánamo, diplomatic cables with details about U.S. relations with its allies, and more.
The government is persecuting Assange for publishing the information that WikiLeaks received from Manning, who was a soldier and intelligence analyst stationed in Iraq with access to files revealing war crimes committed by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan and other secrets the U.S. wanted to keep under wraps.1 In 2010, Manning put her life on the line by providing these files to WikiLeaks, with the aim, in her words, of provoking “worldwide discussion, debates and reforms” (see box for more on Chelsea Manning). The files WikiLeaks published were the basis for coverage of these crimes in the mainstream media in the U.S. and worldwide.
Assange is now in prison in Britain, after being expelled from the Ecuadorian embassy in London after years of seeking sanctuary there from persecution. He is fighting extradition to the U.S.
A Dangerous Precedent Is Being Set
The Espionage Act that the U.S. Department of “Justice” (DOJ) is using to go after Assange was first passed in 1917, in part aimed at antiwar and other radical activists. Among its elements is targeting the leaking of government/military secrets. This has been used in the past against people working within the government or in projects for the government—like Daniel Ellsberg, who was an analyst with a think tank closely linked to the U.S. military when he made the Pentagon Papers2 public during the Vietnam War. More recently, it has been used against Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden (a National Security Administration contractor who exposed vast electronic spying by the U.S. on billions of people).
What makes the case against Julian Assange so unprecedented and dangerous is that this is the first time the Espionage Act has been used against a journalist or someone publishing leaked documents—for making them known to the public—rather than just the original source of the information within the government/military or associated institutions and agencies.
The DOJ denies it is going after journalists and claims that the Assange indictment is about punishing the illegal obtaining and disclosure of classified information, which the DOJ says endangered the lives of American troops, diplomats, and sources. But that’s like a vampire telling you to rest assured while he bites you in the neck. As a range of voices is correctly pointing out, what Assange is accused of doing under the DOJ indictment is no different from what all investigative journalists and their publishers regularly do—and that is very ominous, not only for the rights of journalists but also for the rights of people overall.
Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, called the indictment “a direct assault on the First Amendment” that “establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets.”3 Even Alan Dershowitz, right-wing Harvard professor and Trump supporter, said the Assange indictment was “analogous to if The New York Times and The Washington Post had been indicted after publishing the Pentagon Papers,” and called this a “very, very frightening development.”4
James Risen (former national security reporter for the New York Times and now at The Intercept) takes some of the language from the DOJ indictment and points out the implications:
The indictment says that Assange and WikiLeaks “repeatedly sought, obtained, and disseminated information that the United States classified due to the serious risk that unauthorized disclosure could harm the national security of the United States.”
That is almost a textbook definition of the job of a reporter covering national security at a major news organization. Take a look at the tips pages of most news outlets, and you’ll see a remarkable similarity between what journalists ask for and what WikiLeaks sought.
The indictment goes on to say that “WikiLeaks’s website explicitly solicited censored, otherwise restricted, and until September 2010, ‘classified’ materials.” Today, virtually every major news organization has a similar secure drop box where sources can provide information anonymously. WikiLeaks popularized that technique for soliciting anonymous leaks, but it is now common journalistic practice.
“Assange personally and publicly promoted WikiLeaks to encourage those with access to protected information, including classified information, to provide it to WikiLeaks for public disclosure,” the indictment says. Nearly every national security reporter goes on television, gives speeches, or launches book tours to promote their work and hopefully obtain new sources.
All of this raises an obvious question: If the government can charge Assange for conspiring to obtain leaked documents, what would stop it from charging the CIA beat reporter at the New York Timesfor committing the same crime?5
And think about the implications of the Espionage Act indictment of Assange for journalists internationally. Assange is not an American citizen, and he worked outside the U.S. Will his indictment now set a precedent for the U.S. going after foreign journalists who dig up and publish information that the rulers declare to be “harmful to U.S. national security”—charging them with serious crimes and demanding they be extradited to the U.S. to face trial? Furthermore, if the U.S. can bring criminal charges against foreign journalists, can other repressive governments around the world bring charges against U.S. reporters and publishers for exposing their secrets?
This extreme and dangerous move by the Trump/Pence regime is part of the ramping up of their overall fascist juggernaut. In the interest of humanity, this and other mounting outrages need to be met with society-wide upsurge of protest, not just against this or other particular outrages but demanding that the whole fascist regime be driven out. And, more fundamentally, the question is posed: Will we continue to live under this system that has produced so many horrors for humanity, including this fascist regime, and condemn future generations to this… or make revolution to overthrow the rule of capitalism-imperialism and bring about a radically different system and world?
- Among the files leaked by Manning and published by WikiLeaks was a video taken from a U.S. helicopter over Baghdad in 2007, with the soldiers firing on civilians on the ground as they chatted and even joked, killing 12 people and wounding two children. See American Crime, Case #23: The Afghanistan and Iraq War Logs and the Persecution of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Wikileaks for more on what Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks exposed. [back]
- Ellsberg, then a military analyst, risked life in prison to leak the Pentagon Papers, secret U.S. government documents revealing important truths about the U.S. war in Vietnam. [back]
- ACLU Comment on Julian Assange Indictment, May 23, 2019. [back]
- “Frightening’: Charges Against Julian Assange Alarm Press Advocates,” New York Times, May 23, 2019. [back]
- “The Indictment of Julian Assange Under the Espionage Act Is a Threat to the Press and the American People,” May 24, 2019. A PDF of the indictment against Assange is available online. [back]