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Julian Assange Charged With Violating Espionage Act and Free Press Advocates See Peril for Journalism
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=50838"><span class="small">Alex Johnson, NBC News</span></a>   
Friday, 24 May 2019 08:23

Johnson writes: "The indictment charging WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange with obtaining and publishing classified material represents a grave threat to all Americans' First Amendment rights, advocates across the political spectrum said Thursday."

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is taken from court, where he appeared on charges of jumping British bail seven years ago, in London on May 1. (photo: Matt Dunham/AP)
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is taken from court, where he appeared on charges of jumping British bail seven years ago, in London on May 1. (photo: Matt Dunham/AP)

Julian Assange Charged With Violating Espionage Act and Free Press Advocates See Peril for Journalism

By Alex Johnson, NBC News

24 May 19

Leakers and publishers who publish leaks aren't the same, say advocates across the political spectrum.

he indictment charging Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange with obtaining and publishing classified material represents a grave threat to all Americans' First Amendment rights, advocates across the political spectrum said Thursday.

The superseding indictment adds 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 to a single previous count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion that was revealed last month. Specifically, it accuses Assange, 47, of having illegally induced Army Pfc. Chelsea Manning to send him classified documents, some of which he published without redacting the names of confidential sources who provided information to U.S. diplomats.

Advocates and legal scholars said the indictment seeks to criminalize activity engaged in by journalists every day — publishing news of vital interest that they receive from someone who shouldn't have given it to them.

"For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information," said Ben Wizner, director of the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration's attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment," Wizner said in a statement.

Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University in New York, said the new charges weren't unexpected, noting that the Espionage Act was cited in Assange's original hacking charge last month.

But the added charges break frightening new ground, Jaffer said, because all previous cases under the Espionage Act targeted the government officials doing the leaking — not the publishers of their leaks.

"This is really what free speech and free press advocates have been worrying about," Jaffer said in an interview on MSNBC's "All In With Chris Hayes."

"It really does cross a new frontier," he said.

"You had the Bush administration begin prosecuting leakers as spies, and then you had the Obama administration prosecute more Espionage Act cases than all previous administrations combined," he said. "But none of those prosecutions involved a publisher. Now we have a publisher."

Regardless of whether Assange is ever tried, "the indictment itself is going to send a very chilling message," he said.

In an analysis of the indictment on Thursday, the nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued that "the parallels between what a member of the news media does on a daily basis ought to be obvious."

"Reporters and sources regularly use encrypted communications applications to 'conspire' and to pass information back and forth (as well they should)," it said.

John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, told reporters on Thursday that the Justice Department "takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy" but that department officials didn't consider Assange to be a journalist.

"No responsible actor, journalist or otherwise, would purposefully publish the names of individuals he or she knew to be confidential human sources in a war zone, exposing them to the gravest of dangers," Demers said.

But Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement: "Any government use of the Espionage Act to criminalize the receipt and publication of classified information poses a dire threat to journalists seeking to publish such information in the public interest, irrespective of the Justice Department's assertion that Assange is not a journalist."

(Andrea Mitchell, NBC News' chief foreign affairs correspondent, is a member of the organization's steering committee.)

Criticism of the indictment crossed political lines, as several prominent conservative and libertarian commentators sounded similar warnings.

Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Cato Institute, a libertarian advocacy group, said the debate about whether Assange was a journalist was both "tedious" and irrelevant. (The answer, he agreed on Twitter, was "no" — Assange isn't a journalist.)

The whole point of the First Amendment, he said, "is, in significant part, to avoid making particularized governmental determinations about who is a 'real journalist.'"

Meanwhile, Scott Horton, director of the nonprofit Libertarian Institute, bluntly called the indictment "garbage."

"It begins by citing public requests by Wikileaks for classified documents from a number of governments," Horton wrote Thursday on the institute's blog, "as though this is different from what any investigative reporter might do."

Similarly, Eli Lake, a neoconservative columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, said the indictment "represents a profound danger to any reporter who has published state secrets."

While it can be debated whether Assange is a journalist and whether Wikileaks is a news organization, "this debate is irrelevant," Lake, who has long denounced the leaking of information from counterintelligence investigations, wrote Thursday.

"Assange is under no obligation to keep the U.S. government's secrets," he wrote. "If Assange can be charged with receiving classified information, then what is to stop the government from bringing similar charges against the New York Times or Bloomberg News?"

Advocates' criticism found support among current and former government officials, as well.

David A. Kaye, the United Nations' special rapporteur on the protection of freedom of opinion and expression, said on Twitter that "regardless of what you think about Wikileaks or Julian Assange, an Espionage Act prosecution can only turn out badly for press freedom in this country."

And Matthew Miller, a justice analyst for MSNBC, pointed out that the Justice Department declined to charge Assange for just that reason during the administration of former President Barack Obama, when he was its chief spokesman.

"This is nonsense," Miller said on Twitter, arguing that there was a "pretty clear difference between charging government employees who have sworn to protect classified info and people outside government who publish it."

"As I've been saying for several years, there are very good reasons we didn't charge this theory," he said. "And it's not like we had a record reporters loved on these issues."

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+2 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-05-24 08:56
Yes, this is the big one that we've all been expecting. It is the formal declaration of war on the First Amendment and investigative journalism.

I've read the indictment and the Espionage Act. It is going after both Assange and Manning. Both will be subject to the death penalty:

". . . whoever shall violate the provisions of subsection:
(a) of this section in time of war shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for not more than thirty years."

The DOJ has thrown down the gaultlet:

1. Now the UK cannot extradite Assange because its own laws as well as the laws of the European Union prohibit extraditing anyone to a country where he/she will face the death penalty.

2. Clearly the Espionage Act is a violation of the Constitution. The cases of Assange and Manning may go to the supreme court, but the fascists in the Trump DOJ probably are counting on the stacked court to rule in favor of the Espionage Act and against the First Amendment.

This is the real constitutional crisis we face. Forget Russiagate or the Trump impeachment. Trump could order William Barr and his DOJ to stop this prosecution but democrats would likely be howling about his "obstruction of justice." This is the issue that will really show where Trump stands. This is the defining moment, as Gillmour says above.
+2 # Anne Frank 2019-05-24 10:21
The fascist dictatorship will not survive if it does not suppress publication of facts that would make the public aware of its crimes and atrocities. Prosecution of Assange, Snowden, Manning, Kiriakou, et al has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with ruling class public relations. Its only purpose is to keep the public ignorant of abominations, of which we the people might disapprove if we knew of them.
0 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-05-24 14:37
AF -- "Its only purpose is to keep the public ignorant of abominations, of which we the people might disapprove if we knew of them."

This is the final purpose of the whole Russiagate conspiracy -- to force the media to be purveyors of ignorance and hence to train the people to be ignorant.

This is a defining moment. The Pentagon has now declared that anyone in the world, whether US citizen or not, can be indicted and possibly be sentence to death for revealing truthfully what it actually does.
+1 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-05-24 14:49
One hopeful notes is that Theresa May has agreed to resign. There may be elections in the UK pretty soon. Jeremy Corbin called for quick elections yesterday. Corbin and the Labour party stands to win the elections and Corbin would be prime minister. Corbin is on record opposing the extradition of Assange. It is very likely he would appoint a home secretary who would cancel the extradiction.

It may be the US DOJ knows all of this and is in a great rush to get its claws on Assange before May leaves office. I think the DOJ would have preferred to keep this indictment secret but now that May is terminal, the DOJ needs to ramp up its extradition case.

Let's hope events are turning against the Pentagon and it declaration of war on press freedom and the rights of citizens to know what their governments are doing.