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Taibbi writes: "The indictment of Julian Assange falls just short of a full frontal attack on press freedoms."

Julian Assange. (photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Julian Assange. (photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Why the Assange Arrest Should Scare Reporters

By Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone

14 April 19

The WikiLeaks founder will be tried in a real court for one thing, but for something else in the court of public opinion

ulian Assange was arrested in England on Thursday. Though nothing has been announced, there are reports he may be extradited to the United States to face charges related to Obama-era actions.

Here’s the Washington Post on the subject of prosecuting Assange:

“A conviction would also cause collateral damage to American media freedoms. It is difficult to distinguish Assange or WikiLeaks from The Washington Post.”

That passage is from a 2011 editorial, “Why the U.S. Shouldn’t Try Julian Assange.”

The Post editorial of years back is still relevant because Assange is being tried for an “offense” almost a decade old. What’s changed since is the public perception of him, and in a supreme irony it will be the government of Donald “I love WikiLeaks” Trump benefiting from a trick of time, to rally public support for a prosecution that officials hesitated to push in the Obama years.

Much of the American media audience views the arrested WikiLeaks founder through the lens of the 2016 election, after which he was denounced as a Russian cutout who threw an election for Trump.

But the current indictment is the extension of a years-long effort, pre-dating Trump, to construct a legal argument against someone who releases embarrassing secrets.

Barack Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, said as far back as 2010 the WikiLeaks founder was the focus of an “active, ongoing criminal investigation.” Assange at the time had won, or was en route to winning, a pile of journalism prizes for releasing embarrassing classified information about many governments, including the infamous “Collateral Murder” video delivered by Chelsea Manning. The video showed a helicopter attack in Iraq which among other things resulted in the deaths of two Reuters reporters.

Last year, we reported a rumored American criminal case against Assange was not expected to have anything to do with 2016, Russians, or DNC emails. This turned out to be the case, as the exact charge is for conspiracy, with Chelsea Manning, to hack into a “classified U.S. government computer.”

The indictment unveiled today falls just short of a full frontal attack on press freedoms only because it indicts on something like a technicality: specifically, an accusation that Assange tried (and, seemingly, failed) to help Manning crack a government password.

For this reason, the language of the indictment underwhelmed some legal experts who had expressed concerns about the speech ramifications of this case before.

“There’s a gray area here,” says University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck. “But the government at least tries to put this at the far end of the gray area.”

Not everyone agreed. Assange lawyer Barry Pollock said the allegations “boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identify of that source.”

“The weakness of the US charge against Assange is shocking,” tweeted Edward Snowden. “The allegation he tried (and failed?) to help crack a password during their world-famous reporting has been public for nearly a decade: it is the count Obama’s DOJ refused to charge, saying it endangered journalism.”

Part of the case clearly describes conduct that exists outside the normal parameters of press-source interaction, specifically the password issue. However, the evidence about this part of the conspiracy seems thin, limited mainly to Assange saying he’d had “no luck so far,” apparently in relation to attempts to crack the password.

The meatier parts of the indictment speak more to normal journalistic practices. In its press release, the Justice Department noted Assange was “actively encouraging Manning” to provide more classified information. In the indictment itself, the government noted Assange told Manning, who said she had no more secrets to divulge, “curious eyes never run dry.”

Also in the indictment: “It is part of the conspiracy that Assange and Manning took measures to conceal Manning as the source of the disclosure.”

Reporters have extremely complicated relationships with sources, especially whistleblower types like Manning, who are often under extreme stress and emotionally vulnerable.

At different times, you might counsel the same person both for and against disclosure. It’s proper to work through all the reasons for action in any direction, including weighing the public’s interest, the effect on the source’s conscience and mental health, and personal and professional consequences.

For this reason, placing criminal penalties on a prosecutor’s interpretation of such interactions will likely put a scare into anyone involved with national security reporting going forward.

As Ben Wizner of the ACLU put it: “Any prosecution by the United States of Mr. Assange for WikiLeaks’ publishing operations would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations.”

Unfortunately, Assange’s case, and the very serious issues it raises, will be impacted in profound ways by things that took place long after the alleged offenses, specifically the Russiagate story. It’s why some reporters are less than concerned about the Assange case today.

About that other thing, i.e. Assange’s role in the 2016 election:

Not only did this case have nothing to do with Russiagate, but in one of the odder unreported details of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, he never interviewed or attempted to interview Assange. In fact, it appears none of the 2800 subpoenas, 500 witness interviews, and 500 search warrants in the Mueller probe targeted Assange or WikiLeaks.

According to WikiLeaks, no one from Mueller’s office ever attempted to get a statement from Assange, any WikiLeaks employee, or any of Assange’s lawyers (the Office of Special Counsel declined comment for this story). A Senate committee did reach out to Assange last year about the possibility of testifying, but never followed up.

As Pollock told me in February, “[Assange] has not been contacted by the OSC or the House.” There was a Senate inquiry, he said, but “it was only an exploratory conversation and has not resulted in any agreement for Mr. Assange to be interviewed.”

Throughout the winter I asked officials and former prosecutors why officials wouldn’t be interested in at least getting a statement from a person ostensibly at the center of an all-consuming international controversy. There were many explanations offered, the least curious being that Assange’s earlier charges, assuming they existed, could pose legal and procedural obstacles.

Now that Assange’s extant case has finally been made public, the concern on that score “dissipates,” as one legal expert put it today.

It will therefore be interesting to see if Assange is finally asked about Russiagate by someone in American officialdom. If he isn’t, that will be yet another curious detail in a case that gets stranger by the minute.

As for Assange’s case, coverage by a national press corps that embraced him at the time of these offenses — and widely re-reported his leaks — will likely focus on the narrow hacking issue, as if this is not really about curtailing legitimate journalism.

In reality, it would be hard to find a more extreme example of how deep the bipartisan consensus runs on expanding the policing of leaks.

Donald Trump, infamously and ridiculously, is a pronounced Twitter fan of WikiLeaks, even comparing it favorably to the “dishonest media.” His Justice Department’s prosecution of Assange seems as counter-intuitive as the constitutional lawyer Barack Obama’s expansion of drone assassination programs.

Both things happened, though, and we should stop being surprised by them — even when Donald Trump takes the last step of journey begun by Barack Obama.

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+18 # yolo 2019-04-14 10:12
This shows that neither Obama nor Trump, had or have the leadership it takes to standup to those in our government who seek out revenge against Assange and any whistle blowers who hurt the image of our government. It is the very act of revenge against whistle blowers and those who publish the information which is hurting the image of our government, as much as the information that the whistleblowers and publishers exposed.
+5 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-04-14 13:37
"Not only did this case have nothing to do with Russiagate, but in one of the odder unreported details of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, he never interviewed or attempted to interview Assange."

I think Assange and WikiLeaks will be a big part of the Mueller Report when it is released next week. I think the timing of the arrest of Assange and the release of the report are deliberate. In the indictment of the 12 Russian military officers, Mueller claimed that WikiLeaks was a Russian covert op.

Assange won't be tried in the US as a journalist. He will be tried as a Russian agent or a covert operator who tries to sow discord in the US to influence elections -- or what ever the effing shit is that we've been told for two years now. Assange will be tried under the Espionage Act.

The single charge at the moment is as Kiriakou says only a placeholder and something the British can use to grant extradition. British law prohibits extraditing someone to a country that has the death penalty. The Espionage Act authorizes the death penalty. That's why it won't be mentioned until Assange is in the US and under total control of the Department of Justice.

Mueller did not interview Assange because Assange was a target all along. It is also the case that Assange knows that Seth Rich was the source of the DNC/Podesta emails and if Mueller were told that he would have to disclose it in a trial of Assange. Better not to know.
+4 # PCPrincess 2019-04-14 20:38
Quoting Rodion Raskolnikov:
"It is also the case that Assange knows that Seth Rich was the source of the DNC/Podesta emails and if Mueller were told that he would have to disclose it in a trial of Assange. Better not to know.

Absolutely! I am actually amazed at the number of people I've come across in various comment sections in the last few days who are aware that Seth Rich was, in fact, the person responsible for the taking of the DNC documents from Podesta and the subsequent passing of those documents to Wikileaks.

MANY people are anxiously awaiting to see if Assange will decide that his current situation warrants telling the truth and finally say, once and for all, that Russia didn't 'hack' anything from the DNC. Seth Rich downloaded those documents, passed them to Wikileaks and then was subsequently murdered.

So many of us hope to see the day that his sacrifice will be made fully known for all, AND those responsible for his death will finally pay the price. Most importantly, Americans NEED to know just how corrupt our institutions and politicians are.
+3 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-04-15 13:28
PCP -- I don't think he will be allowed to talk or to put up a defense. The case of the DNC emails will probably never be mentioned in the charges against him so that he can't use what he knows. The judge who will preside over his case will not allow any relevant evidence Assange has into the court.

Kiriakou is right. He will be "railroaded" -- a one way trip straight to prison.

I think the prosecutors and their masters in the Pentagon and CIA know exactly what they are up against and they have all the power to prevent anyone from challenging their goals.
-2 # HarryP 2019-04-14 15:03
Taibbi misses the point. Assange was not indicted for his (as Taibbi puts it) “publishing operations,” but for aiding and abetting Manning to break into a government computer. (The fact that he failed is besides the point. A would-be bank robber can’t argue, “Your Honor, we failed to pull off the heist.”)

Taibbi writes that the Assange indictment “falls just short of a full frontal attack on press freedoms.” Yet it is the “technicality” (Taibbis’s term) - the computer break-in that’s at the core of the issue. That’s the narrow scope the indictment looks at.

Should Assange be found guilty, it will not be a precedent for charging him for releasing what the GRU had stolen to help the Trump campaign. You could still publish illegally obtained documents - but you can’t help, say, a latter-day Ellsberg stealing and xeroxing them.

Charging Assange, a foreign national, with interference in a federal election, however, is another matter.
+2 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-04-15 16:52
HP -- "charging him for releasing what the GRU had stolen to help the Trump campaign. "

Why do you say what the GRU had stolen to help Trump. Is there any proof of that? There is a ton of proof that the material was a leak by someone who had access to DNC computers. I am aware that there is a noxious rumor (a.k.a. fake news) about the Russian GRU but I did not know that anyone with normal intelligence believed it or would recirculate it.
-3 # HarryP 2019-04-16 16:18

“what the GRU had stolen” is a paraphrase of the Mueller indictments of 12 GRU officers and Roger Stone. The Russians won’t show up in a US court to clear their good names, but Stone doesn’t have that luxury.

Russians, you incessantly insist, are incapable of committing atrocities in the cause of serving their national interest. Brits, Chinese, Pakistanis, Israelis, the US “Deep Stare,” French, Greeks, Spaniards, Congolese, Saudis, Nicaraguans, Argentines, Guatemalan, San Salvadorans, Mexicans, Syrians, etc.,etc., etc,........all have blood on their hands, But the Russians, heaven forbid, could not possibly be spying on Americans. How could Mueller even suggest it? There is no evidence they ever did. Right? Nor will they ever. Nor will you entertain that it was Russians who used plutonium to commit a political murder. Not to mention the use of Novichok.

It was Seth Rich, Seth Rich, Seth Rich who did the spying!!!! When will I finally get it through my thick head? And, of course, you have evidence. I propose we put him on trial.

Give it a rest, but you can’t. It’s your mission to defend the honor of Mother Russia, the repository of what is good and decent in this world, a veritable “Third Rome.”
+3 # crispy 2019-04-14 16:01
NPR yesterday aired a long segment very negative about Assange basically saying he was NOT a journalist and never claimed he was. they also said journalists do not hack databases or threaten the lives of people working undercover. In fact he deserved to be tried as a thief.
They ignored totally the value of the information he helped uncover and the "FILTER" that were the papers he worked with, trusting them to remove any sensitive info.
NPR, you know, that leftist radio...
+4 # laborequalswealth 2019-04-16 06:41
NPR has been a corporate tool for over a decade. Only listen to it if you want to hear the latest CIA/war-monger tripe.
-2 # margpark 2019-04-14 16:30
Considering what we have put Chelsea Manning through for showing truth to the public, why should her partner in crime be excused? To be totally truthful I could never bring myself to like Julian Assange even back then, though I thought the information should have been released. I do not consider Assange a journalist at all. He just sources piles of information and dumps it. Not a writer or journalist in any sense of the word.
+2 # yolo 2019-04-14 16:58
My guess is Mueller, and Comey before him, knew that the DNC files were a leak and not a hack. Which is why Comey didn't want to investigate the case to begin with, and later why Mueller never wanted to interview Assange. CIA specialist Josua Schulte leaked to Wikileaks the CIA's Vault 7 which showed how the CIA could hack computer systems and make it look like Russians or Iranians did it. Using Vault 7 our intelligence community than hacked the DNC after the fact, in order to plant evidence that Russians had hacked the DNC instead of an inside job. Mueller than used that fake evidence to indict Russians. Similar to when law enforcement drops drugs in a suspects car after pulling them over for a non criminal offense. Our law enforcement and intelligence community want to make an example of Assange to dissuade others, but they are also afraid of anything Assange may say which means we may never hear anything Assange has to say again.
0 # elizabethblock 2019-04-14 18:06
I wouldn't be surprised if some Trumpistas want to charge Assange with treason.
That won't wash. He's not an American citizen. The only country that could charge him with treason is Australia, and they're not about to.
+2 # Benign Observer 2019-04-14 20:11
Who on this list is NOT getting this story right: Matt Taibbi, Tulsi Gabbard, Jimmy Dore, Rachel Maddow, Tucker Carlson?

Most people might think Carlson, at Fox News, must be the outlier, but no, Fox viewers are actually getting more accurate coverage than MSNBC/Maddow fans.

Nothing in the indictment mentions Russia. Charges are built around (then) Bradley Manning's exposure of war crimes in Iraq, while Assange is accused of 'encouraging' Manning to get more documents. Yet CNN and MSNBC are misreporting what the charges are about, and Clinton's campaign advisor, Neera Tanden, currently running the 'progressive' Center for American Progress and The View's Meghan McCain seem to agree Assange should be imprisoned for life and burn in hell after that.

Several years ago the Washington Post applauded Obama/Holder for not prosecuting Assange because of the effect it would have on journalism. So what has changed? Why are major news media misreporting while Carlson is getting it right?

The CNN/NYT/MSNBC side of the equation is easy: there are no longer journalists working there. There are, instead, propagandists, and this is the message of the day (as approved by corporate owners).

The more interesting question may be why Rupert Murdoch's Fox allows Carlson to tell the truth (a phenomenon that also occurred with regard to the war in Syria).

Twilight Zone, indeed.
-3 # HarryP 2019-04-15 19:31

Is this a joke?

Who on CNN/MASNBC/NYT has argued that the Assange indictment has anything to do with Russiagate? Saying it doesn’t necessarily make it so.

Tucker & Ruppert as models of journalism? Tucker, the truth teller? Tucker never gets anything “right” or “wrong.” It all depends on how to spin the story - accuracy be damned. Of course, Tucker & Ruppert would peddle the news that the Assange indictment has nothing to with Russiagate - ergo, there’s no such thing as Russiagate. It’s all made up, says another truth teller, ad infinitude, and thus it just has to be true.

Keep watching Fox News. Hope you’re comfortable in the Twilight Zone’s soft embrace.
+1 # Robyn 2019-04-15 01:12
The Australian government should step in as Assange is an Australian citizen. Of course, Morrison won't as he is one of the most cowardly and uncaring Prime Minister's we have ever had the misfortune to have. I would expect more journalists would have something to say though as this is going to have a chilling effect on honest open journalism. Journalists are going to be too afraid to report the news for fear of this kind of retaliation. Assange embarrassed the United States and for that, he will never be forgiven. This is the man that won a slew of awards including a Walkley and now he is going to be 'disappeared' by the US. Frightening days indeed.
+3 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-04-15 09:26
The case of Assange brings to mind the case of the Skripals, who were poisoned more than a year ago and have now disappeared into some British black hole. It may be that Assange gets a similar black hole treatment.

The case of the Skripals has vanished from the attention zone of the mass media. Why did the media never explore the fact that both the Skirpals and Sergei Litvenenko, who was also poisoned, were closely connected to Christopher Steele and his private intelligence firm, Orbis?

There is a lot that no one is looking into going on in the UK and its intelligence agencies. Maybe the Mueller report will enlighten us about all the finger prints of British intelligence all over the Russiagate case.
-3 # HarryP 2019-04-16 08:46
Spit it out,Rodion, spit it out.

This is straight out of Moscow news coverage. And not very sophisticated.

So, it wasn’t the Russians who used plutonium and Novichok to kill their traitors. We shudda known it was Steele (already in bed with Hillary) who did It?

You’re astonished that the Skripals are in hiding. Let me give you a clue: A couple of Vladimir’s “tourists” (possessed with an uncontrollable urge to see Salisbury Cathedral) had tried to kill them.

Keep up the good work!
0 # Benign Observer 2019-04-16 13:55
You just gobble up any pablum the corporate media feeds you -- and then act condescending to people who are better informed. #Sad #Annoying #NoWonderFundin gIsDown
-3 # HarryP 2019-04-16 21:17

I should take a back seat to people who claim to be “better informed” because they watch Tucker Carlson and then declare that Tucker offers “accurate coverage?”


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