War on WikiLeaks is ‘War on Journalism,’ US Charges Assange Under Espionage Act
“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.”
The U.S. Department of Justice filed 17 new charges against whistleblower and WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, claiming he violated the Espionage Act. The Act was first passed during World War I and is meant to prevent the support of U.S. enemies during wartime and prohibit military insubordination and interference with military operations.
The U.S. is seeking to extradite Assange from the U.K., something Assange and WikiLeaks has vowed to fight vehemently. Swedish authorities are also seeking to extradite Assange based on rape allegations made against him in 2010.
Last month, Assange, an Australian, was charged in the U.S. on only one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion with former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning for accessing the Pentagon network. Assange is in jail in the U.K. where he faces charges for bail violations after Ecuador withdrew his asylum protection and U.K. officials entered the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to arrest him.
Manning was found guilty in 2013 of espionage after exposing military secrets to Wikileaks and sentenced to 35-years imprisonment. However, Obama commuted Manning’s sentence and she was freed in 2017. Manning is now back in jail for refusing to testify against WikiLeaks.
Assange’s New Charges
The latest charges against Assange accuse him of conspiring with Manning to obtain, receive and disclose U.S national defense information.
The charges accuse Assange of having “repeatedly sought, obtained, and disseminated information that the United States classified due to serious risk that unauthorized disclosure could harm the national security of the United States,” according to the indictment.
WikiLeaks was established in 2006 as a website that amasses classified information and publishes it with the goal of increasing government transparency.
WikiLeaks’ says its purpose is “to bring important news and information to the public… so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth.”
By 2015, the organization had leaked more than ten million documents, including ones categorized as highly confidential.
Opinions of WikiLeaks vary widely. Some, like the U.S. government, believe WikiLeaks harms state security, but others hail Assange for revealing vital information kept secret from the public.
WikiLeaks became a household name after its 2010 release of “Collateral Murder,” a classified video given to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning of a July 2007 airstrike in Baghdad which showed two Reuters employees being fired and killed after helicopter pilots mistakenly thought the men were carrying weapons.
Other noteworthy WikiLeaks releases include:
- An 8,378-page document titled “Year Zero” revealed the CIA’s massive hacking operations and its ability to penetrate smartphones and smart TVs to obtain intelligence information.
- In July of 2012, WikiLeaks released a database of Syria files which contained more than 2.4 million emails from over 680 Syrian political and business figures between 2006 and 2012.
- A WikiLeaks release exposed brutal torture and abuse of prisoners conducted by U.S. military personnel in violation of the Geneva Conventions at Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. military prison which has over the years held hundreds of prisoners.
- Wikileaks released thousands of emails from Hilary Clinton’s campaign head John Podesta ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The emails leaked an array of valuable information, from details on a paid seminar Hilary gave in front of Wall Street bankers to Hilary’s campaign team strategy to deal with the former Secretary of State’s email scandal.
A War on Assange is a ‘War on Journalism’
The expanded charges against Assange could put him in jail for the rest of his life – up to 175 years in prison (10 years for each count of breaking the Espionage Act). Activists, fellow whistleblowers and civil rights groups see the expanded indictment as a violation of the First Amendment that stipulates protection for freedom of speech and protections for the press.
Former government contractor, whistleblower and employee of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Edward Snowden, condemned the latest charge against Assange, adding that the fate of journalism is at stake.
“The Department of Justice just declared war—€ not on Wikileaks, but on journalism itself. This is no longer about Julian Assange: This case will decide the future of media,” Snowden tweeted.
Bruce Brown, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told CBS: “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.”
The U.S. Justice Department claims that Assange is not a journalist and thus is not violating any protections for the press.
“The department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy and we thank you for it. It is not and never has been the department’s policy to target them for reporting. But Julian Assange is no journalist,” said John Demers, head of the Justice Department’s national security division, to reporters on Thursday. Demers also argued that no “responsible” journalist would publish the information Assange had.
In a statement released about Assange’s arrest the Justice Department said:
After agreeing to receive classified documents from Manning and aiding, abetting, and causing Manning to provide classified documents, the superseding indictment charges that Assange then published on WikiLeaks classified documents that contained the unredacted names of human sources who provided information to United States forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to U.S. State Department diplomats around the world. These human sources included local Afghans and Iraqis, journalists, religious leaders, human rights advocates, and political dissidents from repressive regimes. According to the superseding indictment, Assange’s actions risked serious harm to United States national security to the benefit of our adversaries and put the unredacted named human sources at a grave and imminent risk of serious physical harm and/or arbitrary detention.
Outrage Over New Julian Assange Charges
While the U.S. has charged persons under the Espionage Act before, typically the U.S. charges government officials (like Manning) or the leakers of confidential information and not the journalists or organizations that publish the information.
Thus charging Assange, who is a publisher of information, is seen as a major threat to press freedom by press advocacy groups.
BREAKING: For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges under the Espionage Act against a publisher for the publication of truthful information. This is a direct assault on the First Amendment. https://t.co/RJxjFPfkHe
— ACLU (@ACLU) May 23, 2019
Put simply, the Trump admin’s unprecedented charges against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are the most significant and terrifying threat to the First Amendment in the 21st century.
— Freedom of the Press (@FreedomofPress) May 23, 2019
Anyone cheering the Trump Administration’s indictment of Assange under *espionage* laws is an enemy of a free press, no matter how many vapid and empty tweets they’ve posted over the last 2 years pretending otherwise. Here’s @jeremyscahill pic.twitter.com/TsCZyHLFdb
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) May 23, 2019
The Obama administration reportedly debated whether Assange could be charged under the Espionage Act, but ultimately decided not to charge him. Matthew Miller, who was a Department of Justice (DoJ) spokesman at the time, told The Guardian:
“The justice department in the Obama administration thought it would be very dangerous to charge Assange with publication, as the Espionage Act doesn’t make any distinction between journalists and non-journalists.
“The second reason – which we never got to – was that no one was sure if it would withstand constitutional scrutiny. It probably wouldn’t. That said, the supreme court has changed significantly since then, and maybe the DoJ has made that calculation.”
Is Assange’s Extradition Likely?
The new indictments may actually complicate Washington’s effort to extradite Assange to the U.S. because of the extradition rules between the U.S. and U.K.
The U.S. and the U.K. inked an extradition treaty during the George W.Bush era in 2003. The agreement said a person could not be extradited for political offenses, but it did not explain in more detail what constitutes a political offense.
“Extradition shall not be granted if the offense for which extradition is requested is a political offense,” the treaty says.
A country can refuse to extradite a person if the request is politically motivated. Assange’s lawyers can use the claim that he is being extradited for political offenses.
John Bellinger, a former adviser for the U.S. State Department, explained to NPR in an interview on April 14 that no new charges can be filed against Assange after extradition.
“After he (Assange) is extradited, then the U.S. cannot change the charges later on. That would violate a treaty provision called the rule of specialty. So he could only be tried for the charges for which he is extradited,” Bellinger told NPR in an interview on April 14.
U.N. legal experts have already slammed the British government for violating Assange’s human rights by imposing a 50-week sentence on him for violating bail. Assange can appeal to the European Court of Human Rights arguing that any extradition is a violation of his human rights.
The decision to extradite Assange will rest ultimately with U.K. Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who will be responsible for giving the final approval to any court order.