Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, publisher of whistleblowers, and Vladimir Putin’s lackey, was arrested in London on behalf of the U.S. government for “computer related offences” after Ecuador withdrew its asylum protection. Assange, who had skipped on bail in the summer of 2012 when under investigation for sexual assault and rape in Sweden, took up residency in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for the next seven years.
Assange’s transparent cooperation with Russian intelligence in its efforts to undermine American interests and embarrass the United States is hardly in question. The notion Assange is a non-ideological warrior fighting to expose the “unvarnished truth” about all abusive governments—as The New York Times once claimed—is a myth.
That said, I’m also reflexively uncomfortable with the idea of the Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecuting publishers for disseminating classified documents. Without whistleblowers and illegal disclosures, governments would often get away with grievous abuses of power. Even if those leaks are politically motivated, and even if the release of those documents fail to offer proper context, in the long run, protecting journalistic institutions that pursue transparency is a net benefit for free society.
And let’s not kid ourselves, even if journalists don’t openly solicit stolen classified materials, they are implicitly hoping to get their hands on as much as possible. Everyone knows this. In 2017, Hollywood was still celebrating the uncompromising bravery of Washington Post journalists, who 50 years earlier had published the Pentagon Papers, which consisted of illegally stolen classified documents that exposed 30 years of American involvement in the Vietnam War.
Some mainstream journalists differentiate themselves from those who dump caches of raw documents into the public record by arguing that they, professionals, can synthesize information, offering context and judgement. Some of these journalists also spent the past two years (selectively) passing on illegal leaks to create a “collusion” narrative, so I beg to differ.
It’s also worth noting that many journalists had a very different take on WikiLeaks before Assange allegedly undermined Hillary Clinton’s chance in the 2016 presidential election by publishing John Podesta’s hacked DNC emails. WikiLeaks was often portrayed as a journalistic endeavor and worthy bulwark against government abuse.
“There are lots of things that governments have the right to keep secret,” then-New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller explained, when speaking about the “value” of WikiLeaks. ”It’s their job to keep it secret. It’s not the press’s job to do that.”
Keller isn’t wrong. But there’s a problem.
“If Assange can be prosecuted merely for publishing leaked classified documents,” a piece in The Atlantic argued last year, “every single media outlet is at risk of prosecution for doing the exact same thing.” This is a compelling reason to worry. However, one fact that’s often skipped over by Assange’s defenders is that he’s not merely being charged with transmitting classified information obtained from a whistleblower. According to the indictment (and there’s a chance of additional charges), Assange actively attempted to participate in espionage. He didn’t merely get his hands on information or solicit it. The Australian is charged with a computer hacking conspiracy, because he conspired to assist then-Bradley Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst, with cracking codes that allowed the two to break into classified files.
These efforts led to the biggest leak in military history, resulting in thousands of classified logs covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq being dumped and shared with our enemies. Manning faced justice, and was sentenced to 35 years at Leavenworth before President Barack Obama commuted the sentence after seven. Why should Assange be spared the same justice?
If, for instance, Assange was being extradited to face charges for publishing Podesta’s hacked emails, it would be a clear to me that the government was violating free press protections. Whether this kind of behavior is ethically wrong or not, in some way or another, every major journalistic outfit in the United States has acted in a similar way.
BuzzFeed, for example, published a raw “dossier”—really a partisan campaign document—that included unsubstantiated rumors that were probably passed on by Kremlin sources to destabilize American elections (the point of all these intrusions by Putin). Knowingly or unknowingly, those who used the dossier were helping Russians perpetuate conspiracy theories that undermined faith in a U.S. election. Even if BuzzFeed is an activist organization, it still merely passing information along.
Now, it’s also likely true that Assange is only ostensibly being prosecuted for conspiracy and hacking, when in reality the DOJ simply wants to punish him for disseminating documents that were used in propaganda efforts against the United States, aided our enemies logistically, and embarrassed our establishment domestically. In the same way that mafia thugs were often brought down on tax evasion rather than murder, this is how the DOJ can get their man.
That might be so. The best way avoid this kind of predicament is by not colluding in actual spying. So while I’m sympathetic to the principled arguments being employed by Assange defenders, it’s unlikely they’re applicable in this case.