Julian Assange is a divisive figure. He’s been cheered and then reviled by progressives over the course of the last five years. Like the ACLU’s effort to defend the Nazi march in Skokie IL in the late 70s, Peter Van Buren sees past Assange’s feud with Hillary Clinton and his intent to hurt her presidential campaign as claimed by progressives who have abandoned his defense. He also sees into the long-term danger to the free press and democracy itself represented by his prosecution under the Espionage Act. -Ed
Peter Van Buren
This weekend I joined a number of people including Dan Ellsberg, John Kiriakou, Scott Horton, and Caitlin Johnstone in a 38 hours online vigil in support of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange. People ask why I did it, because Julian Assange and his Wikileaks organization are at best imperfect in who they are and what they do. But those imperfections are both of interest and do not matter. Supporting him transcends him, because the battle over the prosecution of Assange is where the future of free speech and a free press in the digital age will be decided. Even if you think Assange doesn’t matter, those things do.
Assange – the Unlikely/Unlikeable Hero
Supporting Julian Assange and Wikileaks is complicated. In 2010 a hero to then-opponents of American imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan while being labeled by others as an enemy of the state for working with whistleblower Chelsea Manning, today most of Assange’s former supporters from the left see him as a enemy of the state for allegedly working with Vladimir Putin to leak the Democratic National Committee emails. Many who opposed Assange’s work from the right now support him for helping defeat Hillary Clinton. Assange is a traitor who runs from justice, or a journalist, or a hero, or a spy, or some Frankenstein with elements of all of the above. And while I’ve never met Assange, I’ve spoken to multiple people who know him well, and the words generous, warm, or personable rarely are included in their descriptions.
Assange’s biography is challenging to even his staunchest supporters. After Wikileaks’ release of a half million highly classified documents in 2010, including evidence of war crimes and thousands of State Department internal cables, Assange was accused of sexual assault in Sweden under ambiguous circumstances. He was questioned there, but never charged or arrested, and left for the UK. The Swedes decided to continue their investigation, but instead of exercising options via Interpol to question Assange in the UK, instead insisted their inquiries could only be made on Swedish soil and requested the UK return Assange against his will. The British arrested Assange, though he was released on bail. Fearing the whole thing was a set-up to extradite him to the U.S. via Sweden, Assange jumped bail. Fearing the same faux process would see Britain send him to the U.S., Assange then obtained asylum, and later citizenship, from the Ecuadorian embassy in London. After claiming for years they could never interview him outside of Sweden, the Swedes reversed themselves and interviewed Assange in London in 2016. They soon dropped the charges. Britain meanwhile still plans to arrest Assange for failing to appear in court for an eight year old case that basically no longer exists, and will not assure him safe passage out of the UK. Assange has been living inside the Ecuadorian embassy for over five years.
Hole Up in the Ecuadorian Embassy
Contrary to popular belief, embassies are not the sovereign territory of their owners. However, the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations codified a custom that has been in place for centuries when it established the “rule of inviolability.” This prohibits local police from entering an embassy for any purpose without the permission of the ambassador. This is why Assange is safe from arrest as long as he stays within the walls of the Ecuadorian embassy, and of course in their good graces.
The idea of a lengthy stay inside an embassy for asylum is not new. The longest such episode was that of Hungarian Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who spent 15 years inside the American Embassy in Budapest, protected from the Soviet Union. In 1978 Russian Pentecostalists broke into the American Embassy in Moscow, demanding protection from religious persecution. They lived in the embassy basement for five years before a deal sent them to Israel. In 1989, Chinese dissident Fang Li-zhi resided in the American Embassy in Beijing for a year before being allowed to travel to the United States. More recently, in 2012, blind Chinese dissident Chen Guang-cheng spent six days in the American Embassy in Beijing, before then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton negotiated his safe passage to the U.S. The irony is in all those incidents, the United States was the protector. America today instead looks petty and mean standing alongside Soviet Russia and Communist China in pressing hard against one man aside the broader wave of history.
The Espionage Act
Should some process deliver Assange into American custody, he would be charged under the Espionage Act, a 1917 law used aggressively by the Obama administration to prosecute whistleblowers, including Chelsea Manning, and by the Trump administration to prosecute whistleblower Reality Winner. Under the Act, Assange would be prohibited from offering a “public interest” defense; his unauthorized possession of classified materials alone would ensure a guilty verdict, in that the Act does not distinguish between possession for journalistic purposes to inform the public, and possession say with the intent to hand over secrets to Russian intelligence. Assange, as with the others prosecuted under the Espionage Act (Edward Snowden would face similar circumstances on trial in America), would be found guilty and simultaneously be denied the chance to defend himself based on a free speech/public interest defense. The Espionage Act was created long before anyone coined the phrase Catch-22, but it seemed to have that spirit in mind.
But support for Assange, as for Snowden and other whistleblowers yet unnamed, is due because the stakes go far beyond one person’s rights and freedoms. What happens to Julian Assange will set precedent regarding free speech, freedom of the press, and the publication of classified and suppressed documents in pursuit of an informed public and representative accountability for many years to come.
The Espionage Act has a sordid history, having once been used against the government’s political opponents. Targets included labor leaders and radicals like Eugene V. Debs, Bill Haywood, Philip Randolph, Victor Berger, John Reed, Max Eastman, and Emma Goldman. Debs, a union leader and socialist candidate for the presidency, was, in fact, sentenced to 10 years in jail for a speech attacking the Espionage Act itself. The Nixon administration infamously (and unsuccessfully) invoked the Act to bar the New York Times from continuing to publish the classified Pentagon Papers.
Free Speech, Free Press, and National Security
Assange poses a dilemma for the United States in its ongoing push-pull in balancing the power of the government to protect classified information (rightly or wrongly), the clear guarantees to free speech and a free press in the First Amendment, and the broader concept of the need for an informed populace to challenge their government and make a peoples’ democracy work in practice.
At what point does the need for the people to know outweigh any laws allowing the government to keep it from view, such that someone may expose information, despite its classification? If punishment appears necessary, should the thief be punished, should the journalist who publishes it be punished, or should neither, or should both? The questions become acute in the digital age, where physical documents no longer need to be copied one-by-one, and where publishing is far removed from the traditions, obstacles, safeguards, backdoor pressures, self-restraint, and occasional deep subject matter knowledge of traditional journalism.
We Have Been Here Before
A complex and at times ambiguous history precedes Assange. In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the classified Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. The Papers were a 7,000 page classified history of the Vietnam War prepared under the order of then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. We know now McNamara, while publicly supporting the war, was privately consumed by doubt, and ordered the Papers written as his act of contrition.
The risks for journalists were huge — no one had ever published such classified documents before, and the senior staff at the Times feared they would go to jail under the Espionage Act. The Nixon administration found a court to order the Times to cease publication after an initial flurry of excerpts were printed in June 1971, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge censored a newspaper. Things got so dicey the Times’ outside counsel actually quit the night before his first appearance in court, claiming the newspaper, his own client, had indeed broken the law.
Despite such pessimism, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark victory for the First Amendment in New York Times Company v. United States. The Times won the Pulitzer Prize. Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act, though his case was dismissed for gross governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering without the underlying issues being addressed, most prominently Ellsberg’s defense he was morally compelled to leak the classified information to the Times, claiming “I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public.”
Freedom of Speech vs. Freedom of the Press
But looking at the Times case through the lens of Wikileaks, University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck is careful to point out “Although the First Amendment separately protects the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, the Supreme Court has long refused to give any separate substantive content to the Press Clause above and apart from the Speech Clause… The Supreme Court has never suggested that the First Amendment might protect a right to disclose national security information. Yes, the Pentagon Papers case rejected a government effort to enjoin publication, but several of the Justices in their separate opinions specifically suggested that the government could prosecute the New York Times and the Washington Post after publication, under the Espionage Act.”
In its simplest form, the Supreme Court left the door open for the government to prosecute both the leaker who takes the documents (by dismissing the case without setting a precedent) and the journalists who publish them (by focusing narrowly on prohibiting the government from exercising prior restraint.)
What has happened since has been little more than a very delicate dance around the 800 pound gorilla in the halls of democracy. The government has aggressively prosecuted whistleblowers under the Espionage Act (The Obama administration prosecuted eight whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, more than all previous presidential administrations combined) while choosing not to prosecute journalists for publishing what the whistleblowers hand over to them.
In one of the first of a series of attempts to make journalists reveal their sources, former Fox News reporter Mike Levine stated the Justice Department persuaded a federal grand jury to subpoena him in January 2011. The demand was that he reveal his sources for a 2009 story about Somali-Americans who were secretly indicted in Minneapolis for joining an al-Qaeda-linked group in Somalia. Levine fought the order and the Department of Justice finally dropped it without comment in April 2012. Call it a failed test case.
The closest things came to throwing a journalist in jail over classified information was in 2014, when Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder gave federal prosecutors permission to subpoena New York Times reporter James Risen regarding a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. The government accused former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling of passing classified information to Risen, information it said appeared in his 2006 book State of War. Holder issued the subpoena in line with his July 2013 Department of Justice guidelines on seeking information from the news media. That guidance sought to circumvent a court precedent being set by providing limited, discretionary protection for the media in some civil and criminal proceedings following scandals involving the DOJ seizing phone records and emails of reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News.
Risen refused to comply with the subpoena, which would have required him to disclose his source. After a lower court ordered Risen under threat of jail time to testify, the Supreme Court in June 2014 turned down Risen’s appeal. That left him facing a choice to reveal his source or go to jail. The Court’s one-line order gave no reasons but effectively sided with the government in a confrontation between securing evidence in a national security prosecution and an intolerable infringement of press freedom. The Supreme Court refused to consider whether there existed a sort of gentlemen’s agreement under the First Amendment for “reporter’s privilege,” an undocumented protection beneath the handful of words in the free press clause. By not making a new decision, the Court effectively upheld the existing decision by a federal appeals court finding that the Constitution does not give journalists special protection from the law.
That decision was more or less in line with the ambiguous way the Supreme Court has always looked at the unwritten special protections for journalists. The only real ruling on what special rights the media may hold under the free press clause came in 1972, in Branzburg v. Hayes. The Court decided reporters were not shielded from grand jury subpoenas, asserting judges must strike a “proper balance between freedom of the press and the obligation of all citizens to give relevant testimony.” From time to time lower courts have chosen to interpret that phrase as meaning there is indeed some sort of unwritten balancing test concerning the media, while other courts have read the same words to mean media should be compelled to testify.
In the end of the Risen case, the government, fearful of setting the wrong precedent and confident it otherwise had the evidence to convict Jeffrey Sterling, punted. Waving the flag noblely over a messy situation, Attorney General Holder announced “As long as I am attorney general, no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail.” Federal prosecutors asked the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia to “exclude James Risen as an unavailable witness” and said the jury “should draw no inferences, favorable or unfavorable” based on his absence as a witness.
Risen didn’t testify, and was not punished for publishing classified material by the government’s choice to back away from his case. The alleged leaker, Jeffrey Sterling, was thrown into jail for over two years. In 2015 Google turned over the Gmail account and metadata of a WikiLeaks employee in response to a federal warrant.
No court precedent was set. The door was left open. To avoid a clear precedent that would grant journalists a reporter’s privilege under the Constitution, the government stepped away from the fight. While the balancing question of the “public interest” has been poked at in other contexts, no one has shown where the balancing point is between the government’s need to protect information, a citizen’s right to expose information, and the media’s right to publish it. That all waits for Julian Assange.
Should the government bring Espionage Act charges against Julian Assange, there are complex legal questions to be answered about what if any First Amendment protections if any apply. Assange is not an American citizen and was not under U.S. jurisdiction when his actions regarding classified documents occurred. Is the fact that Wikileaks’ servers reside outside the United States and thus outside the protections of the First Amendment controlling, or does cyberspace lack such boundaries? By the way they chose to bring their case, government attorneys can influence how legal precedent is set on those matters. And if the United States can prosecute someone under those circumstances, any other government could demand foreign reporters anywhere on earth be extradited for violating their laws.
What is Jounalism?
The question also exists of who is a journalist and what is publishing in the digital world where thousands of files can be uploaded to a site instead of waiting for printing presses to run off copies. There is no debate over whether James Risen is a journalist, and over whether producing a book is publishing. Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and The Intercept, who have for years been writing about and placing online highly classified documents given to them by Edward Snowden, have never been challenged by the government as “journalists” or “publishers.” The elements of fact checking, confirming, curating, redacting, and in writing context around the classified information, were present in the New York Times’ case with the Pentagon Papers, and are present with Risen and Greenwald, et al. All involved are American citizens.
Almost none of that applies to Assange. He has written nothing alongside the millions of documents on Wikileaks, has done no curating or culling, and has redacted information at times and not at others. Publishing in his case consists of simply uploading what has been supplied to him to a website. It would be easy for the government to frame a case against Assange that set precedent he is not entitled to any First Amendment or reporter’s privilege protections whatever they may be — clicking UPLOAD isn’t publishing and Assange isn’t a journalist. The simplest interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 793(e) in the Espionage Act, that Assange willfully transmitted information relating to the national defense without authorization would apply. Guilty, same almost all of the leakers, whistleblowers, data thieves, hackers, and other canaries in the deep mineshaft of Washington, DC before him.
And that really, really matters. Wikileaks sidestepped the restraints of traditional journalism to bring the raw material of history to the people. Never mind whether or not a court determined disclosure of secret NSA programs which spied on Americans disclosure was truly in the public interest. Never mind the New York Times got a phone call from the President and decided not to publish something. Never mind how senior government officials are allowed to selectively leak information helpful to themselves. Never mind what parts of an anonymous technical disclosure a reporter understood well enough to write about, here are the cables, the memos, the emails, the archives themselves. Others can write summaries and interpretations if they wish (and nearly every mainstream media outlet has used Wikileaks to do that, some even while calling Assange and his sources traitors), or you as an individual can simply read the stuff yourself and make up your own damn mind about what the government is doing. Fact checks? There are the facts themselves in front of you. That is the root of an informed public, through a set of tools and freedoms never before available until the Wikileaks and Internet created them.
Allowing these new tools to be broken over the meaning of the words journalist and publishing will stifle all of the press. If Assange becomes the first successful prosecution of a third party under the Espionage Act, the government can then turn that precedent into a weapon to aggressively attack the media’s role in say national security leaks. Is a reporter, for example, publishing a Signal number and asking for government employees to leak to her in fact soliciting people to commit national security felonies? Will media employees have to weigh for themselves the potential public interest, hoping to avoid prosecution if they differ from the government’s opinion? The government in the case of Assange may see the chance to mold the legal precedents with such certainty that they will seize this chance where they have backed away from others. The Assange case may prove to be the topper in a long-running war of attrition against free speech.
Self-censorship vs. Open Publication
In mid-2004, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau uncovered George W. Bush’s illegal warrantless eavesdropping program, but the New York Times held the story for 15 months, until after Bush’s reelection. Executives at the Times were told by administration officials that if they ran the story, they’d be helping terrorists. They accepted that. In 2006 the Los Angeles Times similarly gave in to the NSA and suppressed a story on government wiretaps of Americans. Glenn Greenwald said it plainly: too many journalists have gone into a self-censoring mode, practicing “obsequious journalism.”
Assange, and those who follow him in this new paradigm of journalism and publishing, have made mistakes while broadly showing courage, not restraint, under similar circumstances and the public is better informed because of it. In the words of one commentator, “WikiLeaks liberates the right to free speech from authorities that restrict access.” Along the way the 2007 release of the Kroll report on official corruption in Kenya affected a national election, while in 2009 Wikileaks exposed the moral bankruptcy of Iceland’s banks. A 2011 Amnesty International report pointed to the role of leaked documents in triggering revolutionary global uprisings. The BBC said Wikileaks revelations were a spark for the Arab spring.
Assange’s Freedom is Our Freedom
“This is the biggest free speech battle of our lifetimes,” said the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This is the moment when we will see whether publishers can continue to freely distribute truthful political information online.”
I support Assange because he is someone who fell into a place and time where crucial decisions will be made. Allowing Assange to speak now, and to travel unfettered to Ecuador and permanent asylum will allow others after him to continue to provide evidence when a government serves its people poorly and has no interest in being held accountable. Prosecution of Julian Assange can only come from a nation which fears the noise of democracy and prefers the silence of compliance.
This post originally appeared on Peter’s We Meant Well blog.