Trump Prosecution of Julian Assange Would Pose a Grave Threat to Press Freedom

Posted April 26, 2017

MP3 Interview with Marcy Wheeler, independent journalist and, publisher of the EmptyWheel.net blog, conducted by Scott Harris

assange

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, an Australian citizen, was granted asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy in August 2012 as he faced extradition to Sweden to answer questions on rape and sexual assault charges. While Assange denied the allegations, he refused to travel to Sweden then, fearing that the government there would extradite him to the U.S., where he could face serious charges for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. military and diplomatic documents in 2010. Those documents, leaked by U.S. Army soldier Chelsea Manning to WikiLeaks, were a great embarassment to the U.S., exposing covert spying and military operations, as well as a video recording of U.S. helicopter gunships killing Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists.

While the Obama Justice Department decided not to pursue an indictment of Assange, the new Trump administration is debating doing just that, although Trump had praised WikiLeaks during the campaign for their leak of thousands of Clinton campaign emails. On April 13, before an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Trump’s CIA Director Mike Pompeo accused WikiLeaks of being “a hostile intelligence service.”

News reports say that there are number of charges being considered against Assange for his role in leaking classified government documents and WikiLeaks' role in accompanying NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden from Hong Kong to Russia. Those charges include conspiracy, theft of government property and violation of the Espionage Act. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with independent journalist Marcy Wheeler, who explains why there is widespread concern that any future prosecution of Julian Assange would pose a serious threat to freedom of the press. [Rush transcript.]

MARCY WHEELER: The important thing is that under (former U.S. Attorney General) Eric Holder's Department of Justice, going back to 2010, when the government was prosecuting Chelsea Manning, they reviewed whether or not they could indict Julian Assange because of conversations he had had with Manning before or during the leaks.

And they ultimately decided that to do that would risk setting a precedent that would make it easy to – he called it the New York Times rule – it would make it easy to prosecute New York Times for also publishing classified documents or stories based on classified documents. So, that's where the Holder administration had been, and presumably, Loretta Lynch, who followed Holder at DOJ, and stayed with that decision. And what DOJ seems to be doing right now is revisiting that decision. And really, importantly, they're doing it at a time when Jeff Session isn't the most brilliant lawyer in the world, but also he doesn't have most senior officials in place. He fired all but of two of his U.S. attorneys. Interestingly, the two U.S. attorneys he kept around who are Dana Boente, who's in east district of Virginia, so covers CIA; that's where they were already or considering the prosecution of WikiLeaks. And he not only is still on the job as U.S. attorney, but also is the acting attorney general for the investigation into the Russian hack. So, this entire conversation is happening at a time when Dana Boente is in a really unique position historically. He's the guy who's been pursuing WikiLeaks since 2013. And that's a really interesting background for discussion about whether or not they're going to prosecute Assange.

BETWEEN THE LINES: In your recent article, Marcy, the WikiLeaks deterrent theory, also known as the Arbitrary Official Secret Act, which is your headline of this article, you talk about the chilling effect on other media outlets who publish classified government documents. If the Trump justice department did go forward with indicting Julian Assange, and if he is still in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, I guess that would be in abstentia, how much of a chill would that send to fringe as well as mainstream corporate outlets like the New York Times, like the Wall Street Journal, like the Los Angeles Times?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, I think it really depends on... The reason you do it against Julian Assange, is because he's not a likeable character any more. There was a time when he very much was a darling of the press. He's now a darling of the right-wing press. But there was this unresolved rape case in Sweden; there's this notion that he only ever publishes documents that reflect badly on the United States. There's this notion that he backs populist or authoritarian governments. So, he's no longer the press darling he used to be. And because of that, and I deal with this on Twitter all the time. It's like because of that, people forget that what you're really talking about is the application of the rule of law. You're not talking about a vote – Do you think Julian Assange is a guy you'd like to invite to dinner? Because that's not the issue.

What you're really talking about is the DOJ saying, this is a guy who is now considered a pariah by the U.S. media, so enough people in the media are going to go off of emotion rather than reason, and they're going to say, "Yeah, he's a big jerk, let's go prosecute him," even though some of them – I mean if you look at the DNC hack, if you look at the stories on emails that got published, the big media outlets New York Times, the Washington Post, published just as greedily, just as aggressively as WikiLeaks did. They were happy to get the materials. These same outlets have long forgotten it. Especially now, because Assange has even less PR value, and so they forget all that. So enough journalists are going to say, "Yay, we're prosecuting Julian Assange, and forget that that may mean, next week, they're the ones who get prosecuted for publishing a classified document.

For more information, visit Marcy Wheeler's wesite at emptywheel.net.

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