On November 15, the Washington Post reported that Julian Assange has been criminally charged in a sealed indictment by the United States Justice Department. The specifics are unclear as the information was revealed in a separate court filing that referenced the charges against Assange.
When prosecuting Wikileaks has been publicly discussed in the media, the Espionage Act is the main legal statute mentioned. However, going after Assange and Wikileaks sets a dangerous new precedent. The Espionage Act, amongst other things, bars the theft and distribution of information pertaining to the defense of the United States. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have aggressively defended national secrets through using the Espionage Act. Yet, the Espionage Act has been used to prosecute those who have stolen and leaked government documents, not the press that publishes the information. In fact, the Washington Post reported in 2013:
“The Justice Department has all but concluded it will not bring charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for publishing classified documents because government lawyers said they could not do so without also prosecuting U.S. news organizations and journalists, according to U.S. officials.”
Many of the most important press revelations over the last 50 years have occurred through the publication of stolen US government documents. For example, in 1971, the Washington Post published the Pentagon Papers which were stolen by Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst for the RAND Corporation. Due to the release of the Pentagon Papers, the public learned of US policy in Southeast Asia from World War 2 on to 1968. More specifically, the Pentagon Papers revealed lying by the US government regarding its actions in Vietnam and Southeast Asia such as conducting military strikes in Cambodia and Laos without informing the American people. More recently, in 2010, Wikileaks published stolen military documents it received from intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning--a transgender woman who at the time was named Bradley Manning. As a result, war crimes committed by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan were not only revealed, but videotapes of various acts, such as the murder of innocent civilians, became public.
During the course of the Trump administration, major media outlets have harped on President Trump’s attacks on mainstream media sources. The President has infamously used the phrase “fake news” when discussing coverage and journalism that is critical of him. In August, Fox News asked President Trump whether he considers the press the enemy of the people. His response was that around 80% of the media is fake news--and fake news is the enemy of the people. Recently, the President revoked the press pass of CNN white house correspondent Jim Acosta. During a heated exchange, Acosta questioned Trump on his characterization of migrants approaching the United States’ southern border as an invasion, and resisted Trump’s desire for the next reporter to ask their question afterwards by asking a follow-up question regarding the Mueller investigation. Afterwards, Trump revoked Acosta’s press pass, blocking him from White House press conferences. President Trump has a clear distaste--due to his harsh, public criticisms of his administration--for CNN and, specifically, Acosta as he called him “a terrible person.” As a result, mainstream media outlets vigorously defended Jim Acosta, and demanded that the White House reinstate his press pass. CNN released a statement saying, “This unprecedented decision is a threat to our democracy and the country deserves better.” The White House Correspondents Association denounced “the Trump Administration's decision to use US Secret Service security credentials as a tool to punish a reporter with whom it has a difficult relationship.”
CNN filed a lawsuit against the White House in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on the grounds that the revocation of Acosta’s press pass violated the First Amendment (freedom of the press), Fifth Amendment (guarantee of due process), and Administrative Procedure Act (informing the public on a government agency’s regulatory actions). District Court Judge Timothy Kelly ruled in favor of CNN on November 16th, mandating that the White House temporarily restore Acosta’s press pass.
Unlike the reaction to Acosta losing his press pass, major media outlets have not defended Julian Assange. CNN has yet to run a single segment merely discussing the implications of charging Assange regarding press freedoms. However, when mentioning the revelations of the Justice Department’s charges against Assange, CNN highlighted that Mueller has “painted Wikileaks as a tool of Russian intelligence for releasing thousands of hacked Democratic emails during the 2016 campaign.” MSNBC only ran a single segment which clearly presented the fact that charging Assange for publishing stolen documents would be an attack on press freedoms. Although, most of MSNBC’s coverage discussed Wikileaks as a collaborator with Russia and even a “foreign adversary.” While all coverage pertaining to Jim Acosta’s press pass was extremely critical of the Trump administration and demanded that press freedoms be maintained, the same vitriol is nonexistent regarding Julian Assange.
Mainstream press outlets, such as CNN and MSNBC, are completely failing to highlight the dangers of charging Assange for publishing stolen government documents. Moreover, the legal precedent that a conviction of Assange would create would gut the power of the press to hold the US government accountable for its actions. The press would no longer be able to report on illegal actions of the government if revealed through classified internal documents. Reaching beyond Wikileaks, publications including, but not restricted to, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Guardian would be liable for prosecution as each has published and reported on stolen government documents. And, if one of the major respected publications such as the Washington Post were to be charged for such publications, media outlets would likely defend them in similar fashion to their defense of Acosta. However, Wikileaks is not considered a “legitimate news outlet” by mainstream outlets such as MSNBC, where one of their “experts,” former FBI Assistant Director for Counterintelligence Frank Figliuzzi, explicitly said so, calling Wikileaks a “foreign adversary.” Moreover, Wikileaks is described to be an “arm” of Russian intelligence, sabotaging the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton in 2016 that was supported by most of the mainstream press, including anchors and “experts” on CNN and MSNBC. Contrary to the claims of former intelligence officials who represented agencies that had illegal actions exposed by Wikileaks, journalist Glenn Greenwald has pointed out that Wikileaks has “won prestigious journalism awards including the Martha Gellhorn Prize for excellence in journalism as well as Australia’s top journalism award.” Additionally, the First Amendment protects the freedom of press, which does not specify the opinions of certain figures about whether an institution is respectable or not.
If anyone values the freedom of the press, then the ability of journalists and organizations to publish classified government documents must be protected as such revelations have exposed major crimes by the United States government without the knowledge of the American people. And, the mainstream media should do its duty in not only defending those it respects and agrees with, but all press, as the implications damage us all.