The WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is so disliked in journalism and political circles that many reporters and liberal politicians were publicly cheering on Thursday when the Trump administration released an indictment of Assange, which was related to his interactions with the whistleblower Chelsea Manning in the months leading up to the publication of Pentagon and state department cables in 2010.
Please do not fall for this trap. It is exactly what the Trump administration is hoping for, as the Department of Justice (DoJ) moves forward with its next dangerous step in its war on journalism and press freedom.
The larger context surrounding this case is almost as important as the Assange indictment itself. Donald Trump has been furious with leakers and the news organizations that publish them ever since he took office. He complains about it constantly in his Twitter tirades. He has repeatedly directed the justice department to stop leaks, and he even asked former FBI director James Comey if he can put journalists in jail.
But officials at the justice department aren’t so stupid as to overtly act on the president’s most controversial musings and immediately attempt to prosecute New York Times or Washington Post reporters. Give them more credit than that. If they were to do so, the public backlash would be so overwhelming that, even if their case did not fall apart before trial, a judge would almost certainly put an end to it.
There are other, more methodical ways for the justice department to ultimately get what Trump wants, and the case against Assange is their perfect vehicle.
What’s the most effective way to curtail the rights of all people? First go after the unpopular; the person who may be despised in society and will have very few defenders. Assange fits this profile to a T. Once there is law on the books that says “this aspect of journalism is illegal”, it becomes much easier for the justice department to bring other cases against more mainstream government critics down the road, and much harder for judges to immediately dismiss them.
Instead of thinking, “I hate Julian Assange, so I’m glad he’s going to be punished,” ask yourself this: do you trust Trump’s justice department to protect press freedom?
The Trump administration has attempted to disguise its motives in the Assange case by avoiding overtly criminalizing the act of publishing itself. Instead, they have accused Assange of one count of “conspiracy” to violate a computer crime law when he allegedly offered whistleblower Chelsea Manning help in cracking a password in 2010. (The indictment does not allege they ever did crack the password, nor do they allege it helped Assange get any documents from Manning.)
It’s true that most journalists aren’t going to attempt to help a source crack a password, and no one is claiming that is some sort of first amendment protected right. But when anyone reads the entire indictment – rather than just the hyperbolic “conspiracy to hack” headline the Department of Justice wants you to see – it’s clear that they are using the conspiracy charge as a pretext to target Assange and potentially criminalize important and common journalistic practices in newsgathering at the same time.
The indictment refers to using an encrypted chat program to communicate with Manning for months. It describes how Assange wanted to protect Manning’s anonymity and did so by redacting information such as usernames from the documents Manning sent him. It also talks about how Assange requested that Manning send him additional documents and material that were newsworthy.
These are all standard practices for countless journalists around the country and around the world. In fact, using encryption and protecting the anonymity of sources are virtually requirements in an age where leak investigations are common. Reporters would not be doing their job if they refused to ask sources for information and instead waited for it to miraculously drop in their lap.
CNN has already reported that the justice department expects to bring more charges against Assange. Coupled with the fact that there was an ominous reference to the Espionage Act in the current indictment, this all suggests prosecutors might still be thinking about charging him for a crime involving the act of publishing too – a Rubicon that would be an absolute disaster for reporters everywhere.
For those who have been following the WikiLeaks closely over the years, none of the information in the Assange indictment released yesterday is new. In fact, the Obama administration had this exact same information at their disposal since at least 2011, when it first considered indicting Assange. Despite Barack Obama’s extremely disappointing record on press freedom, his justice department ultimately ended up making the right call when they decided that it was too dangerous to prosecute WikiLeaks without putting news organizations such as the New York Times and the Guardian at risk.
To those who have no sympathy for Assange, are you going to trust Trump’s justice department here over Obama’s? Given the Trump DoJ is relying on nine-year-old evidence on a flimsy charge of “conspiracy” to crack a password – an alleged scheme even the DoJ admits didn’t work – do you think they might have ulterior motives when it comes to this case?
Virtually all the major press freedom and civil liberties organizations denounced the prosecution yesterday, and expressed extreme concern that even though the indictment was ostensibly about “hacking” that it implicated serious press freedom concerns nonetheless.
At a time when press freedom has never been more at the forefront of the public consciousness, when it is the subject of Super Bowl commercials and celebrity award shows, please do not sit back and say: “Yeah, I trust the Trump administration to protect my rights in this case.” It is a recipe for disaster.
Trevor Timm is executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.