One of the stranger parts of rewatching Page One, the 2011 documentary about media reporting at The New York Times, is the presence of Julian Assange, who was at that time in his earlier days of leaking classified or otherwise secret information — initially via open platforms like YouTube, later in partnership with some of the world’s top news organizations. The various journalists and talking heads debate the right way to think of Assange and WikiLeaks — are they a source? a rival publisher? journalists? activists? — but the overall framing is that this is a new player on the field, and journalism is going to have to figure out ways to integrate it, respond to it, or otherwise engage with the new reality WikiLeaks seemed to portend. Bill Keller, then executive editor of the Times, says at one point: “The bottom line is, WikiLeaks doesn’t need us. Daniel Ellsberg” — leaker of the Pentagon Papers to the Times decades earlier — “did.”
As volatile an addition as WikiLeaks seemed at the time, on second viewing it feels like a simpler age — before Guccifer 2.0, before Seth Rich conspiracies, before embassy-as-hermitage, before President Trump. But where exactly Assange’s apparatus — dedicated to transparency, it says, while an actor on behalf of a foreign government, officials say — is still a matter of some debate.
So when Julian Assange was arrested this morning in London — after Ecuador, his diplomatic landlord since 2012, withdrew his immunity — it raised a set of old questions in a new context. Is Assange a journalist? Is the act of publishing newsworthy government secrets always journalistic, even if prompted by a foreign power? Does publishing not-particularly-newsworthy emails hacked from a private citizen earn the same benefit of the doubt? And is Assange facing charges as an enemy of the United States accused of real crimes or as a journalist being harassed by a government whose secrets he revealed?
Thankfully, Twitter figured this all out pretty quickly, as always.
The charges Assange faces in the United States do not directly relate to his publishing activities. Instead, he faces one count of “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion,” alleging that Assange agreed to help Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning by trying to crack the password on a Defense Department computer in order to obtain classified government documents, which would then be leaked to WikiLeaks. That he wasn’t charged with espionage — which would have more directly entangled the act of publishing secrets with questions of press freedom — was a relief to some who’d been worried before the charges were unsealed. But not everyone was convinced, seeing in the conspiracy charge a lot of standard journalistic behavior. And more charges — with more potential complications for journalists — could be coming.
As for the actual US charges, well, both the indictment and evidence are sealed, so we don’t know. But it’s clear that if Assange is charged under the Espionage Act for publishing leaked documents, that would be a major threat to press freedom. https://freedom.press/news/prosecuting-wikileaks-publishing-activities-poses-profound-threat-press-freedom/ …
Prosecuting WikiLeaks for publishing activities poses a profound threat to press freedom
Any Espionage Act prosecution also threatens journalists at the New York Times and Washington Post.
As @emptywheel lays out here, a case against WikiLeaks and Assange is likely to set a dangerous precedent that can be used against mainstream investigative journalists like @JasonLeopold: https://www.emptywheel.net/2018/11/16/the-theory-of-prosecution-you-love-for-julian-assange-may-look-different-when-applied-to-jason-leopold/ …
The Theory of Prosecution You Love for Julian Assange May Look Different When Applied to Jason…
In the wake of confirmation that Julian Assange has been charged, a lot of Assange haters are rooting for a theory of prosecution that might pose grave risk to Jason Leopold and other journalists.
UPDATE: US gov charges Assange with 1 count of conspiracy to violate CFAA (anti-hacking law) for agreeing to help @xychelsea crack a password on a Department of Defense computer, to help her hide that she was WikiLeaks’ source of classified docs. https://www.justice.gov/usao-edva/pr/wikileaks-founder-charged-computer-hacking-conspiracy …
The belief that Assange is a Russian agent has always been painfully stupid (and, I should note, completely without evidence). But if you’re someone who decided to believe that, then you’d have to see this as another case of Trump taking actions directly harmful to the Kremlin.
Here’s the Trump DOJ announcement about its indictment of Assange. It relates *only* to the 2010 classified docs about the Iraq & Afghanistan War logs & diplomatic cables. It has nothing to do with the 2016 election. This is huge attack on press freedom https://www.justice.gov/usao-edva/pr/wikileaks-founder-charged-computer-hacking-conspiracy …
WikiLeaks Founder Charged in Computer Hacking Conspiracy
Julian P. Assange, 47, the founder of WikiLeaks, was arrested today in the United Kingdom pursuant to the U.S./UK Extradition Treaty, in connection with a federal charge of conspiracy to commit
On first pass, the Assange indictment seems pretty flimsy. Assange supposedly agreed to help crack a password AFTER Manning gave WL all the docs they published. DOJ isn’t even alleging anything came of it. The “manners & means of conspiracy” section is all regular journo conduct:
The Assange indictment seeks to allay press freedom concerns by focusing on an allegation that he tried to help Manning “crack” a DOD password—i.e. entering into a conspiracy to steal rather than simply receiving info. https://www.justice.gov/usao-edva/press-release/file/1153481/download …
This is key. There are reasonable arguments to be made about charging hacking vs publishing but the argument that Assange would have to be a “journalist” as defined by peers or governments is not solid.
First Amendment protects the freedom to publish, an act, not some invented class of people called journalists. Otherwise, the government decides who is a journalist, which means who deserves protection and who doesn’t. Down that road lies tyranny.
One of the rare talking points that united all Russian troll farm accounts—from the ones pretending to be anti-Hillary Black Lives Matter accounts, to fake sexy moderate Texan ladies, to ones pretending to be state GOP Twitter accounts—was universal praise of Julian Assange.Renee DiResta ✔@noUpside
The IRA activated &renamed old accounts in the days leading up to Wikileaks dumps, used them specifically to socialize drops & promote the material. They praised Assange as a noble freedom fighter across other accounts, to all audiences (left, right, Black community) #RogerStone