Initial Impressions Of The Arrest Of Julian Assange
Is it a major threat to the free press?
• This has dragged on for so long: Assange had been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for nearly 7 years. so it seems like the end of something. But really it’s just the beginning. Extraditing him to the U.S. will be an unusually arduous task. (Britain’s pledge that it does not extradite Assange — or anyone — to any place where he might be subject to the death penalty in his case is probably less of an issue than a lot of others: federal cases in the U.S. almost never result in the death penalty, especially when they don’t involve a U.S. citizen). However, there are a lot of steps still before Assange could be extradited to the U.S. And actually, it’d be a lot easier to extradite someone from one Western European country (or more technically “European Arrest Warrant” country) to another. So if Sweden decides to re-file sexual assault charges (that Assange says were Trumped up), and that originally sent him running to asylum at the embassy, that could entangle him for a while. And they now say they’re going to. Plus it also kind of seems like given the alternatives in front of him, he might actually angle for extradition to Sweden. Britain’s SkyNews has a really good Twitter tick-tock of everything that’s going on. Not to mention the fact that he jumped bail when he made his dash for the embassy, for which a conviction should be a slam dunk. Still, that’s a lot of dominoes that still have to fall before he potentially hits American shores.
• Trump at one time was a huge fan of WikiLeaks. “We love WikiLeaks” he once exclaimed. That’s when its leaked information about Hillary Clinton’s campaign operatives was helping him win an election. We imagine he does not feel the same way now. In fact, according to Politico, Trump now says “I know nothing about WikiLeaks”. (Which is his most typical response when anyone or anything he’s been associated with gets into trouble). And it’s another example of how Trump has uncannily good luck: benefiting from something shady, and then shutting it down before it can potentially turn on him. (We’re kind of seeing the same thing happen with the Mueller report. Because the roll-out of the Starr report, and the ugliness that ensued, rules were changed that are now protecting Trump).
• The first name of Ecuador’s “more moderate” or more fed-up President (depending on who you ask), who withdrew asylum, making Assange’s capture possible, is Lenin. Yes, that Lenin. His parents also named him after the French author, Voltaire. (We have no other point about that than that.) And a lot of reporting is making it seem like that government was ready to oust him from their embassy simply because he wasn’t being a good “house guest”, and his cat made a mess. But Assange seems like a singularly unpleasant individual to begin with (regardless of whether you agree with what he’s done or not). And we think you’d almost have to be to do what he does. So they just came to that realization now?
• This inarguably bumps into the first amendment at some level. But if you look at the charges filed by the U.S. Attorney from the Eastern District of Virginia, it’s notable that Assange is charged with “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion”. But not espionage. Now that could just be a ruse to help get Assange extradited, and once he’s here, those charges could be expanded. But let’s take it at face value for now. Because then, when Edward Snowden Tweets “this is a dark moment for press freedom”, we’re not sure he’s exactly right.
Here’s a link to the entire indictment, which was actually filed more than a year ago, but kept under seal until now. It’s an interesting read.
With the hacking charge alone, the U.S. is not identifying WikiLeaks as a journalistic organization, and nowhere is Assange identified as a journalist. Only as the “founder and leader of the WikiLeaks website”. They’re going after Assange personally for conspiracy to commit computer hacking, along with Chelsea Manning, who was convicted by court-martial in 2013. Specifically, the charge involves “agreeing to break a password to a classified U.S. government computer”. And for continuing to encourage Manning to hack, even after Manning said they had nothing left to share. The hundreds of thousands of hacked documents involved were those related to Iraq and Afghanistan, along with a trove of cables between U.S. State Department diplomats.
So that distinction could be an important one if it means that even if Assange is convicted, it does not set a precedent that journalists can be prosecuted simply for possessing information that was the result of a hack of the government. According to University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck, that’s why it’s significant the charges come under the “Computer Fraud and Abuse Act”, not the “Espionage Act, or the publication of classified national security information”.
And we think that would be right. WikiLeaks has mostly acted as an conspirator/acquirer of data and information, and a conduit through which it’s dumped data that various news organizations then have used as the basis of reporting.
Now we’re going to argue against ourselves a little. At the same time, Assange/WikiLeaks has clearly made editorial decisions about what data and information to seek out and release and who or what organizations it focused on for its leaks. And where and how strenuously it steered hackers. So is that a form of editorial decision making? Yes. Reporting? We still think no. The reason we say that is every single person in the world has a different point of view and a different set of biases. That doesn’t make everybody a reporter, just because their lives are informed by those points of view and biases and they may choose to act on them or not.
Then again, a decision to use any action against WikiLeaks as action against the free press isn’t really up to WikiLeaks or the free press, it’ll likely ultimately be up to the courts, at the behest of those people in power who can choose to make this a test case for reining in the media. So far however, they do not appear to be.