With the December decision by a UK court overturning an earlier ruling against extradition, it’s looking increasingly likely that Julian Assange will return to the U.S. to face charges related to Wikileaks’ 2009-10 publication of over 700,000 documents that Chelsea Manning stole from the U.S. military. For both legal and political reasons, the Biden administration’s decision to pursue this prosecution is a serious mistake.
As a matter of law, Assange has been charged with one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. But Assange did not conspire to hack U.S. computers — Manning already had access. Assange’s failed attempt to help generate a password to log in through another account was for the purpose of hiding Manning’s identity, not gaining access to the files.
Journalists not only frequently encourage sources to divulge information; they also help sources hide their identities. Indeed, journalists are obligated to do so when sources face “danger, retribution or other harm,” according to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. The New York Times, e.g., maintains a web page giving advice and encouragement of precisely that kind: nytimes.com/tips.
Assange is also charged with 17 counts of espionage, but no reasonable person can interpret what Assange did as espionage. Unlike Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, Assange, so far as we know, did not act as the agent of a foreign power. He did not sell or attempt to sell the purloined documents he acquired. He simply made them publicly available through Wikileaks. It’s not illegal to do that; nor should it be.
Politicians and laypeople alike should remember that the press serves the citizens, not the government. As the Supreme Court explained in its Pentagon Papers ruling: “The press was protected [by the Founders] so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.”
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Many have claimed that Assange placed U.S. personnel and agents in danger, but the government acquitted Manning of aiding the enemy. And while a few diplomatic careers were damaged, no evidence shows that the leak resulted in deaths or injuries.
On the other hand, the documents Manning gave Assange detail apparent war crimes, such as the torture of prisoners and unlawful attacks on Iraqi civilians. That information clearly serves U.S. citizens as a brake on state power.
It’s also important to remember that foreigners are not U.S. vassals. While it may be unpleasant for us to acknowledge, as a foreigner politically opposed to the U.S. wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, Assange is under absolutely no obligation to respect the U.S. military’s secrecy classifications.
Furthermore, the motive for the prosecution seems based on revenge, not rule of law. In 2016 — after the Obama administration decided not to prosecute Assange because of the First Amendment implications — Assange leaked John Podesta’s emails, which exposed Democratic Party malfeasance in undermining the progressive upsurge led by Bernie Sanders. That information may have contributed to Hillary Clinton failing to ascend to the Presidency.
In light of the enraged frustration Democrats suffered in the wake of their catastrophic loss in 2016, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that the Biden administration’s decision to prosecute Assange on grounds the Obama administration rejected is motivated by a lust for partisan retribution and not impartial devotion to justice.
* James Miller teaches journalism and civil rights law at duPont Manual High School. Peter S. Fosl is a professor of philosophy at Transylvania University.
WikiLeaks / Courier-Journal