US Files 17 Charges Against Assange, EFF Calls it an Attack on Journalism

The US has filed 17 additional charges against Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange. The EFF responded, saying it’s proof of an attack on journalism.

Last month, Wikileaks co-founder was handed a 50 week prison sentence for the comparatively minor infraction of skipping bail. It’s a sentence that the United Nations have called disproportionate.

Regardless of how legally questionable the prison sentence is, the United States quickly moved to extradite Assange. At the time, the US said it has nothing to do with Assange’s journalistic activity. Instead, they said that it is in relation to a charge involving Assange’s role in a failed attempt to crack a password. Various media outlets bought the talking point hook line and sinker as they attacked Assange, saying that he is not a journalist and that the charges have nothing to do with journalism.

Now, it seems the US has pretty much dropped all pretext in the case. The country has filed 17 additional charges against Assange. According to newly filed court documents (PDF), the charges include conspiracy to obtain information, unauthorized obtaining of State Department cables, and unauthorized disclosure of various state documents.

The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) blasted the new charges, saying that this represents a clear and present danger to journalism. They also say that the century-old tradition of not using the Espionage Act against journalists have officially been broken. More from their comments:

Make no mistake, this not just about Assange or Wikileaks—this is a threat to all journalism, and the public interest. The press stands in place of the public in holding the government accountable, and the Assange charges threaten that critical role. The charges threaten reporters who communicate with and knowingly obtain information of public interest from sources and whistleblowers, or publish that information, by sending a clear signal that they can be charged with spying simply for doing their jobs. And they threaten everyone seeking to educate the public about the operation of government and expose government wrongdoing, whether or not they are professional journalists.

Assistant Attorney General John Demers, head of the Department of Justice’s National Security Division, told reporters after the indictment that the department “takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy and we thank you for it,” and that it’s not the government’s policy to target them for reporting. But it’s difficult to separate the Assange indictment from President Trump’s repeated attacks on the press, including his declarations on Twitter, at White House briefings, and in interviews that the press is “the enemy of the people,” “dishonest,” “out of control,” and “fake news.” Demers’ statement was very narrow—disavowing the “targeting” of journalists, but not the prosecution of them as part of targeting their sources. And contrary to the DOJ’s public statements, the actual text of the Assange Indictment sets a dangerous precedent; by the same reasoning it asserts here, the administration could turn its fervent anti-press sentiments into charges against any other media organization it disfavors for engaging in routine journalistic practices.

Most dangerously, the indictment contends that anyone who “counsels, commands, induces” (under 18 USC §2, for aiding and abetting) a source to obtain or attempt to obtain classified information violates the Espionage Act, 18 USC § 793(b). Under the language of the statute, this includes literally “anything connected with the national defense,” so long as there is an “intent or reason to believe that the information is to be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation.” The indictment relies heavily and repeatedly on allegations that Assange “encouraged” his sources to leak documents to Wikileaks, even though he knew that the documents contained national security information.

But encouraging sources and knowingly receiving documents containing classified information are standard journalistic practices, especially among national security reporters. Neither law nor custom has ever required a journalist to be a purely passive, unexpected, or unknowing recipient of a leaked document. And the U.S. government has regularly maintained, in EFF’s own cases and elsewhere, that virtually any release of classified information injures the United States and advantages foreign nations.

The EFF went on to say that the Department of Justice does not get to decide what is and isn’t journalism. They also say that this latest move represents a threat to free speech.

What is interesting is that the US has now officially dropped the pretext of hacking completely to target Assange. It’s unclear why they chose now to just stop pretending this is only about hacking. One possibility is that Wikileaks may not be a part of the major news cycle now, so maybe there is hope that no one would notice that the hacking pretext has been dropped completely.

Another possibility is that maybe there is some kind of deadline going on behind the scenes to press these charges. Whether that is legal or part of some behind the scenes process is unclear, though.

At any event, this move does prove Wikileaks point once again and hurts the credibility of the US in the process. First, the pretext of the US having no role and this whole case was about an alleged sexual assault was pretty much dropped at this point. Next, the US used the pretext that this case has nothing to do with journalism and it has everything to do with hacking. Now, that pretext has been dropped.

Meanwhile, the Wikileaks side of the story has remained consistent throughout this whole ordeal in that this is about an attack on free speech and journalism. This is also about exacting revenge on Assange for exposing underlying corruption of US influence. So far, the actions of various parties have yet to disprove that position. In fact, the actions of the US government have only lent credibility to those positions.

For the US, the challenge now is to stop proving the other sides point and stem the damage already done with their case. Whether or not they’ll actually accomplish this or are even going to bother remains to be seen.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.



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