Currently Julian Assange sits in a British prison after being unceremoniously ousted from his asylum situation in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. The US has indicted him and seeks to extradite him to the US to face charges. Assange arouses strong feelings. Some people detest him for some of the things he is accused of in his personal capacity while some journalists hate him because he exposed government secrets in ways they do not approve of. But Matt Taibbi argues that whatever we may feel about him, we should be very concerned about the implications for journalism as a whole contained in the indictments.
The troubling parts of that case lurked in the rest of the indictment, which seemed to sell normal journalistic activity as part of the offense. The government complained that Assange “took measures to conceal Manning as the source of the disclosure.” Prosecutors likewise said, “Assange encouraged Manning to provide information and records from departments and agencies of the United States.”
The indictment stressed Assange/Manning were seeking “national defense information” that could be “used to the injury of the United States.” The indictment likewise noted that the pair had been guilty of transmitting such information to “any person not entitled to receive it.”
I’m not exaggerating when I say virtually every reporter who’s ever done national security reporting has at some time or another looked at, or been told, or actually received copies of, “national defense” information they were technically “not entitled to receive.”
Anyone who covers the military, the intelligence community, or certain congressional committees, will eventually stumble – even just by accident – into this terrain sooner or later. Even I’ve been there, and I’ve barely done any reporting in that space.
This is why the latest indictment handed down in the Assange case has been met with almost universal horror across the media, even by outlets that spent much of the last two years denouncing Assange as a Russian cutout who handed Trump the presidency.
The 18-count indictment is an authoritarian’s dream, the work of attorneys who probably thought the Sedition Act was good law and the Red Scare era Palmer raids a good start. The “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion” is there again, as the 18th count. But counts 1-17 are all subsection 793 charges, and all are worst-case-scenario interpretations of the Espionage Act as pertains to both the receipt and publication of secrets.
Slowly – it’s incredible how slowly – it is dawning on much of the press that this case is not just an effort to punish a Russiagate villain, but instead a deadly serious effort to use Assange as a pawn in a broad authoritarian crackdown.
The very news outlets that have long blasted Donald Trump for his hostility to press freedoms are finally coming around to realize that this case is the ultimate example of all of their fears.
Hence even the Washington Post, no friend of Assange’s of late, is now writing this indictment could “criminalize investigative journalism.” CNN wrote, “What is at stake is journalism as we know it.”
Add to this the crazy fact that the Assange indictment targets a foreigner whose “crimes” were committed on foreign soil, and the British government now bears a very heavy responsibility. If it turns Assange over to the United States and he is successfully prosecuted, we’ll now reserve the right to snatch up anyone, anywhere on the planet, who dares to even try to learn about our secret activities. Think of all the ways that precedent could be misused.
Britain is in a box. On the one hand, thanks to Brexit, it’s isolated itself and needs the United States more than ever. On the other hand, it needs to grow some stones and stand up to America for once, if it doesn’t want to see the CIA as the World’s Editor-in-Chief for a generation. This case is bigger than Assange now, and let’s hope British leaders realize it.
Depending on the UK to defy the US seems like a hopeless dream. With a Labour prime minister like Jeremy Corbyn there is some hope but if Labour is led by a Blairite then it, along with any Conservative leader, will play its usual role of being the US’s lapdog and doing what it is told.