Jun 26, 2024

Julian Assange's plea deal.

Julian Assange's plea deal.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaving a courtroom in 2011.

Plus, a reader question about how many cases get to the Supreme Court.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is free. Plus, a reader question about how many cases make it to the Supreme Court.

Quick hits.

  1. George Latimer (D) defeated Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D) in the primary race for New York's 16th Congressional District. It was the most expensive House primary race in U.S. history. (The results). Separately, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) won her primary race after changing districts to avoid a competitive Democratic challenger. (The results)
  2. New York judge Juan Merchan partially lifted the gag order against former President Donald Trump just weeks after a jury found him guilty on all counts of falsifying business records. (The order)
  3. Israel's Supreme Court unanimously ruled the country’s military could begin drafting previously exempted ultra-Orthodox Jewish men into its ranks. The decision threatens to fracture Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition, which includes two major ultra-Orthodox parties. (The ruling)
  4. Oklahoma's Supreme Court blocked the launch of a religious charter school. The school would have been the first of its kind in the U.S., and the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City plans to appeal the ruling. (The decision)
  5. At least 23 people died during protests in Kenya over a finance bill that would have increased taxes. On Wednesday, Kenyan President William Ruto said he would not sign the bill. (The protests)
  6. BREAKING: The Supreme Court rejected a conservative-led challenge to the Biden administration’s contacts with social media companies, ruling that the states and users who challenged the communications didn’t have standing to sue. (The ruling

Today's topic.

Julian Assange’s plea deal. On Tuesday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was released from a British prison to plead guilty to a conspiracy charge with the U.S. Justice Department. After his release, Assange traveled to the island of Saipan in the U.S. territory of the Marianas Islands in the Pacific, where he stood trial at 9 a.m. local time on Wednesday morning (Tuesday at 7 p.m. Eastern Time). 

The deal ends the years-long legal battle by the U.S. government to prosecute the computer expert and internet publisher over his public release of classified materials. In 2019, the United States indicted Assange on charges of hacking-related conspiracy and espionage for soliciting and publishing U.S. national security secrets. As part of this week’s deal, Assange pleaded guilty to a single felony count of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified information. He was not sentenced to additional prison time and was granted time served for the five years he spent imprisoned in the United Kingdom, according to court documents

Upon the conclusion of the hearing, Assange returned to Australia. His only remaining debt is now $500,000 owed to the Australian government for his chartered flight home, which he expects to raise through crowdsourcing.

Back up: In 2009, U.S. Army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning began uploading documents from a classified computer onto WikiLeaks, which published them in 2010. The leaked documents include a video of a U.S. helicopter strike in Baghdad that killed a Reuters photographer, incident logs from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, more than 250,000 diplomatic cables from American embassies around the world, and hundreds of intelligence dossiers about Guantanamo detainees. In 2010, Manning was arrested and charged with violating the Espionage Act; in 2013, she was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison. President Obama commuted her sentence shortly before leaving office in 2017.

What else: In 2010, Sweden issued an arrest warrant for Assange in connection to a sexual assault investigation. Assange, then in the U.K., lost his appeal of the Swedish warrant, then violated his bail by fleeing to the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Ecuador granted Assange asylum and allowed him to shelter in the embassy for the next seven years. In 2017, Swedish prosecutors dropped their investigation and the U.S. Justice Department indicted Assange in 2018 on a narrow charge of a hacking-related conspiracy. In 2019, Ecuador revoked Assange’s asylum, inviting the British police to enter the embassy, arrest him, and sentence him to 50 weeks in jail for violating bail. After his arrest in London, U.S. prosecutors revealed a sealed indictment charging Assange with conspiring to hack into a classified Pentagon computer network and sought his extradition. Weeks later, the Justice Department announced a second, superseding indictment charging Assange with 17 additional counts of violating the Espionage Act.

For the past five years, Assange has been imprisoned in London's Belmarsh prison, one of the U.K.'s highest security facilities, while he fought extradition to the U.S. 

In addition to the Manning leaks, Assange and WikiLeaks also publicized 573,000 intercepted pager messages sent during the 9/11 terror attacks; thousands of hacked emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election; and the names, addresses, and contact information of more than 13,000 members of the British National Party. For over a decade, Assange and WikiLeaks have been the subject of intense debate over the line between journalism and espionage.

Below, we get into what the right and left are saying about the Assange deal, and then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is mixed on the plea deal, with many arguing Assange should have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
  • Some disagree and say Assange is a model for holding power to account.
  • Others say Assange has been punished enough, and the deal is appropriate. 

In National Review, Noah Rothman called the plea deal “a tragedy.”

“In 2010 and 2011, WikiLeaks released a cache of illegally obtained classified documents revealing American methods, assets, and allies in the Afghan and Iraqi theaters where U.S. service personnel were actively engaged in counterinsurgency operations. His work outed the Afghans who worked directly with American servicemen, opening them up to retribution. And they most certainly did face retribution,” Rothman wrote. “Assange’s ‘crime’ was not limited only to the publication of documents that explicitly imperiled U.S. interests… It was to facilitate the pilfering of those documents in the first place.”

“So many of Assange’s defenders have confused reportorial best practices with activism. Not just any activism, in this case, but acts of criminality designed to imperil U.S. interests and put American soldiers in additional danger,” Rothman said. “It’s perhaps too much to ask that American journalists display a modicum of patriotism, but it’s not a big ask to demand that they observe the laws meant to keep America’s men and women in uniform safe. We should certainly expect the executor of America’s laws in the White House to mete out justice on behalf of the U.S. soldiers and their assets all over the globe who were harmed by Assange’s conduct.”

In The Federalist, John Daniel Davidson wrote “if Julian Assange is a criminal, so is the entire corporate press.”

“As Assange’s years-long ordeal comes to a close, it’s worth noting that what was done to him is criminal — and it poses a very real threat for journalists who dare to question the national security state. Put simply, what Assange did is no different than what The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and many other corporate media outlets do every day: they publish and report on classified material that was stolen or obtained illegally by sources,” Davidson said. “The main difference between Assange and these outlets is that Assange did what he did in order to hold power to account, whereas the corporate press does it in service of power.”

“Charging Assange with espionage for publishing illegally leaked materials sets a horrible precedent for free speech and journalism. It means, for example, that every New York Times or Washington Post reporter who writes a story citing anonymous government sources or citing classified documents could be criminally charged,” Davidson wrote. “Of course, most corporate journalists are unlikely to see or admit the connection, mostly because they maintain there’s a difference between what they believe are ‘legitimate’ news organizations and something like Wikileaks. But there’s not. The only difference is that Assange was honest about his ideological commitments.”

In The Spectator, Mary Dejevsky argued the deal “is ethically dubious.”

“Assange’s freedom was essentially the result of a US-style plea bargain, in which the defendant pleads guilty in return for a lesser charge or sentence. The practice of plea-bargaining is ethically dubious anyway, but it is particularly so in this case, where it is highly contestable whether Assange had any charge to answer, least of all in the US,” Dejevsky wrote. “Assange was under no oath of allegiance to the United States and had broken no US law. He was acting as publisher and journalist, not leaker or traitor. He was not in the US at the time, he was not a US citizen: how could the US argue that he was subject to their jurisdiction?”

“The agreement that Assange would accept an appearance in a US court (albeit one thousands of miles from the US mainland) and plead guilty to a crime that he and his supporters had hitherto strenuously denied, was the face-saving formula eventually found. It was an ingenious solution, even if it represented a climbdown, in legal principle, for Assange,” Dejevsky said. “In the end, the balance sheet is probably as even as it could realistically be, and the diplomats and lawyers who had the imagination to pull it off deserve more recognition than they will probably ever receive.”

What the left is saying.

  • The left is also mixed on the deal, though many worry that the outcome could still have a chilling effect on press freedoms. 
  • Some say Assange is no hero, but the terms of the deal are acceptable.
  • Others suggest there will never be true closure in Assange’s case. 

In The Daily Beast, Seth Stern wrote “Julian Assange’s plea deal still threatens free speech.”

“The shameful, years-long saga has left the U.S.’s global credibility on press freedom severely diminished. Even worse, it has put national security journalists on notice that the U.S. government stands ready and willing to criminalize their work at its discretion,” Stern said. “The Biden administration needed to settle the case to save face… But the administration had the opportunity to do more than shield itself from embarrassment. It could have proven that the president meant it when he declared that ‘journalism is not a crime.’ It could have distinguished itself from Donald Trump, Biden’s openly anti-press electoral opponent, whose administration first indicted Assange. It could have dropped the case.

“The plea agreement does not add any more prison time or punishment for Assange. It’s purely symbolic and entirely unnecessary. Its only impact will be to legitimize the criminalization of routine journalistic conduct and encourage future administrations to follow suit—including a potential second Trump administration,” Stern wrote. Plea deals “send a message, especially in a high-profile test case for a novel and constitutionally dubious legal theory. Judges and prosecutors all over the country will read about the plea deal and feel emboldened to punish journalists for doing their jobs”

The Economist called the deal “a suitable end to a grubby saga.”

“Those who would have liked him to stand trial in America regard him as a reckless criminal. If he exposed injustices by publishing unredacted copies of government documents, he also put honourable people at risk,” the authors said. “His lack of judgment was also on display in 2016, when WikiLeaks spread conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate for the American presidential nomination, and asked Russia for stolen emails about her. But the central issue is that Mr Assange was accused of breaking the law.

“His supporters often cite his First Amendment rights, comparing him to a truth-telling journalist. But journalists do not have the right to hack computers; on that ground, America was justified in asking Britain to extradite him,” the authors wrote. “Showing him some compassion now is also no bad thing… Mr Assange is not a hero, and does not deserve martyrdom. A plea deal is a suitable ending to a grubby saga.”

In Bloomberg, Noah Feldman said “Assange’s saga will forever exist in a legal gray area.”

“The outcome is unlikely to satisfy either national security hawks — who wanted Assange behind bars in the US for the substantial damage he did to the country’s interests — or First Amendment absolutists who think freedom of the press should extend to WikiLeaks. The truth is that Assange’s case was always in the gray area between espionage and protected speech,” Feldman wrote. “Assange’s behavior sits smack in the middle of two areas of long-established law. On the one hand, if you are a government employee or contractor with authorized access to classified material and you leak it, you may be criminally prosecuted to the fullest extent of the Espionage Act.”

“On the other hand, if you are a news organization that receives classified information and makes it public, the First Amendment generally protects you — although that protection isn’t unlimited… Then comes the gray area, for which Assange is the exemplar: People who cooperate with leakers in some way to facilitate the public release of classified information,” Feldman said. Assange’s time served “is enough to make free-speech advocates worried about the future, but not enough to satisfy those concerned about protecting long-term national security. The affair is thus ending in the same uncertainty with which it began.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • It’s long past time that Julian Assange was made a free man.
  • WikiLeaks has had its moments of scandal and corruption, and Assange is not a typical journalist, but he’s been punished mostly for things all journalists do.
  • For the sake of the future of a free press, his release is a good thing.

I should start by confessing that there was a Tangle newsletter in my drafts folder with this headline: "It's time to free Julian Assange." So, in an effort not to bury the lede, I'll just say that I think it is long past time for Assange to be a free man — and that this plea deal was overdue.

If you’re interested, you can read what I've written about Assange and my interactions with WikiLeaks.

The simple truth is that there are differences between Julian Assange and traditional journalists. Some have described him as a kind of "anarchist hacker," which isn't quite right; but it isn't totally off-base, either. Assange has at times enlisted the help of actual reporters to publish his work, which is a kind of concession that he and WikiLeaks aren't journalists or a news organization in the traditional sense. Assange has never been in the business of framing and reporting a story; he releases raw information to the public and lets whatever happens happen.

Unlike journalists, Assange usually doesn't contact the subjects of leaked materials he comes into possession of and ask them for context, or give them a chance to address what he plans to publish. There are obvious dangers in that — statements can be read differently out of context, and contextualizing information is one of the main functions of journalism. Assange also rarely interacts with state governments to figure out what information he has that might put innocents at risk. In the most notorious example, the Taliban once used documents released by WikiLeaks to identify Afghans who were aiding the U.S. and then sought them out for retribution.

Furthermore, for an organization that bestows the mantle of “truth tellers” on itself, WikiLeaks has done some pretty corrupt things. For example, leaked messages obtained by The Atlantic from before Trump was elected show that WikiLeaks asked Donald Trump Jr. to leak them part of his father's tax returns, which had already been published by The New York Times. WikiLeaks wanted to create a facade of being more impartial in order to make its document dumps about Hillary Clinton "much higher impact, because it won’t be perceived as coming from a ‘pro-Trump’ ‘pro-Russia’ source.” After Trump was elected, the group reached out to Trump Jr. again, this time insisting he get his dad to ask Australia to appoint Assange as its U.S. ambassador, even going so far as to draft part of an announcement.

You can decide whether the group was working hand-in-glove with a presidential campaign or simply working to preserve its public image, but either way it looks pretty bad. To me, this is not the work of a noble, power-fighting journalist.

At the same time, Assange has arguably exposed more wrongdoing by powerful governments and institutions than any living person. WikiLeaks' record of releasing authentic documents is strong (some argue spotless), though in its early days their verification process seemed lackluster. Either way, as far as I know, they haven't been caught in a single major mistake. 

In one sense, Assange is the greatest journalist alive, and in another sense he’s one of the most reckless disseminators of raw information on the planet today.

So why am I happy he is walking free? Primarily because, in both my view and now in the view of the U.S. government, he's served his time. Assange has effectively spent the last 14 years in captivity — hiding in various embassies or being held in actual prisons (his friend Srećko Horvat wrote about how Assange went thousands of days without ever seeing the sky). Even though his case exists in the gray area of legality, and he may well be totally innocent of any wrongdoing, his punishment has already been served.

I also did not want to see this case tried in a U.S. courtroom. However you feel about Assange, his case would have amounted to the U.S. government prosecuting someone for actions that are directly tied to the work journalists do every day across the world. And since the CIA floated plans to kill Assange, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of seeing him stand trial on U.S. soil. Even without the hacking charges, Assange was facing decades in prison for disseminating classified documents, something major news organizations do responsibly all the time. Every journalist should be opposed to that kind of prosecution, and we should all want the press to be able to obtain and disseminate classified documents to the public. That isn’t to excuse some of Assange’s recklessness, but just to recognize that the press can’t hold our government to account if so much of Assange’s work is seen as criminal.

My feelings about Assange (and WikiLeaks) are genuinely mixed. But I prefer that legal gray areas not be treated as unambiguously illegal. And I prefer the U.S. government not to criminalize journalists who operate in that gray area to the point of endangering more traditional methods of journalism, or further preventing the kind of information from getting to the public that WikiLeaks has been able to publish. Assange served his time. I say that not metaphorically but literally. After 14 years, it was time he walked free, and time for the U.S. to close the book on this case.

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Your questions, answered.

Q: Obviously, the majority of the court cases that get featured in news outlets and major media are the ones elevated (and appealed) all the way to the Supreme Court. While I’m no legal scholar, I know it typically requires several court processes to get a case to that level. To your knowledge, how many major legal questions allow their rulings to stand at the lower trial levels?

— Isaac from York, England

Tangle: I love this question because it gives me the opportunity to discuss the U.S. court system, which can be very confusing. So let’s start by saying that there are two paths a case can take to get to the Supreme Court: through the state system, and through the federal system.

State courts hear most criminal and civil cases. Every state’s court system is a little different, but the highest level of court in every state is that state’s Supreme Court. When cases before state Supreme Courts deal with federal law, their rulings may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court (though this path only represents only about 10% of the high court’s cases in recent years). 

Most cases come to the Supreme Court through federal courts, which deal with U.S. laws and the constitutionality of a law. In either state or federal court, a defendant may appeal a guilty verdict and sentencing, but a plaintiff can only appeal the latter. In the federal court system, there are 94 district courts, 13 circuit courts of appeal, and finally the Supreme Court. Federal district court cases can be appealed to the circuit court, whose rulings can then be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Between all courts, roughly 65 million cases were heard in 2022; 16 million of those cases were criminal, 14 million were civil cases, 4 million were domestic, and a whopping 30 million were traffic cases. Of the non-traffic cases, only a small number were eligible for any kind of appeal. State cases are harder to summarize, but here are the basic stats for federal courts from 2023:

The 94 U.S. district courts had about 584,000 pending civil cases and 119,000 pending criminal cases for a total of 703,000 cases. Between the 13 U.S. courts of appeals (including the court of appeals for the federal circuit), roughly 35,000 cases were pending. Every year, the Supreme Court hears about 100-150 cases

So, to answer your question, 95% of all U.S. district court cases stand without being appealed to the circuit court level. And the Supreme Court only hears 1 out of every 5,000 federal court cases.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

The Department of Homeland Security has identified over 400 migrants who have come to the U.S. from Central Asia and other regions as "subjects of concern" because they were brought by an ISIS-affiliated human smuggling network. Over 150 of the migrants have already been arrested, while the whereabouts of over 50 others remain unknown. The Biden administration said they were making arrests "out of an abundance of caution," adding that none of the unauthorized migrants have been linked to a threat against the U.S. homeland since ICE began arresting them. Many of the migrants entered the U.S. through the southern border and were released by Customs and Border Protection because they were not on a terrorism watchlist. NBC News has the story


  • 35%. The percentage of Democrats who believe ​​Julian Assange committed espionage by sharing state secrets on WikiLeaks, according to a 2021 Hill-HarrisX poll. 
  • 24%. The percentage of Republicans who believe ​​Assange committed espionage by sharing state secrets on WikiLeaks.
  • 53%. The percentage of Americans who said Assange should be extradited to the U.S. after his arrest in the U.K. in 2019, according to a YouGov poll. 
  • 29%. The percentage of Americans who said they supported the prosecution of Assange in a 2018 YouGov/Economist poll. 
  • 52%. The percentage of Australians who say Assange was right to publish sensitive U.S. information via WikiLeaks, according to a 2022 Morning Consult poll.
  • 38%. The percentage of U.K. citizens who say Assange was right to publish sensitive U.S. information via WikiLeaks. 
  • 42%. The percentage of Americans who say Assange was right to publish sensitive U.S. information via WikiLeaks. 
  • 55. The United States’s rank (out of 180 countries) on Reporters Without Borders’s 2024 Press Freedom Index. 
  • 45. The United States’s rank on the index in 2023.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we covered the military mutiny in Russia.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday’s newsletter was the Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl ring typo.
  • Nothing to do with politics: A Japanese robot with human tissue.
  • Yesterday’s survey: 1,630 readers answered our survey about Louisiana requiring the Ten Commandments to be posted in public school classrooms with 77% strongly opposed. “Keep religion out of public schools,” one respondent said.

Have a nice day.

After visiting a museum in Mexico, Anna Lee Dozier of Washington, D.C., noticed how similar some artifacts looked to a vase she had bought at a thrift store a year prior. So she decided to get her bargain find appraised — and learned that her $3.99 purchase was actually a ceremonial Mayan urn, nearly two thousand years old, and a priceless treasure. In a second twist to the story, Dozier decided not to hawk her thrift-store vase for a small fortune but to return the cultural artifact to Mexico, surrendering the urn to Mexican Ambassador Esteban Moctezuma Barragán at a formal ceremony. Sunny Skyz has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.