Is he guilty? What does this mean for press freedom?
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, 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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We're covering the extradition of Julian Assange. Because this piece takes up some extra space, we're going to be skipping our reader question today.
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- The Supreme Court denied an emergency request from New York healthcare workers for a religious exemption from state requirements to get the Covid-19 vaccine. (The denial)
- The House panel investigating the January 6th riots voted to hold former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in contempt. (The vote)
- Omicron, the latest Covid-19 variant, is more resistant to vaccines but causes milder Covid-19 cases, according to a major South African study. (The study)
- No U.S. troops will be punished for the deadly strike in Kabul that killed innocent civilians. (The decision)
- California announced a statewide mask mandate for indoor public places until January 15th. (The mandate)
Julian Assange. On Friday, a British court ruled that Assange could be extradited to the U.S. to face charges under the Espionage Act for his role in publishing classified military and diplomatic cables.
The charges: In October, we wrote about the history of Wikileaks and the CIA's plot to kidnap (or even kill) Assange while he was being held in a London embassy. We've also written about Edward Snowden, who revealed the vast spying program the National Security Agency was operating targeting U.S. citizens and foreign leaders.
These charges, however, are tied directly to a U.S. indictment against Assange for helping former Army analyst Chelsea Manning leak thousands of U.S. military reports on Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as American diplomatic cables. Assange was initially charged with conspiracy to hack a computer to disclose classified information, as well as helping Manning crack a Defense Department computer password that provided her access to a U.S. government network housing classified information.
In May of 2019, though, the Trump administration significantly raised the stakes by indicting Assange on 17 counts under the Espionage Act, which prohibits "obtaining information, recording pictures, or copying descriptions of any information relating to the national defense with intent or reason to believe that the information may be used for the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation."
The Espionage Act is extremely controversial, and it has never been tested against First Amendment rights like protections of press freedom. When Assange was charged under the Espionage Act, press freedom advocates sounded the alarm, including newspapers like The New York Times, who reported on the charges. For example, here is an excerpt from a 2019 Times' report on Assange's indictment:
Though he is not a conventional journalist, much of what Mr. Assange does at WikiLeaks is difficult to distinguish in a legally meaningful way from what traditional news organizations like The Times do: seek and publish information that officials want to be secret, including classified national security matters, and take steps to protect the confidentiality of sources.
The extradition: In January, a British judge ruled that granting a U.S. request to extradite Assange would be oppressive to his mental health, citing concerns about how he would be treated in a U.S. prison. That ruling was overruled on Friday, and Assange is expected to appeal. In order to make the extradition happen, the U.S. gave assurances to the court that Assange would receive appropriate clinical and psychological treatment while in the U.S., would not be made the subject of "special administrative measures" like solitary confinement, would not be held at a maximum security prison before or after trial, and would be transferred to Australia to serve his sentence, if he were convicted.
However, Assange's allies note that the U.S. government reserved the right to renege on those assurances based on Assange's conduct, and many fear that once he is on U.S. soil, he will not receive a fair trial and that the assurances will not be honored.
In today's newsletter, we're going to share some of the arguments for and against Assange’s prosecution. While today's pieces "against Assange" come mostly from prominent conservative pundits, it should be noted that this is another debate that does not fall neatly down any ideological split. Plenty of Democratic politicians want Assange prosecuted — indeed, President Biden is pursuing his prosecution aggressively — while plenty of conservative pundits (one cited today) also worry about the threat of his prosecution and want to see him pardoned. Democrats and Republicans are pretty evenly split on their feelings about Assange (see today’s Numbers section). Many on the left and right are fearful that the charges are a threat to press freedoms, while many on the left and right also believe Assange is a hostile foreign actor who has gone well beyond what most journalists do.
So below, we'll share a collection of arguments for and against Assange’s prosecution, then my take. It should be noted that, because much of this debate exploded when the Espionage Act charges were brought forward in 2019, some of today's writing is more than a year old.
- Some of the things he allegedly did, like helping Chelsea Manning hack government computers, were not legitimate acts of journalism.
- He put thousands of people in danger with irresponsible leaks that were unredacted.
- His targets always seem to be U.S. and democratic institutions, which raises questions about his true motivations.
In 2019, The Wall Street Journal wrote "the indictment says he offered to help Ms. Manning crack a password stored on Defense Department computers connected to a 'U.S. government network used for classified documents and communications.'"
"If the charges are true, Mr. Assange wasn’t simply publishing documents that Ms. Manning sent his way,” the board said. "He is alleged to have actively collaborated to break into U.S. government computers—in a way that would make it harder to trace back to Ms. Manning. Mr. Assange’s lawyer says Mr. Assange was merely trying to protect the identity of his source, but helping a source illegally break into government databases isn’t legitimate journalism.
"Alas, an astonishing number of people on the right and left have apologized for Mr. Assange depending on whose political ox he was goring at the moment. At first Mr. Assange was a hero to many on the left for publishing information thought to embarrass George W. Bush and undermine the war in Afghanistan," the board added. "Eventually Mr. Assange also gained admirers on the right. Amid the 2016 presidential campaign, WikiLeaks published embarrassing emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. 'WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks' said Donald Trump during a campaign stop in Pennsylvania that October touting the hacked emails... Mr. Assange has never been a hero of transparency or democratic accountability. His targets always seem to be democratic institutions or governments, not authoritarians."
In Fox News, Marc Thiessen said Assange "is a spy."
"The damage Assange has done is unfathomable," Thiessen said. "In 2010, he exploded what he called his 'thermonuclear device' — releasing a tranche of more than a quarter of a million classified State Department diplomatic cables, all unredacted. According to the indictment, those cables 'included names of persons throughout the world who provided information to the U.S. government in circumstances in which they could reasonably expect that their identities would be kept confidential. These sources included journalists, religious leaders, human rights advocates, and political dissidents who were living in repressive regimes and reported to the United States the abuses of their own government, and the political conditions within their countries, at great risk to their own safety.'
"The indictment cites specific examples of sources WikiLeaks burned inside China, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Moreover, Assange’s decision to release 90,000 Afghanistan war-related activity reports also revealed the identities of at least 100 Afghans who were informing on the Taliban," Thiessen wrote. "Assange’s stolen classified documents didn’t just find their way to the Taliban; the indictment points out that WikiLeaks copies were also found in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan... Assange is not a journalist. He is a spy. The fact that he gave stolen U.S. intelligence to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, China, Iran and other adversaries via a website rather than dead-drops is irrelevant."
In The Washington Post, Kathleen Parker wrote that Assange isn't a journalist.
"Despite the recent surge in ‘citizen journalists,’ saying you’re a journalist doesn’t make you one. (Granted, some are better than the ‘real’ ones.). The difference between someone like Assange publishing whatever leaks land in his lap and, say, The Post, which published the leaked documents known as the Pentagon Papers, is mostly a lot of worry and process," Parker wrote. "Most responsible reporters and editors routinely ask themselves questions such as: Should we publish this? Does the public interest override other concerns? Is it justifiable to expose someone’s personal emails and under what circumstances? ... Assange’s process, on the other hand, is largely to dump secrets in the town square and let the scavengers sort it out. No filter. No conscience."
Kyle Smith wrote that "Assange is to journalism what the Joker is to comedy."
"These days, Assange is no longer the Left’s matinee idol, because he did something Democrats think is more unspeakable than endangering US combat troops: He embarrassed their party," Smith wrote. "In 2016, in the summer before the election, WikiLeaks published some gossipy but inconsequential e-mails Russian hackers apparently obtained from Hillary Clinton consigliere John Podesta... Assange made a critical mistake: He thought all of those people who were hailing him as a next-level journalist were interested in what he’s interested in, which is sneaking up on powerful institutions and pulling their pants down.
"Today, many of his former supporters believe Assange shouldn’t be pardoned and that he deserves to spend the rest of his life in a US prison," Smith wrote. "I agree — but not because he made Hillary Clinton and John Podesta look silly. Assange was adamant about taking no steps whatsoever to conceal sensitive data about the operations of American troops. If some Taliban psycho had used his info to hunt down and kill our fighting men and women, he would have shrugged. For that reason, Assange deserves to do hard time. So send him over, UK judges — we’ll take care of the rest."
The case for Assange…
- If convicted, the prosecution would be a massive blow to investigative work routinely done by news organizations.
- He is being prosecuted for exposing politically inconvenient truths.
- Nobody was held accountable for the crimes Assange exposed, yet now he’s being prosecuted for exposing them.
The Guardian editorial board wrote that the U.S. should "set him free."
“Opening his Summit for Democracy this week, Joe Biden urged his guests to 'stand up for the values that unite us,' including a free press," the board wrote. "Yet the US government itself is endangering the ability of the media to bring to light uncomfortable truths and expose official crimes and cover-ups. On Friday, the high court ruled that Julian Assange can be extradited to the US, where he could face up to 175 years in prison. The decision is not only a blow for his family and friends, who fear he would not survive imprisonment in the US. It is also a blow for all those who wish to protect the freedom of the press.
"As Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, has noted: 'Virtually no one responsible for alleged US war crimes committed in the course of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars has been held accountable, let alone prosecuted, and yet a publisher who exposed such crimes is potentially facing a lifetime in jail.' No public interest defense is permissible under the Espionage Act. Campaigners in the US have warned that its use is a direct assault on the first amendment. And publishers outside it are equally at risk if Mr. Assange is extradited; the charges relate to acts which took place when he was not in the country."
In The Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob Sullum said the case against Julian Assange is "a case against the free press."
"[Judge Vanessa] Baraitser, following the Justice Department’s lead, wants to distinguish between 'responsible' journalism like that and the less careful and professional kind practiced by Assange. But the Espionage Act draws no such distinction," Sullum wrote. "Counts 9 through 17 of the Assange indictment involve 'disclosure of national defense information,' a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. That penalty applies to anyone who 'willfully communicates, delivers, transmits or causes to be communicated' such information to 'any person not entitled to receive it.'
"This felony is the bread and butter of any journalist who covers national security issues and publishes information that the government would prefer to keep secret. So is the conduct described in Count 1, which alleges that Assange conspired to receive national defense information, and Counts 2 through 8, which allege that he obtained it," Sullum added. "Anyone who violates those provisions also faces a maximum sentence of 10 years for each count. So even leaving aside the charge that Assange violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by helping his source, former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, crack a password, Assange faces up to 170 years in prison for doing things that respectable news organizations routinely do."
In his newsletter, Glenn Greenwald, who has worked with Assange to publish classified materials, said it is difficult to avoid the fact that Assange is a "classic political prisoner."
"Because the acts of Assange that serve as the basis of the U.S. indictment are acts in which investigative journalists routinely engage with their sources, press freedom and civil liberties groups throughout the West vehemently condemned the Assange indictment as one of the gravest threats to press freedoms in years," Greenwald wrote. "In February, following Assange's victory in court, 'a coalition of civil liberties and human rights groups urged the Biden administration to drop efforts to extradite' Assange, as The New York Times put it.
"But the Biden administration — led by officials who, during the Trump years, flamboyantly trumpeted the vital importance of press freedoms — ignored those pleas from this coalition of groups and instead aggressively pressed ahead with the prosecution of Assange," he added. “The New York Times made clear exactly why they are so eager to see Assange in prison: 'Democrats like the new Biden team are no fan of Mr. Assange, whose publication in 2016 of Democratic emails stolen by Russia aided Donald J. Trump’s narrow victory over Hillary Clinton.' In other words, the Biden administration is eager to see Assange punished and silenced for life not out of any national security concerns but instead due to a thirst for vengeance over the role he played in publishing documents during the 2016 election that reflected poorly on Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee."
There are differences between Julian Assange and traditional journalists.
Even simply looking at how Assange works reveals this reality. He has enlisted the help of actual reporters to publish and share the documents he comes into possession of, which is both a nod to the fact he can be more responsible than some frame him to be and a reminder that even he understands he is separate from, say, a national security reporter at The New York Times. Perhaps most critically, he almost never performs the standard practice of contacting the subjects of his leaks and giving them a chance to address what he plans to publish.
It's also true that Assange's personal history complicates this tale. He’s been accused of sexual assault, his former employees think he’s an asshole, and he’s showed little remorse for the mistakes he’s made. By his mid-20s he had both been charged with computer hacking and enlisted to help Australian police track down and arrest child pornography peddlers. He has also arguably exposed more wrongdoing by powerful governments and institutions than any living person. As I've written before, this dueling narrative of good meets evil is something Assange carried with him to Wikileaks.
Wikileaks, too, is not easy to peg. Some people believe they're hand in glove with Russian intelligence, a charge I frankly find a bit silly. I value Wikileaks immensely. Their record of authenticity is, as far as I know, flawless. And I've spent many hours reading through the documents they've published on their website, which have exposed far-reaching secrets the most powerful entities in the Western world have attempted to keep from the public's eyes.
But that same group of Robin Hoods has also been exposed as something far more sinister. In leaked messages obtained by The Atlantic, before Trump was elected, Wikileaks asked Donald Trump Jr. to leak them part of his father's tax returns that had already been published by The New York Times, that way it could create a facade of being more impartial, which would 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 drafting up part of an announcement. This is not the work of a noble, above reproach, independent, power-fighting entity.
Then, directly tied to this case, there is the central question of Assange's criminal acts: Did he help Chelsea Manning hack a government computer? Did he simply tell her what steps to take, or did he do the hacking himself? Was his reason for helping her a legitimate act of journalism (say, to protect a source by helping her avoid detection) or was it something "more criminal" (like advancing her breach in a way that wouldn't have been possible without his help)? The relationship between sources and journalists is often nuanced and messy.
Normally, I'd say these are fair questions to be answered in a trial. But in this case, I'd prefer the trial didn't happen at all.
That’s because regardless of whether you think Assange is a scumbag traitor or a once-in-a-generation hero, there is an immovable reality of what this prosecution means. As Sullum so cogently put it, even with the hacking charges removed, Assange is still facing 170 years in prison for doing the things nearly every respectable news organization in the world does. When the initial charges were brought against him, there wasn't as much reason for consternation. But being charged under the Espionage Act for simply obtaining and disseminating classified documents, especially those that expose unambiguous wrongdoing by the United States government, is chilling.
That, of course, is to say nothing of the fact that he is being pushed into the hands of a government that was recently trying to kidnap (or even kill) him just in the last few years. That same government, now, is suddenly promising it will treat him fairly, a claim I find ridiculous.
Assange does not have to be a hero, nor Wikileaks a "legitimate news organization," for these concerns to be real. The U.S. government is planning to extradite a foreigner and put him in prison for life for several charges that it could just as easily level against the most prominent news outlets in the country. Even worse, it's pursuing these charges despite taking no action to dole out punishments for the war crimes and spying Assange has exposed.
Press freedom activists are right to be horrified, and we should be too. There's plenty to dislike about Assange and Wikileaks, and legitimate questions about their integrity. But there's no question that putting him in prison for the charges in this indictment would only further the U.S. government's already far-reaching intrusions on press freedom.
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A story that matters.
The fight over voting rights in Congress might end up bringing the battle over the filibuster to a head. Recent talks among Democrats in Congress about how to pass voting rights legislation over Republican objections are getting more urgent, and members are increasingly worried that only one path exists: Carving out an exception to the filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes to pass some major legislation, in order to move a bill forward with a slim Democratic majority, as Republicans did to confirm Supreme Court nominees. Democrats want to pass a bill before the 2022 midterms, after which it may be impossible. The biggest opponent to weakening the filibuster is still Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), but he's been meeting with a group of moderate Democrats who are gauging his interest in budging, if only on this issue. The Washington Post has the story.
- 53%. The percentage of Americans who say Julian Assange should be extradited to America, according to a 2019 YouGov poll.
- 44%. The percentage of Americans who say they have an unfavorable opinion of Wikileaks, according to a 2019 YouGov poll.
- 59%. The percentage of Republicans who supported extradition.
- 62%. The percentage of Democrats who supported extradition.
- 46%. The percentage of independents who supported extradition.
Have a nice day.
Woody Faircloth and his 9-year-old daughter have spent the last three years driving between Colorado and California. But these aren't your typical road trips. Each one comes with a special mission: Delivering an RV to someone who lost their home in a California wildfire. Their mission began after watching news of the deadly 2018 Camp Fire. Woody thought about driving an RV to deliver to a family there and began seeking out donors. He was amazed to find how many people were willing to donate unwanted RVs or their time to help out. So far, the pair has personally delivered 20 RVs, and helped arrange around 100 RV donation deliveries in total. CBS News has the story.
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