This weekend I joined a number of people in an online vigil in support of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange. People ask why I did it; Assange is at best imperfect in who he is and what he does. But supporting him transcends him, because the battle over the prosecution of Assange is where the future of free speech and a free press will be decided. Even if you think Assange doesn’t matter, those things do.
Assange is challenging to even his staunchest supporters. In 2010 he was a hero to opponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others called him an enemy of the state for working with whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Now most of Assange’s former supporters see him as a enemy of the state and a Putin tool for releasing the Democratic National Committee emails. Even in the face of dismissed charges of sexual assault, Assange is a #MeToo villain. He a traitor who hides from justice inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, or a spy, or some web-made Frankenstein with elements of all of the above. And while I’ve never met Assange, I’ve spoken to multiple people who know him well, and the words generous, warm, or personable rarely are included in their descriptions. But none of that matters.
What matters is support is due because Assange ends up being the guy standing at a crossroads in the history of our freedoms — specifically, at what point does the need for the people to know outweigh laws allowing the government to keep information from view? The question isn’t new, but becomes acute in the digital age, where physical documents no longer need to be copied one-by-one, can be acquired by hackers from the other side of the world, and where publishing is far removed from the traditions, obstacles, safeguards, and often-dangerous self-restraint of traditional journalism.
A complex history precedes Assange. In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret U.S. government-written history of the Vietnam War, to the New York Times. No one had ever published such classified documents before, and reporters at the Times feared they would go to jail under the Espionage Act. A federal court ordered the Times to cease publication after an initial flurry of excerpts were printed, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge censored a newspaper. In the end the Supreme Court handed down a victory for the First Amendment in New York Times Company v. United States and the Times won the Pulitzer Prize.
But looking at the Times case through the lens of Wikileaks, law professor Steve Vladeck points out “although the First Amendment separately protects the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, the Supreme Court has long refused to give any separate substantive content to the Press Clause above and apart from the Speech Clause… The Supreme Court has never suggested that the First Amendment might protect a right to disclose national security information. Yes, the Pentagon Papers case rejected a government effort to enjoin publication, but several of the Justices in their separate opinions specifically suggested that the government could prosecute the New York Times and the Washington Post after publication, under the Espionage Act.”
The Supreme Court left the door open to prosecute journalists who publish classified documents by focusing narrowly on prohibiting the government from exercising prior restraint. Politics and public opinion, not law, has kept the government exercising discretion in not prosecuting journalists, a delicate dance around this 800 pound gorilla loose in the halls of democracy. The government meanwhile has aggressively used the Espionage Act to prosecute the whistleblowers who leaked to those same journalists.
The closest things came to throwing a journalist in jail was in 2014, when the Obama administration subpoenaed New York Times reporter James Risen. The government accused former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling of passing classified information to Risen, information it said appeared in his book State of War. After a lower court ordered Risen under threat of jail to testify and disclose his source, the Supreme Court turned down Risen’s appeal, siding with the government in a confrontation between a national security prosecution and an infringement of press freedom. The Supreme Court refused to consider whether there existed a gentlemen’s agreement under the First Amendment for “reporter’s privilege,” an undocumented protection beneath the handful of words in the free press clause.
In the end the government, fearful of setting the wrong precedent, punted on Risen. Waving the flag over a messy situation, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced “no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail.” Risen wasn’t called to testify and was not punished for publishing classified material, even as the alleged leaker, Jeffrey Sterling, disappeared into jail. To avoid the chance of a clear precedent that might have granted some form of reporter’s privilege under the Constitution, the government stepped away from the fight. The key issues now wait for Julian Assange.
Should the government prosecute Julian Assange, there are complex legal questions to be answered about who is a journalist and what is publishing in the digital world. There is no debate over whether James Risen is a journalist, and over whether a book is publishing. Glenn Greenwald has written about and placed online classified documents given to him by Edward Snowden, and has never been challenged by the government as a journalist or publisher. Both men enjoy popular support, and work for established media. The elements of fact checking, confirming, curating, redacting, and in writing context around the classified information, were all present in the New York Times’ case with the Pentagon Papers, and are present with American citizens Risen and Greenwald. Definitions and precedent may be forming.
Assange is an easier target. The government has the chance to mold the legal precedents with such certainty that they may seize this case where they have backed away from others in the long-running war of attrition against free speech and the press.
Assange isn’t an American. He is unpopular, drawn now into America’s 21st century Red Scare. He has written nothing alongside the millions of documents on Wikileaks, has done no curating or culling, and has redacted little. Publishing for him consists of uploading what has been supplied to him. It would be easy for the government to frame a case against Assange that set precedent he is not entitled to any First Amendment protections simply by claiming clicking UPLOAD isn’t publishing and Assange isn’t a journalist. The simplest interpretation of the Espionage Act, that Assange willfully transmitted information relating to the national defense without authorization, would apply. Guilty, same as the other canaries in the deep coal mine shaft of Washington, DC before him, no messy balancing questions to be addressed. And with that, a unique form of online journalism would be squashed.
And that really, really matters. Wikileaks sidesteps the restraints of traditional journalism. Remember in 2004 the New York Times held the story of George W. Bush’s illegal warrantless eavesdropping program until after his reelection. In 2006 the Los Angeles Times suppressed a story on wiretaps of Americans when asked by the NSA. Glenn Greenwald said it plainly: too many journalists work in self-censoring mode, “obsequious journalism.” Meanwhile Assange has made mistakes while broadly showing courage, not restraint, under similar circumstances. The public is better informed because of it.
Wikileaks’ version of journalism says here are the cables, the memos, and the emails. Others can write about them (and nearly every mainstream media outlet has used Wikileaks to do that, some even while calling Assange a traitor), or you as a citizen can simply read the stuff yourself and make up your own damn mind. That is the root of an informed public, through a set of tools never before available until Assange and Internet created them.
If Assange becomes the first successful prosecution of a third party, as a journalist or not, under the Espionage Act, the government can turn that precedent into a weapon to attack the media’s role in any national security case. On the other hand, if Assange can leave London for asylum in Ecuador, that will empower new journalists to provide evidence when a government serves its people poorly and has no interest in being held accountable.
Freedom is never static. It either advances under our pressure, or recedes under theirs. I support Julian Assange.
Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. @WeMeantWell