23 April 2019 — Defend Wikileaks
…speaking of press freedom, there’s something that’s happened recently in the news with Julian Assange, and I know people immediately thought of you as well because you’re in asylum right now…
What was your perspective of how the us media has been dealing with this situation in particular, and how do you think this affects press freedom?
I think it’s really disheartening to see this happen for a number of different reasons. On one, when you look at the timeline behind Ecuador’s decision to revoke asylum from Julian Assange in the first place, they got a loan from the IMF for some ridiculous amount of money, like $4.2B, one month before they decided to do this. And then the week after Julian has been kicked out of the embassy and taken off to prison for his work with the Chelsea Manning disclosures back in 2010, we have Ecuador’s President going to the United States to get a pat on the back and a ‘nice job’ and whatever we’ll hear about in 15 years.
But journalists who have been covering this story aren’t really looking at that, because Julian as an individual is such a tragically flawed figure…
…for people who haven’t been following the case, it’s really unusual because when people think of Julian Assange and a lot of Americans now hate Julian, even though people who are on the center to the left part of the spectrum who had been signing his praises during the Bush [Obama] admin, now they’re on the other side because of his unfortunate political choices in the 2016 election.
But his journalism is quite difficult, I think, to criticize, because when you talk about the emails that played such a big story in the 2016 election cycle, these were reported on by basically every major news agency. This wasn’t just a WikiLeaks thing, this was the New York Times, the Washington Post, Der Speigel, the Guardian, everybody covered this, because it was of profound public interest. It wasn’t even a question. These were the hidden workings of power, and the stories said things like, the DNC, the core of the formal Democratic Party infrastructure, had aligned in secret to rig the primary against Bernie Sanders.
And it’s not that no one imagined that was possible, a lot of people believed that that was the case, but no one could actually prove it, until you have some kind of documentation. And this is the kind of thing where, regardless of whether you like it or not, regardless of whether you disagree with the impact that it had on the election, journalists are not supposed to throw in with one side. And I think this is one of the criticisms that Julian gets, is people rightfully see him as very much against Clinton, because they have a history.
It’s so difficult to see how they can justify this charge at this moment, in the absence of what is obvious, which is that the political winds have turned against Julian Assange as an individual. He’s very much disliked and that makes it very unpopular to defend him. But journalists very much need to hold their nose and do this even if they don’t like the guy personally, because, as you say, the entanglements that this causes and the problems it creates for their work.
Because when you look at this charge, what the government has actually charged, is something that has been publicly known about for nearly a decade now. The chat logs of the famous exchange between Chelsea Manning, who was the source of the 2010 disclosure, and someone who is alleged to be Julian Assange but is actually using a secure and anonymous messenger, called Jabber, using protocol called Off The Record, which actually supposed to provide capabilities like plausible deniability. It’s trivial to forge these chat logs, but anyway, putting that aside, even if you believe this is a smoking gun, it says ‘Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, in the foyer with the candlestick,’ the crime that they’re alleging happened, is Chelsea Manning took what is called a password hash, which is basically just an encoded form of a password, so it’s not just written on a hard drive. Like say your password is ‘kittymittens,’ you don’t have ‘kittymittens’ written anywhere on the hard drive, you’ve instead got this encoded form. And to be able to reverse that, by attacking it, by breaking it to reveal what the actual password is so you can log in, this was provided by Manning to this person, who’s alleged to be Assange, and this person said, ‘Hey, I’ll take a look at it, I’ll pass this to my guy who knows something about it, they’ll attack it and we’ll see if we can get in it. But according to the FBI—
—they’re not even sure if it happened—
—no no, no no, that was in the indictment that they weren’t sure if it happened. In the affidavit, they actually say that it did not happen. They directly say, ‘they did forensics on Manning’s system that this was pulled for, the hash was for a service account, for a program to use on the computer, for an FTP program, and it was not logged into.’
So they had not actually succeeded in breaking this, they had not used it, but the government is alleging, just the sheer fact that Manning said, ‘Hey, can you find out what this password is, and if you can give it back to me,’ it’s not even really Assange’s idea from the chat logs, as far as we can tell. And the DOJ is going look, ‘This is a crime, we’re going to charge it as’ — they call it a “password cracking agreement,” which is enough—
—enough to indict someone—
—right, even if it’s not used to get access to more classified material, and the government says they believed it was only used to cover Manning’s tracks, Manning didn’t want to be logging in with like, username ‘Chelsea Manning’, right, and doing whatever, so they wanted to use this anonymous account to do it. And so here’s why I think this is such a problem. What we have is an allegation from the DOJ that Julian Assange was a part of a conspiracy to break a law. And when you think about the law, this is actually a pretty low-level infraction relative to the things Assange has been accused of in his life.
And then, even though they’re saying they conspired to break this law, it didn’t actually happen, for whatever reason, because of fate, because of incompetence, whatever reason, they weren’t successful in actually committing the crime, but the conspiracy’s enough.
Now there’s another big story in the news right now you might’ve heard of called the Mueller report… and so the main thing on the Mueller report, there’s two big parts of it as I understand it, and I haven’t read every page but I’ve read the reports…
…the broad outlines are pretty well agreed on by the few people I suppose who have read this, and analyzing it for the rest of us normals, and they say the report breaks down into two parts.
One is the Russian side, which is about Russian electoral interference, which is basically like trolls posting stupid Facebook ads and bad memes on Twitter to try to change votes. But they had a low budget and they didn’t reach out that much, but they were definitely trying, is what the report alleges. But they can’t pin that to Trump. OK, whatever. Then the other side is the hacking and leaking thing, where they’re saying the emails from 2016 were sourced by, they’re alleging, Russian military intelligence. And they’re saying this was passed off to WikiLeaks, and what’s interesting out this because we’re talking about WikiLeaks, the government is not charging WikiLeaks with this. The government’s saying they don’t have any evidence that WikiLeaks knew it was Russian military intelligence at the time. So Russian military intelligence got it, but they send it to WikiLeaks, WikiLeaks posts it, because that’s what WikiLeaks does, of course they’re going to post it. But again they can’t find a connection to Trump. So they’re like, ‘Well, all right, it sucks, nobody likes him, but we can’t nail him on that.’
But there’s this whole second half of the report on an entirely separate crime, which is the crime of obstruction. And on this side, the special counsel says they find 10 separate instances, I think, where it appears that Trump or people in his administration are basically conspiring to obstruct justice. But the special counsel does not conclude, again, to pin this to Trump as breaking the law, in a very interesting way, given the context of what we’re talking about. They go, ‘Look, Trump absolutely ordered all these people in his periphery to shut it down. He tried to fire Mueller, he tried to get rid of, and all these other people, I can’t remember if it was Sessions or whatever. But he tried and he told his White House counsel, he told all these guys, ‘Stop this. Get it done. Protect me. Shut this thing down.’ Which is obvious obstruction, right? Or at least, a conspiracy to commit obstruction.
But Mueller says, it didn’t actually result in obstruction, because the people that Trump ordered to do this simply ignored him. They went off and told their buddies, ‘Trump is telling me to do crazy things, I’m preparing my resignation letter, all of these other things,’ and so, they say, ‘Donald Trump didn’t actually commit obstruction. And so we’re not going to charge him. Maybe there’s something in here that congress wants to bring or whatever, but we’re not going to bring it.’
And the Attorney General, immediately when he saw this, who’s really carrying water for Trump all day long on this issue … he’s spinning the reports, doing all these things, says, ‘We see this and you know Mueller didn’t charges this, we’re not going to charge this, no obstruction, no collusion, whatever. Let’s move on.’
But so, isn’t that interesting? The DOJ’s defense of not charging Trump in this case is they say he tried to commit a crime but he was too hapless and he failed to actually do this. And we’re not going to charge him with conspiracy for doing it. And at the same time, they’re charging Julian Assange under precisely the opposite theory. They go, ‘Look, Julian may not have actually cracked a password, we don’t have any evidence that he did, we’re not going to try to prove that he did, we’re going to simply say the agreement to try was enough.’
So this is a real question of a two-tiered system of justice. Why do we have this double standard here, where if you’re the president and try to commit a crime, you can skate, but if you’re a journalist, if you’re a publisher, particularly who’s vulnerable because you’ve gone too far out on a limb and now you’ve lost public support and popularity, everybody’s against you… but no one, no one can argue that the work you’ve done in the past hasn’t been of real public interest – it may not have been — to the party’s benefit, it’s very controversial, no doubt about that. But the newspapers are all running these stories, saying these are important stories, these are about real centers of power in the world.
Why is it that journalists are being held to a higher standard of behavior than the President of the United States?