Media analysis of Julian Assange’s superseding indictment

5 June 2019 — Defend Wikileaks

The precedent

Glenn Greenwald: The indictment of Assange is a blueprint for making journalists into felons

The argument offered by both the Trump administration and by some members of the self-styled “resistance” to Trump is, ironically, the same: that Assange isn’t a journalist at all and thus deserves no free press protections. But this claim overlooks the indictment’s real danger and, worse, displays a wholesale ignorance of the First Amendment. Press freedoms belong to everyone, not to a select, privileged group of citizens called “journalists.” Empowering prosecutors to decide who does or doesn’t deserve press protections would restrict “freedom of the press” to a small, cloistered priesthood of privileged citizens designated by the government as “journalists.” The First Amendment was written to avoid precisely that danger.

Most critically, the U.S. government has now issued a legal document that formally declares that collaborating with government sources to receive and publish classified documents is no longer regarded by the Justice Department as journalism protected by the First Amendment but rather as the felony of espionage, one that can send reporters and their editors to prison for decades. It thus represents, by far, the greatest threat to press freedom in the Trump era, if not the past several decades.

The vast bulk of activities cited by the indictment as criminal are exactly what major U.S. media outlets do on a daily basis. The indictment, for instance, alleges WikiLeaks “encouraged sources” such as Chelsea Manning to obtain and pass on classified information; that the group provided technical advice on how to obtain and transmit that information without detection, and that it then published the classified information stolen by its source. The indictment also explicitly states “part of the conspiracy [is] that ASSANGE and Manning used a special folder on a cloud drop box of WikiLeaks to transmit classified records containing information related to the national defense of the United States.” It includes as part of the criminal conspiracy the fact that Assange and his source “took measures to conceal Manning as the source” by using encrypted chat programs.

Outside the parameters of the Trump DOJ’s indictment of Assange, these activities are called “basic investigative journalism.”

Justifying Assange’s prosecution on the grounds that he is “not a journalist” reveals a grand, dark irony: To declare that publishing relevant materials about powerful actors is a right possessed only by those designated by the government to be “real journalists” is itself an obvious threat to press freedom. That was the historical danger the First Amendment sought to avoid.

The criminal case against Assange, if it were to succeed, would provide the perfect blueprint, the most powerful precedent imaginable, for criminalizing journalism in the United States. Once it is established that working with sources to publish classified information is no longer journalism but espionage, it will be impossible to limit that menacing principle.

Matt Taibbi: Julian Assange Must Never Be Extradited

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.

Look at the language:

Count 1: Conspiracy to Receive National Defense Information. Counts 2-4: Obtaining National Defense Information. Counts 5-8: Obtaining National Defense Information. And so on.

The indictment is an insane tautology. It literally charges Assange with conspiracy to obtain secrets for the purpose of obtaining them. It lists the following “offense”:

To obtain documents, writings, and notes connected with the national defense, for the purpose of obtaining information respecting the national defense…

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.

this is a genuine effort to expand the ability of the U.S. government to put a vice-grip on classified information, scare whistleblowers into silence, and scare the pants off editors across the planet.

The Assange case is more than the narrow prosecution of one controversial person. This is a crossroads moment for the whole world, for speech, reporting, and transparent governance.

It is happening in an era when the hegemonic U.S. government has been rapidly expanding a kind of oversight-free zone within its federal bureaucracy, with whole ranges of activities – from drone killings to intelligence budgets to surveillance – often placed outside the scope of either congress or the courts.

One of the few outlets left that offered any hope of penetrating this widening veil of secrecy was the press, working in conjunction with the whistleblower. If that relationship is criminalized, self-censorship will become the norm, and abuses will surely multiply as a result.

Bruce Shapiro: Trump’s Charges Against Julian Assange Would Effectively Criminalize Investigative Journalism

The DNA of these new charges runs deep into the history of presidential abuse of power. President Trump and Attorney General William Barr are explicitly picking up the foiled press-punishment ambitions of President Richard Nixon in the Pentagon Papers case. When The New York Times first published the Pentagon Papers in June of 1971, Nixon might have let the storm pass. After all, the papers, leaked by former Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg, didn’t directly critique the new Republican president; they exposed the disastrous, cynical Vietnam policies of Nixon’s hated Democratic predecessor, who had been repudiated by his own party. But Nixon saw in the publication of a secret Defense Department study of US involvement in Vietnam something else: his opportunity to muzzle restive, critical journalists. So his Justice Department went to court and, citing the Espionage Act, won an injunction blocking the Times from continuing to publish its series.

Kevin Gosztola: Trump Justice Department’s Prosecution Of Julian Assange Relies On Contrived Conspiracy Theory

At Chelsea Manning’s trial, prosecutors pushed a contrived theory:

Manning worked for Assange, as if she was an insider or spy that WikiLeaks turned against the U.S. government and recruited to steal documents for the media organization.

This theory is fundamental to the allegations in the superseding indictment against Assange, yet one massive dilemma for prosecutors exists — Chelsea Manning’s statement during her court-martial.

On February 28, 2013, Manning outlined in great detail her role in disclosing over a half million documents to WikiLeaks. She meticulously described each set of information, why she was drawn to releasing the documents to the public, and how she downloaded, prepared, and electronically transferred the documents to WikiLeaks.

Manning’s statement conflicts with the government’s theory so they are abusing the grand jury process. They are punishing her so she bends to their will and testifies in front of the grand jury, where they hope they will be able to discredit her statement.

In the superseding indictment, prosecutors emphasize the fact that the list requested “bulk databases,” including Intellipedia, a classified Wikipedia for U.S. intelligence analysts. Yet, Manning never released this database to WikiLeaks nor did she release the complete CIA Open Source Center database or PACER database containing U.S. federal court records, which were listed as “important bulk databases.”

Assange, who was WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, allegedly established a relationship with Manning, a source, via encrypted chat. She submitted materials that were reviewed. They engaged in discussions of the materials, and she asked for help from WikiLeaks to protect her identity. They employed privacy tools to try and avoid detection by military or government authorities.

What Assange did with Manning is fairly standard in journalism. Perhaps that is why media organizations and press freedom groups unanimously opposed the decision to charge Assange with Espionage Act offenses.

Evidence showing Assange recruited Manning to act as an insider for WikiLeaks does not exist. Yet, that is exactly why the government will not withdraw the subpoena against her.

The government knows it is unlikely to succeed in prosecuting Assange unless they undercut the truth Manning asserted in a military court. They must abuse the grand jury process and use confinement and steep financial penalties to force her testimony. She has to be tripped up or baited into making statements useful against Assange or else all they have is a preposterous conspiracy theory that not even the anti-leaks Obama administration was willing to pursue.


The Espionage Act

Miriam Schneir: The Law Being Used to Prosecute Julian Assange

Few would dispute that governments may need to keep certain data secret in the interest of national security. At the same time, the decision not to divulge information must be scrupulously weighed in a democracy against the public’s right to know.

The 1917 Espionage Act does not concern itself with such quibbles, however; it comes down wholeheartedly on the side of secrecy and national security. It does not require proof that the information at issue is highly significant or even that it is secret, but merely that it is “connected with” or “relating to” national defense. Nor does it demand that the alleged perpetrator must actually have harmed the United States or benefited a foreign country, only that he or she intended to do so. Partly because demonstrating intent is so difficult (and refuting it even more so), attorney Susan Buckley, a specialist in media litigation, pronounced the act “one of the scariest statutes around.” Although it is widely acknowledged to be a woefully crude legal instrument—the eminent First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams recently characterized it as “almost farcically overbroad”—it remains on the books essentially as it was written a century ago.

Over the years the Supreme Court has handed down a number of decisions that have reined in the Espionage Act. Still, during the hundred-year lifetime of the act, the government has been able to use it to restrict freedom of speech; imprison anti-war activists, socialists, anarchists, communists, and ideological whistle-blowers; and help to destroy numerous progressive organizations and publications. Moreover, who knows how many people have been dissuaded from speaking or acting politically because of the harsh penalties inflicted on some defendants. Eugene Debs was sentenced to 10 years at the age of 63, Emma Goldman was imprisoned for two years and then deported, both Rosenbergs were executed, Rosenberg co-defendant Morton Sobell was given 30 years and sent to Alcatraz, Chelsea Manning suffered prison conditions verging on torture and received a 35-year sentence (later commuted).

Now, we wait to see whether a president who has insulted individual journalists and has labeled the news media “the enemy of the people” will succeed in wielding this ill-formed statute to strike at freedom of the press.


The specific charges

  • Count 1: Conspiracy to violate § 793(b)-(e) of the Espionage Act in violation of § 793(g);
  • Count 2: Violation of § 793(b) and 18 U.S.C. § 2 in connection with Manning obtaining the Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs;
  • Count 3: Same as count 2, but with the State Department cables;
  • Count 4: Same as count 2, but with the Iraq rules of engagement files;
  • Count 5: Attempt to obtain national defense information from SIPRNet in violation of § 793(c) and § 2.
  • Count 6: Unlawfully obtaining and receiving detainee assessment briefs in violation of § 793(c) and § 2.
  • Count 7: Same as count 6, but with State Department cables;
  • Count 8: Same as count 6, but with Iraq rules of engagement files;
  • Count 9: Causing unlawful disclosure by Manning of detainee assessment briefs in violation of § 793(d) and § 2;
  • Count 10: Same as count 9, but with State Department cables;
  • Count 11: Same as count 9, but with Iraq rules of engagement files;
  • Count 12: Causing Manning to communicate, deliver and transmit the detainee assessment briefs to Assange in violation of § 793(e) and § 2;
  • Count 13: Same as count 12, but with the State Department cables;
  • Count 14: Same as count 12, but with the Iraq rules of engagement files;
  • Count 15: “Pure publication” of the Afghanistan SIGACTs in direct violation of § 793(e);
  • Count 16: Same as count 15, but with the Iraq SIGACTs;
  • Count 17: Same as count 15, but with the State Department cables;
  • Count 18: Conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 371 (the general conspiracy statute), 1030(a)(1) (the rarely used hacking access-restricted government information provision), 1030(a)(2) (unauthorized access to obtain information from government), and 1030(c)(2)(B)(ii) (establishing 5 year sentence).


Gabe Rottman: The Assange Indictment Seeks to Punish Pure Publication

The 17 Espionage Act charges in the indictment can be grouped in three categories. The first category includes just count one, a conspiracy charge under § 793(g) of the Espionage Act.

The second category includes counts two through 14. Those look similar to the only other case involving a non-governmental third party charged under the Espionage Act: the unsuccessful prosecution of two employees at the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for allegedly conspiring with a Pentagon analyst to receive and disseminate information about Iran. In that case, the government charged one AIPAC employee, Steven Rosen, with aiding and abetting the analyst’s disclosures under both the Espionage Act and 18 U.S.C § 2, the federal statute that permits someone who induces or causes another to commit a crime to be punished just like the offender. The Assange charges do the same but go further than the § 2 claim in the Rosen case. They allege that Assange “aided, abetted, counseled, induced, procured and willfully caused” Manning to leak the documents in violation of the Espionage Act (emphasis added).

But it’s the third category—counts 15 through 17—that gets at pure publication. These counts focus only on Assange’s having posted the documents on the internet and do not depend on some other action, such as encouraging the leak or receiving the information. Of course, those are also activities similar to newsgathering, which should also receive First Amendment protection . But counts 15 through 17 are totally divorced from any concerted action between Assange and Manning. The theory behind them would permit prosecution even if Assange had received the material anonymously in the mail.

Those counts allege that Assange directly violated the Espionage Act when he “communicated” significant activity, SIGACT, reports from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and State Department cables, “by publishing [the documents] on the internet.” In other words, counts 15 through 17 allege a direct violation of 18 U.S.C. § 793(e) based purely on publication.


Reporters Committee for a Free Press: Special Analysis of the May 2019 Superseding Indictment of Julian Assange

Does it matter if Julian Assange is a journalist?

No. The First Amendment covers everyone. If, for instance, a private citizen had received the Pentagon Papers, recognized their newsworthiness, and published them in a small-town newsletter, the epic 1971 Supreme Court ruling rejecting the government’s injunction should not have turned out differently. The First Amendment also covers non-citizens such as Assange.

Furthermore, there is no journalist carve-out in the Espionage Act. It applies to anyone who obtains or discloses national defense information. So answering the question of whether Assange is a journalist is immaterial in this regard. Indeed, given the risk in permitting the government to determine who is or is not a journalist, advocates of Espionage Act reform often argue for a new protection that would not turn on that question, but would create a “public interest defense” that would protect those who disclose information about, among other things, government misconduct.

Does the First Amendment apply to the publication of government secrets?

because the government has never tried to prosecute someone for the pure publication of classified information, we would argue that the government must allege that Assange did something in coordination with Manning that takes him out of these long-standing protections for the publication of truthful information. The indictment’s general allegations begin with three primary claims against Assange — that he “encouraged sources to (i) circumvent legal safeguards on information; (ii) provide that protected information to Wikileaks for public dissemination; and (iii) continue the pattern of illegally procuring and providing protected information to WikiLeaks for distribution to the public.”

It is true that trained investigative reporters will be more circumspect in how they seek the disclosure of government secrets, but it’s difficult to see how one could legally distinguish less sophisticated journalists from this alleged conduct. National security reporting, in particular, relies on the disclosure and occasional publication of government secrets, as well as developing relationships with sources who have access to classified information and are willing to provide it to journalists.

If those three allegations are enough to bring Assange out of the scope of Bartnicki protections, it would be a challenge, as a legal matter, to draw principled distinctions that could be consistently applied between Assange’s conduct and that of an investigative reporter, sufficient to protect that reporter from a similar Espionage Act claim.


Jeremy Scahill’s The Intercepted Podcast: Prosecuting Julian Assange for espionage is a coup attempt against the First Amendment

INTERVIEW: Joe Lauria explains Assange indictments and US Espionage Act

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