See our ongoing liveblog of Julian Assange’s endangered situation in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London
The Washington Post reported this morning that a US Department of Justice prosecutor “inadvertently” disclosed the fact that the US has done what WikiLeaks and its supporters have warned it would do since 2010: charged Julian Assange:
The disclosure came in a filing in a case unrelated to Assange. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kellen S. Dwyer, urging a judge to keep the matter sealed, wrote that “due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged.” Later, Dwyer wrote the charges would “need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested.”
From the document revealing the indictment:
3. The United States has considered alternatives less drastic than sealing,
including, for example, the possibility of redactions, and has determined that none would suffice to protect this investigation. Another procedure short of sealing will not adequately protect the needs of law enforcement at this time because, due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged.
5. The complaint, supporting affidavit, and arrest warrant as well as this motion and proposed order, would need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested in connection with the charges in the criminal complaint and can therefore no longer evade or avoid arrest and extradition in this matter.
As the New York Times reports:
Barry Pollack, an American lawyer representing Mr. Assange, denounced the apparent development.
“The news that criminal charges have apparently been filed against Mr. Assange is even more troubling than the haphazard manner in which that information has been revealed,” Mr. Pollack wrote in an email. “The government bringing criminal charges against someone for publishing truthful information is a dangerous path for a democracy to take.”
Human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson, who has been advising Assange since 2010, spoke to Democracy Now! this morning to discuss the reported charges, warning that an Assange prosecution would endanger press freedoms worldwide
Robinson also spoke to MSNBC
MSNBC also interviewed Frank Figliuzzi, former Assistant Director for Counterintelligence at the Federal Bureau of Investigation under Obama (February 7, 2011 – July 31, 2012):
This has deep meaning also for me personally because I was in Washington at head quarters when the entire intelligence community was wrestling with what to do with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and the great debate about whether we should even treat them as a foreign power. That they were doing that much damage to us. […] Understand that our intelligence community has Wikileaks covered like a blanket — as if they are a foreign adversary.
Figliuzzi’s statements reflect the the US government’s intent to prosecute Assange for publishing all along, as his tenure with the FBI long pre-dates alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. The fact that the “entire intelligence community” was working on an Assange prosecution signals the amount of surveillance Assange and other members of WikiLeaks have been under. Ecuador has admitted to having spent 1 million pounds per year, most of it reportedly on the “security” inside the embassy which it has been revealed is tasked with spying on Assange’s activities.
A grave threat to press freedom worldwide
Glenn Greenwald writes, ‘As the Obama DOJ Concluded, Prosecution of Julian Assange for Publishing Documents Poses Grave Threats to Press Freedom’
What has changed since that Obama-era consensus? Only one thing: in 2016, WikiLeaks published documents that reflected poorly on Democrats and the Clinton campaign rather than the Bush-era wars, rendering Democrats perfectly willing, indeed eager, to prioritize their personal contempt for Assange over any precepts of basic press freedoms, civil liberties, or Constitutional principles. It’s really just as simple – and as ignoble – as that.
It is this utterly craven and authoritarian mentality that is about to put Democrats of all sorts in bed with the most extremist and dangerous of the Trump faction as they unite to create precedents under which the publication of information – long held sacrosanct by anyone caring about press freedoms – can now be legally punished.
The ACLU’s Ben Wizner said:
— Jamil Dakwar (@jdakwar) November 16, 2018
In its report on the leaked charge, the New York Times wrote:
Though the legal move against Mr. Assange remained a mystery on Thursday, charges centering on the publication of information of public interest — even if it was obtained from Russian government hackers — would create a precedent with profound implications for press freedoms.
Update: the Times has updated its article on the charges to highlight press freedom issues:
Mr. Assange is not a traditional journalist, but what he does at WikiLeaks has also been difficult to distinguish in a legally meaningful way from what traditional news organizations, like The New York Times, do every day: seek out and publish information that officials would prefer to be kept secret, including classified national security matters.
The Justice Department has never charged journalists with violating the law for doing their jobs. But in recent years, it has become far more common to charge officials with a crime for providing information to reporters. Depending on the facts, the case against Mr. Assange could set a precedent further chilling investigative journalism.
Trevor Timm, executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, has issued the following statement:
Any charges brought against WikiLeaks for their publishing activities pose a profound and incredibly dangerous threat to press freedom. Whether you like Assange or hate him, the theories used in a potential Espionage Act prosecution would threaten countless reporters at the New York Times, Washington Post, and the many other news outlets that report on government secrets all the time. While everyone will have to wait and see what the charges detail, it’s quite possible core First Amendment principles will be at stake in this case.
Human Rights Watch’s Executive Director Ken Roth:
Deeply troubling if the Trump administration, which has shown little regard for media freedom, would charge Assange for receiving from a government official and publishing classified information–exactly what journalists do all the time. https://t.co/PkyH1UMHDK pic.twitter.com/PcUO6t9NGz
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) November 16, 2018
You can despise Wikileaks and everything it stands for. You can think Assange is an evil spirit reanimated by Putin himself. But you cannot support the prosecution of a publisher for publishing without narrowing the basic rights every newspaper relies on. https://t.co/Hs5XH6Vmzz
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) November 16, 2018
The Committee to Protect Journalists released a statement on the charges:
“We are closely monitoring reports that prosecutors have prepared a sealed indictment against Julian Assange,” said Alexandra Ellerbeck, CPJ’s North America program coordinator. “While the charges are not known, we would be concerned by a prosecution that construes publishing government documents as a crime. This would set a dangerous precedent that could harm all journalists, whether inside or outside the United States.”
Suit to unseal charges
The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press has filed a motion in the Eastern District of Virginia to unseal the U.S. government’s criminal charges against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange:
“It’s important that the public understand what these charges are, and there’s no longer any justification for keeping the criminal complaint, the docket, and other filings related to the prosecution sealed,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce Brown.
USA Today‘s James Bovard argues that Assange should be given a Presidential Medal of Freedom, in a reframing of the award’s purpose:
Because few things are more perilous to democracy than permitting politicians to coverup crimes, there should be a new Medal of Freedom category commending individuals who have done the most to expose official lies. This particular award could be differentiated by including a little steam whistle atop the medal — vivifying how leaks can prevent a political system from overheating or exploding.
Assange would deserve such a medal […]
Organizations like Wikileaks are among the best hopes for rescuing democracy from Leviathan. Unless we presume politicians have a divine right to deceive the governed, America should honor individuals who expose federal crimes. Whistleblowers should be especially welcome by anyone riled up over Trump’s lies.