The Wikileaks founder has done plenty of self-inflicted damage to his reputation over the past few years, but his organization was instrumental in uncovering plenty of abusive behavior by the US government that had been perpetrated in secret.
Leaks are an instrumental part of government accountability, even if governments often treat leaks as criminal acts. And while it’s abhorrent to see the government punish whistleblowers who found the accepted whistleblowing routes inadequate, it’s even worse to see the US government engaged in a prosecution that threatens press freedoms in the home of the First Amendment.
The Obama Administration toyed with the idea of extraditing Assange to try him on criminal charges, but ultimately abandoned that effort, most likely due to the First Amendment implications. The Trump Administration — despite finding Assange to be an unlikely ally — had no such concerns. As the administration struggled to contain seemingly daily leaks, it decided sacrificing an ally might send a message to US journalists, many of whom the president treated with open hostility.
Why the Biden Administration is allowing this to continue isn’t clear. Perhaps the Biden DOJ feels the espionage charges are legit. Maybe it feels it should silence Assange before he does any more damage to the federal government. Maybe it feels it should punish an ally of Trump (and a seeming supporter of Russian disinformation campaigns) before he can wreak any more havoc on democracy in general.
Whatever the case, the prosecution continues. And, as Trevor Timm points out in his post for Freedom of the Press Foundation, you don’t have to be a supporter of Assange to understand extradition and prosecution over the publication of leaked documents will do severe damage to journalists in the United States, and anywhere else in the world the US government has extradition agreements in place.
You don’t have to like Assange or his political opinions at all to grasp the dangerous nature of this case for journalists everywhere, either. Even if you don’t consider him a “journalist,” much of the activity described in the charges against him is common newsgathering practices. A successful conviction would potentially make receiving classified information, asking for sources for more information, and publishing certain types of classified information a crime. Journalists, of course, engage in all these activities regularly.
There’s precedent for this, unfortunately. But it’s the sort of precedent the Biden DOJ shouldn’t willingly embrace. Timm notes that the extradition announcement falls on the anniversary of the Pentagon Papers trial, one instigated by a president whose downfall was the result of journalists publishing leaked documents.
What many do not know is that the Nixon administration attempted to prosecute Times reporter Neil Sheehan for receiving the Pentagon Papers as well — under a very similar legal theory the Justice Department is using against Assange.
Thankfully, that prosecution failed. And until this one does too, we continue to urge the Biden administration to drop this prosecution. Every day it continues to further undermine the First Amendment.
You’d think any administration would actively avoid replicating nearly anything instigated by the Nixon Administration. But here we are, fifty years later, experiencing deja vu as our government spends millions of our dollars to threaten long-held First Amendment protections.