Why did the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, Der Speigel, and El Pais write a letter to the Department of Justice? The news organizations recently called on the United States government to drop most of its charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for publishing classified information. In a letter, the media outlets said the prosecution under the Espionage Act “sets a dangerous precedent” that threatened to undermine the First Amendment and global press freedoms broadly. (The charges related to hacking directly with then-Army intel specialist Chelsea Manning are unmentioned.)
“Obtaining and disclosing sensitive information when necessary in the public interest is a core part of the daily work of journalists,” the letter reads. “If that work is criminalized, our public discourse and our democracies are made significantly weaker. Holding governments accountable is part of the core mission of a free press in a democracy.”
Demanding leniency for Assange, who has been fighting extradition from Britain to the U.S. since his arrest there in 2019, appears a noble act. But 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 initial excerpts were printed, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge censored a newspaper via prior restraint. In the end, the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and handed down a victory for the First Amendment in New York Times Company v. United States. The Times won the Pulitzer Prize. Ever since, media have published secrets as they’ve found them.
But looking at the Times case through the lens of Wikileaks, law professor Steve Vladeck points out that
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 for the prosecution of journalists who publish classified documents by focusing narrowly on prohibiting prior restraint. Politics and public opinion, not law, has kept the feds exercising discretion in not prosecuting the press, a delicate dance around an 800-pound gorilla loose in the halls of democracy. The 2022 Assange letter from the New York Times et al. is as self-serving, in begging for the status quo no matter what happens to Assange the hacker, as it is noble.
Allowing the media to publish is not the same as allowing unfettered access to government secrets. On July 30, 1778, the Continental Congress created the first whistleblower protection law, stating “that it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States to give the earliest information to Congress or other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds, or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states.” The executive has since aggressively used the Espionage Act and other laws to prosecute whistleblowers who leak to journalists.
The closest a journalist ever came to being thrown in jail was in 2014, when the Obama administration subpoenaed New York Times reporter James Risen. They then accused former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling of passing classified information to Risen. After a lower court ordered Risen to testify and disclose his source under threat of incarceration, the Supreme Court turned down his 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 gentleman’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 Obama administration, fearful of public opinion, punted on Risen. Waving a patriotic flag over a messy situation, then-attorney general Eric Holder announced that “no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail.” Risen wasn’t called to testify and wasn’t punished for publishing classified material, even as the alleged leaker, Jeffrey Sterling, disappeared into prison for three and a half years. To avoid creating a precedent that might have granted some form of reporter’s privilege under the Constitution, the government stepped away from the fight.
Those same issues now hover over Julian Assange. Should the government decide to prosecute him, there are complex legal questions to be answered about who is a journalist and what is publishing in the digital world: Is Assange himself a journalist like Risen or a source for journalists like Sterling was alleged to be?
There is no debate over whether James Risen is a journalist and whether a book is an act of publishing. Glenn Greenwald has written about and published online classified documents given to him by Edward Snowden, and as a journalist or publisher he has never been challenged by the government. The elements of fact-checking, confirming, curating, redacting, and providing context around classified information were all present in the New York Times case with the Pentagon Papers; they are also present with American citizens Risen and Greenwald. Definitions and precedents may be forming.
Assange isn’t an American. He is unpopular, drawn now into America’s 21st-century Red Scare for revealing the DNC emails, supposedly hacked by Russia. He has written nothing alongside the documents on Wikileaks, has done little curating or culling, and has redacted little. Publishing for him consists of uploading what has been supplied. The government could argue that Assange is not entitled to First Amendment protections simply by claiming that a mouse click isn’t publishing and Assange isn’t a journalist. The simplest interpretation of the Espionage Act in this case, that Assange willfully transmitted information relating to national defense without authorization, would apply. He would be guilty, same as the other canaries in the deep mine shaft of Washington before him, no messy balancing questions to be addressed. And with that, a unique form of online primary-source journalism would be made extinct.
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The 2022 media letter regarding Assange raises the question: why now? On paper, Assange’s situation has been unchanged for months. He sits in dank Belmarsh prison in Britain fighting his extradition to the U.S.; nothing new there. On the American side Attorney General Merrick Garland has sought to limit ways the Justice Department can make life harder on journalists. In October, he issued new regulations banning the use of subpoenas, warrants, or court orders to seize reporters’ communications records or demand their notes or testimony in an effort to uncover confidential sources in leak investigations.
Could it be deal has been made for the U.S. to drop all charges against Assange absent working with Manning on the hack itself? Or is lapdog Britain simply tired of carrying water for the U.S. and demanding, politely, action (and hence the Australian government support for the media letter)? Has Assange’s health taken a significant turn for the worse?
It may just be that Assange is an easy target for both sides. With Assange’s case, the government is able to mold the legal precedents with such certainty that, where they backed away from other cases in their long-running war of attrition against free speech and the press, they figure Assange’s is a case they may seize. It could be simply that the self-serving media letter of 2022 is meant to forestall that.