Julian Assange has very few friends. The Australian founder and editor of WikiLeaks has at various times angered the right, the left, the center and an array of world governments.
He became a hero to many opponents of the U.S. war machine in 2010 when WikiLeaks published classified materials leaked by Chelsea Manning, a U.S. soldier at the time, exposing shocking and illegal acts carried out by the U.S. military in Iraq.
Assange was later idolized by supporters of Donald Trump for publishing hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta.
While the reputations of Assange and his organization in the U.S. have been ever-changing, WikiLeaks has been consistent in its advocacy for transparency and freedom of expression.
As for Assange as a person and political activist, I won’t praise him. The official WikiLeaks Twitter account carried out a private conversation via direct message with Donald Trump Jr. during the 2016 election, showing the organization was perfectly happy to be complicit in the election of Donald Trump, a man with zero positive human traits.
However, the issue of how Julian Assange should be treated is not merely an issue of whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy. It’s an issue of press freedom and civil liberties.
There have been credible reports in recent days Ecuador may expel Assange from its embassy in London, where Assange has lived in asylum since 2012. The governments of the U.K. and Ecuador say they are in negotiations over Assange’s fate.
Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno is clearly unhappy with Assange. Ecuador cut off Assange’s internet access in March after Assange spoke in favor of Catalonian independence from Spain. Spain is a close ally of Ecuador.
Assuming Ecuador does expel Assange from its embassy in London, Assange will probably be immediately arrested by U.K. authorities for a minor bail violation — failing to show up in court for a hearing on Sweden’s attempt to extradite him for sexual assault charges that have since been dropped.
Once he’s in British custody, the important questions become whether the U.S. will seek to extradite him for publishing classified material, and whether the U.K. will comply.
Publishing classified U.S. government secrets, which WikiLeaks has done, is illegal. However, the Justice Department has typically refrained from prosecuting publishers of classified material, only punishing those who leaked the material, because prosecuting the publishers has clear negative implications for press freedom.
That’s why former President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice refrained from prosecuting Assange. Since WikiLeaks had only published the material, not leaked it, prosecuting WikiLeaks would have meant also prosecuting the New York Times, the Washington Post and every other U.S. media outlet that has published classified information.
There have been indications this may change under the Trump administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last year he is considering prosecuting journalists for publishing leaked information. As CIA director in April 2017, Trump’s current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a series of baseless and inane accusations about WikiLeaks, calling it “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.”
It’s not comforting that Pompeo shared and promoted WikiLeaks content on Twitter multiple times during the 2016 election, or that the president himself literally said “I love WikiLeaks” in October 2016. The Trump administration has never been careful to avoid hypocrisy.
If the U.S. does successfully extradite and prosecute WikiLeaks for publishing classified material, it will mean every major American newspaper, among many other U.S. media outlets, will be open to prosecution on the same grounds, because they have published classified information.
If you think Trump’s mean tweets about CNN are a threat to press freedom, know the prospect of prosecuting Assange is much worse.
Ultimately, Congress should repeal or amend the law making it illegal to publish classified information. But even while that law exists, the Department of Justice should follow the convention of respecting press freedom by refraining from prosecuting media outlets, of which WikiLeaks is one, for what they publish.
Given the U.S. government’s explicit threats against WikiLeaks and the U.K. government’s subservience to the U.S., things are not looking good.
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