The Trump administration is counting on the public’s dislike of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange to potentially curtail press freedom rights. Don’t fall for it.
In a stunning series of events on Thursday, Assange’s asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London — where he’s taken refuge for the last seven years — was forcibly revoked, and he was quickly arrested by British authorities. Shortly after his arrest, the Department of Justice released an indictment alleging Assange engaged in a conspiracy to commit computer crimes and indicated it would attempt to extradite Assange to the United States to stand trial.
The charge was not related to WikiLeaks’ controversial publication of hacked emails during the 2016 election. Instead, the charged focused on Assange’s role in gathering and publishing classified U.S. Pentagon and State Department documents in 2010, which were provided to the organization by whistleblower and one-time Army private Chelsea Manning.
A showdown between the Trump administration and Assange has been coming for months, ever since the DOJ mistakenly indicated in an unrelated court filing that it had an indictment of Assange under seal. It has also been a concern for many of those who care about press freedom: Any precedent used against Assange for his publishing activities — no matter how much he may be disliked in journalism and political circles — could potentially be used against Trump’s most despised outlets, like the New York Times and Washington Post.
But if you were to merely read the headline of the sensationalistic DOJ press release on Thursday (“WikiLeaks Founder Charged in Computer Hacking Conspiracy”), you might think the DOJ avoided that concern. The headline made it sound as though Assange had helped Manning hack into the Pentagon’s computer networks and exfiltrate hundreds of thousands of documents to publish.
But that’s not the case at all.
The heart of the charge is actually quite flimsy. The DOJ seems to be basing the crux of its argument on alleged chat logs between Assange and Manning from 2010. In the logs (which have been public knowledge for years), two screen names, which prosecutors have long believed to belong to Assange and Manning, vaguely discuss a password that Manning would allegedly like to crack. Part of the “hash” of the password was then said to have been passed to Assange, who seems to indicate he would attempt to break it for Manning, according to the DOJ.
But here’s the thing: The government never alleges this supposed “password cracking” attempt — if it happened at all — was ever successful. Neither does it claim that the password had anything to do with the files that were ultimately published by WikiLeaks. In fact, Manning had already sent WikiLeaks most of the files by the time they allegedly had this conversation. (The indictment even acknowledges that timeline.) And as the government seems to acknowledge, the alleged scheme seemed to be an attempt to keep Manning’s identity from being discovered by the government, not to get WikiLeaks more documents.
This is not a “conspiracy”; it’s called reporting.
Regardless of the weakness of the charge, many people might be thinking this: “Journalists don’t help sources crack passwords, so how is this indictment such a serious press freedom threat?” But the most dangerous aspect of this case is how the DOJ alleges Assange carried out this supposed “conspiracy,” which makes up a large part of the indictment.
First, it’s also important to point out that the DOJ under President Barack Obama had access to all of this information since at least 2011; it was reportedly considering indicting Assange after the Manning leaks as well, but ultimately declined to do so, citing press freedom concerns. The Trump administration seems to have revived the evidence after getting angry at WikiLeaks for an unrelated publication early in the Trump era.
To make its case, the Trump DOJ has filled the indictment with passages accusing Assange of “furthering the conspiracy” by engaging in routine practices and methods journalists across the United States use all the time. As legal experts Jameel Jaffer and Ben Wizner put it, “the indictment seems to have been drafted not just to justify the prosecution of Assange but to tar legitimate journalistic activities by association with Assange’s alleged crime.”
The DOJ cites as the “manners and means of the conspiracy” several journalist-source interactions that are essential to the news-gathering process, including Assange’s use of Jabber, the encrypted messaging service. “It was part of the conspiracy that Assange and Manning used the ‘Jabber’ online chat service to collaborate on the acquisition and dissemination of classified records,” the DOJ claims.
Encrypted messaging services are standard operating procedure for all journalists reporting on sensitive issues. The end-to-end encrypted messaging service Signal is so popular among journalists that some of them cite it in their Twitter bio. In many cases, reporters would be negligent by not using encryption.
“It was part of the conspiracy that Assange and Manning took measures to conceal Manning as the source of the disclosure of classified records to WikiLeaks, including by removing user names from the disclosed information and deleting chat logs between Manning and Assange,” the Justice Department explains further.
This section sounds like the DOJ is accusing Assange of criminal behavior simply for taking steps to ensure Manning’s anonymity. Protecting the identity of sources is common protocol for journalists who are talking with people who fear retribution for speaking out, and it’s something that they are often ethically obligated to do. As Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce explained, “Every journalist is engaged in a conspiracy to keep their confidential sources confidential.”
The DOJ goes on to allege that, “It was part of the conspiracy that Assange encouraged Manning to provide information and records from departments and agencies of the United States.”
Journalists don’t just magically receive leaks; they must constantly ask sources for more evidence or more substantive proof about any information they receive. Some even request specific documents for corroboration. This is not a “conspiracy”; it’s called reporting.
The DOJ would like everyone to believe this indictment steers clear of press freedom issues, but it’s clear what the Trump administration is trying to do: criminalize aspects of the reporting process that will make it harder and riskier to report on those in power.