Civil Rights Groups Argue That Biden Should Drop Assange Prosecution; Noting That It Is An Attack On Journalism

from the do-it dept

It's easy to dislike and distrust Julian Assange. He's done many things to inspire both reactions. Still, it's important to separate out personal feelings towards the guy with the question of whether or not he broke US law with publishing the things he did via Wikileaks. For years, the Obama DOJ refused to indict him, in part due to the recognition that nearly all of Assange's activities were similar to the kinds of things that journalists do all the time. The Trump DOJ had no such restraint (even as some prosecutors warned of problems with the idea), and as we and others have pointed out the indictment is a huge threat to investigative journalism and things like source protection.

Now that Biden is President, a whole bunch of civil rights groups have sent a letter to Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson, asking him to drop the case against Assange. The letter notes that many of the signatories do not agree with Assange or Wikileaks, but that doesn't mean the case is a good one:

While our organizations have different perspectives on Mr. Assange and his organization, we share the view that the government’s indictment of him poses a grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad. We urge you to drop the appeal of the decision by Judge Vanessa Baraitser of the Westminster Magistrates’ Court to reject the Trump administration’s extradition request. We also urge you to dismiss the underlying indictment.

The indictment of Mr. Assange threatens press freedom because much of the conduct described in the indictment is conduct that journalists engage in routinely—and that they must engage in in order to do the work the public needs them to do. Journalists at major news publications regularly speak with sources, ask for clarification or more documentation, and receive and publish documents the government considers secret. In our view, such a precedent in this case could effectively criminalize these common journalistic practices.

In addition, some of the charges included in the indictment turn entirely on Mr. Assange’s decision to publish classified information. News organizations frequently and necessarily publish classified information in order to inform the public of matters of profound public significance. We appreciate that the government has a legitimate interest in protecting bona fide national security interests, but the proceedings against Mr. Assange jeopardize journalism that is crucial to democracy.

Jameel Jaffer, who heads the Knight First Amendment Institute, which was on of the signatories on the letter, has written an article also detailing why the Biden DOJ should drop the case that is worth reading:

Of Trump’s many attacks on press freedom, however, it’s his Justice Department’s indictment of Julian Assange that could have the most significant implications over the long term. As I explained here and here, the Justice Department’s indictment of Assange focuses principally on activity that national security journalists engage in “routinely and as a necessary part of their work”—cultivating sources, communicating with them confidentially, soliciting information from them, protecting their identities from disclosure, and publishing classified information. As a result, a successful prosecution of Assange would have far-reaching implications both for national security journalists and for the news organizations that publish their work. This isn’t an accident. It’s likely why the Trump administration filed the indictment, as Jack Goldsmith observed here.

President Joe Biden plainly does not share Trump’s attitude toward the press. But the Assange case will present the Biden administration with an early test. One of the first questions Biden’s new attorney general will confront is whether to authorize prosecutors to continue to contest the decision of the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, issued earlier this year, denying the United States’ request for Assange’s extradition. In an interview with NPR, the outgoing U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Zachary Terwilliger, wondered whether the new administration would abandon the appeal. “Some of this does come down to resources and where you’re going to focus your energies,” Terwilliger noted.

Again, whether you agree with Assange's view of the world, or how you feel about Wikileaks' apparent decision to cozy up with Russians is a separate issue from whether the indictment itself is a threat to journalism. It is. And the new DOJ should drop the case. It would be unfortunately if Biden continued along the same path the Obama administration did in pretending that journalism is a form of espionage. Dumping the Assange suit would send a clear signal that Biden actually recognizes the value and importance of adversarial investigative journalism, even if it might embarrass him.

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Filed Under: doj, espionage act, free speech, joe biden, journalism, julian assange


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2021 @ 2:16pm

    A somewhat more critical take on this letter

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    sumgai (profile), 12 Feb 2021 @ 3:09pm

    For years, the Obama DOJ refused to indict him, in part due to the recognition that nearly all of Assange's activities were similar to the kinds of things that journalists do all the time.

    It would be unfortunately if Biden continued along the same path the Obama administration did in pretending that journalism is a form of espionage.

    I think my sentence parsing mechanism just blew a gasket - it's insisting that these are two opposing viewpoints. Either that, or the second sentence should've used the name of a different former president. I dunno.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Americans Are Criminals, 12 Feb 2021 @ 3:13pm

    "It's easy to dislike and distrust Julian Assange. He's done many things to inspire both reactions."

    What a repugnant & cowardly way to open, even when your article ultimately goes on to attempt a lame defense of this poor man. Assange's only "crime" consists of speaking out openly about the CRIMINALITY of the demented American't government & the actions of it's gender-fluid citizenry overseas. A pox on your nation of half-wits. A pox on ALL Anglo nations ..you're ALL half-wits. It is truly a PLEASURE watching your collapse.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), 12 Feb 2021 @ 3:24pm

      Re:

      You can dislike and distrust someone who is not a criminal. I am sorry you don't seem to understand that. And I'm sorry that you feel the need to attack people baselessly for being able to both not trust Assange and still feel that the prosecution of him is wrong.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      TFG, 13 Feb 2021 @ 5:29am

      Re:

      Assange's only "crime"

      The man was under investigation for rape, molestation, and coercion in Sweden, and the cases were only dropped due to prevention of interviews/extradition to Sweden, lasting long enough that statutes of limitations expired.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assange_v_Swedish_Prosecution_Authority

      I personally don't have a problem with Wikileaks exposure of American governmental malfeasance, and I agree that the US Government's case against him is an attack on journalistic practice, but I dislike and distrust Assange because there was reasonable suspicion that he's a rapist, which was never able to be properly investigated.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2021 @ 5:42am

        Re: Re:

        The suspect's presence and / or cooperation is usually not expected, required, or obtained for a proper investigation.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 16 Feb 2021 @ 12:48am

          Re: Re: Re:

          "The suspect's presence and / or cooperation is usually not expected, required, or obtained for a proper investigation."

          Which is precisely why even those who don't like Assange were understanding on why he didn't want to be extradited back to Sweden. He was available for questioning in the UK, and the only reason a trial could not proceed was because the swedish courts stonewalled on it until his feet were on swedish soil.

          Extraordinary rendition from Sweden is easy. Laughably so. It takes exactly one call from the US embassy and swedish police will pick up the foreigner, drive him to bromma, and frog-march him onto an unmarked plane headed for wherever. No questions asked.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Rocky, 13 Feb 2021 @ 3:15pm

        Re: Re:

        The man was under investigation for rape, molestation, and coercion in Sweden, and the cases were only dropped due to prevention of interviews/extradition to Sweden, lasting long enough that statutes of limitations expired.

        The interesting thing about the investigation is that it all started when the two women happened to talk to each other on the phone and compared notes, before that they where gushing on social media what a great guy he was. Those posts where deleted more or less at the same time the Swedish prosecutor filed the charges. One of the women had blogged a year earlier how to more or less frame someone for rape, and that was cross-posted to another site which wasn't scrubbed until after the rape-allegations.

        Since the Swedish prosecutor never really did any discovery (with the excuse she couldn't without interviewing Assange), the above was never investigated.

        Considering the events that transpired up to the moment the women started talking to each other, I can only conclude that Assange's behavior was that of an asshole, not a rapist. Which more or less was what the first senior prosecutor said before dropping the charges. The charges where later picked up by another prosecutor, which led us to where we are now.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 16 Feb 2021 @ 7:10am

          Re: Re: Re:

          "I can only conclude that Assange's behavior was that of an asshole, not a rapist."

          I'd be careful. The woman in question was already in a sexual relationship with Assange, this is true, but any sexual interaction without consent is rape, no matter if they'd had consensual intercourse earlier that night or not.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 16 Feb 2021 @ 12:45am

        Re: Re:

        "... but I dislike and distrust Assange because there was reasonable suspicion that he's a rapist, which was never able to be properly investigated."

        And one major reason for which is the utterly hamfisted way swedish authorities handled the thing. After his first hearing Assange asked if he was free to leave, divulging his flight plans to the UK. The swedish prosecutors said yeah, sure.

        Then, when he was in the UK, there was suddenly an international APB out on him and he was wanted for extradition? If I were Assange, guilty or not, no way would I risk finding myself on the soil of the nation which carried out the Bromma Extraordinary Rendition.

        Compounded by the fact that it is possible to carry out a trial in absentia and Assange was available for questioning, but the swedish courts were explicitly refusing to perform such a one unless Assange had been imported right back to Sweden. For no reason given.

        I'm no fan of Assange either, but it's pretty clear the man would not have gotten his day in court. Just a blindfold, a set of adult diapers, and a one-way ticket on an unmarked plane headed for whatever Abu Ghraib analogue was convenient. Just as Sweden has done before, whenever Uncle Sam requested it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 12 Feb 2021 @ 4:42pm

    Unfortunately I can see the ability to chill journalism that might expose government wrongdoing as a very tempting idea for those in the government, hopefully Biden will be able to resist it and order the case to be dropped.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Upstream (profile), 12 Feb 2021 @ 5:57pm

      Re:

      hopefully Biden will be able to resist it and order the case to be dropped.

      I wish he would, and maybe give Edward Snowden amnesty and a medal, then pardon Ross Ulbricht and the countless non-violent drug "offenders" in Federal prisons (and whoever else shouldn't be there), too.

      But I am not holding my breath on any of the above. After all, Biden, his veep, and most of his confirmed or nominated Cabinet members are career authoritarians. Authoritarians only like lapdog journalists and people who blow the whistle on the other team.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2021 @ 4:51pm

    He won't. He comes from the same administration after all and the idea of making an example out of Assange (reguardless of what he did) is VERY tempting to those who would prefer the peasantry not know what their government is doing in their name.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2021 @ 5:40pm

    Yea
    Go after a real criminal like
    Andrew Cuomo
    for killing thousands of old
    people in nursing homes in NY .

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2021 @ 6:39pm

    It is a journalistic practice to seek a position where you're granted classified information, then publicly release classified information without permission in spite of all the agreements you willingly made to get access to it and flee to a foreign power to avoid the results of violating said agreements?

    Learn something new everyday. The people writing this letter should have been a bit more clear and explicit about exactly what they consider journalistic practices because as written it's far too open to interpretation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Upstream (profile), 12 Feb 2021 @ 7:19pm

      Re:

      It is a journalistic practice to seek a position where you're granted classified information, then publicly release classified information without permission in spite of all the agreements you willingly made to get access to it and flee to a foreign power to avoid the results of violating said agreements?

      Yes. Or to put it another way: It is like when a cop infiltrates the Mafia, learns their secrets, then tells the courts, violating "Omerta," then hides in the Witness Protection Program to avoid being killed.

      (Damn, I wish I could find my notes on strikethrough!)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Toom1275 (profile), 12 Feb 2021 @ 8:59pm

      Re:

      Or how about to helping someone bypass access controls to reach what they're not authorized to.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2021 @ 9:55am

        Re: Re:

        Only not standard practice due to the lack of knowledge on the part of journalists to be useful. They have outright smuggled papers out of secure areas before (you know the Pentagon Papers).

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), 15 Feb 2021 @ 10:07am

      Re:

      It is a journalistic practice to seek a position where you're granted classified information, then publicly release classified information without permission in spite of all the agreements you willingly made to get access to it and flee to a foreign power to avoid the results of violating said agreements?

      When did Assange do any of that?

      Learn something new everyday.

      Tell me about it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ed (profile), 13 Feb 2021 @ 7:05am

    Sorry

    But I can't have any sympathy for Assange. He manipulated illegally obtained information to the benefit of a foreign country against the United States. Prosecute him and punish him to the fullest extent of the law.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2021 @ 9:58am

      Re: Sorry

      Only a complete fucking idiot cares about sympathy with civil rights law because everyone knows it is a matter of precedent. "Harsh treatment from precident will only be applied to bad guys." is a flat out lie of the worst kind from a bad faith actor.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2021 @ 11:14am

      Re: Sorry

      Did you mean, "To the benefit of everybody and maybe some detriment to some evil sacks of shit in parts of the US government?"

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Toom1275 (profile), 13 Feb 2021 @ 11:52am

        Re: Re: Sorry

        No, he's talking about what happened in the real world.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          techflaws (profile), 14 Feb 2021 @ 8:15am

          Re: Re: Re: Sorry

          Like what was clearly demonstrated in the video "collateral murder"?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Toom1275 (profile), 14 Feb 2021 @ 6:00pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Sorry

            If you leave out the parts where the video was the product of Veritas-level editing in order to make apoear like more than it was in addition to Assange's lies about its content.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Toom1275 (profile), 14 Feb 2021 @ 6:01pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Sorry

            Sorry about deflating your bad-faith whataboutism like that.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              techflaws (profile), 15 Feb 2021 @ 4:35am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Sorry

              If you really think that worked...

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • icon
                Toom1275 (profile), 15 Feb 2021 @ 11:36am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Sorry

                Not on one immune to facts as yourself, no. But perhaps to one less gullible.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • icon
                  techflaws (profile), 16 Feb 2021 @ 11:11pm

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Sorry

                  Yeah, whatever you say.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • icon
                  Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 17 Feb 2021 @ 5:23am

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Sorry

                  "Not on one immune to facts as yourself, no. But perhaps to one less gullible."

                  So I take it that Abu Ghraib and the various war crimes on video released as part of Assange's efforts were just deep fakes, then?

                  Sorry, Toom1275. Assange may be a douche but the revelations are legit, and the main reason the US government has to dislike him is that it revealed about parts of the US military what has been bitingly obvious about US law enforcement.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                  • icon
                    Toom1275 (profile), 21 Feb 2021 @ 8:43pm

                    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Sorry

                    So I take it that Abu Ghraib and the various war crimes on video released as part of Assange's efforts were just deep fakes, then?

                    Put the goalposts back. You're supposed to be better than that.

                    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ehud Gavron (profile), 13 Feb 2021 @ 4:18pm

      Thank you for not having sympathy

      There are many unsympathetic people in this world. Thank you for self-identifying.

      Julian Assange created an organization that brings transparency to governmental abuse of power. I'm sorry you can't have any sympathy.

      He violated laws, created by governments, to prevent transparency of their abuses of power. I'm sorry you think that's "illegal manipulation".

      His crimes against women have been withdrawn, so ... innocent until proven guilty... not much to opine there until he's convicted.

      Thus far he's an innocent guy who's spent nearly a decade in a prison (of sorts).

      But hey, you can't have sympathy for him. When you look in the mirror next time ask yourself who the "good guy" really is... the guy who risked a decade of his life in a room in the UK, or the armchair quarterback who "can't have any sympathy."

      I have sympathy for you.

      Ehud

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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