Since 2010, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has published thousands of files stolen by former U.S. Army intelligence analyst now known as Chelsea Manning. Authorities seeking Assange’s arrest have had concerns about whether the First Amendment precluded his prosecution, but now think they’ve found a solution.
In order to avoid facing charges of rape in Sweden, Assange is currently being harbored in Ecuador’s embassy in London, protected by President Lenin Moreno. As long as he stays there, he is also protected from prosecution in the United States.
“It’s time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a non-state, hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia,” said CIA Director Mike Pompeo last week, noting that WikiLeaks “directed Chelsea Manning to intercept specific secret information, and it overwhelmingly focuses on the United States.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Thursday that the United States plans to step up its efforts in arresting Assange and stopping all leaks. “This is a matter that’s gone beyond anything I’m aware of,” he said. “We have professionals that have been in the security business of the United States for many years that are shocked by the number of leaks, and some of them are quite serious. So, yes, it is a priority. We’ve already begun to step up our efforts and whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail.”
“We’ve had no communication with the Department of Justice and they have not indicated to me that they have brought any charges against Mr. Assange,” said Assange’s lawyer, Barry Pollack. “They’ve been unwilling to have any discussion at all, despite our repeated requests that they let us know what Mr. Assange’s status is in any pending investigations. There’s no reason why WikiLeaks should be treated differently from any other publisher.”
Pollack pointed out that WikiLeaks is just like any publication which routinely publishes stories based on classified information, including The Washington Post and The New York Times. He noted that WikiLeaks publishes information that is in “the public’s interest to know, not just about the United States, but other governments around the world.”
Assange made the same comparison in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post. “Quite simply, our motive is identical to that claimed by the New York Times and The Post — to publish newsworthy content,” he wrote. “Consistent with the U.S. Constitution, we publish material that we can confirm to be true irrespective of whether sources came by that truth legally or have the right to release it to the media. And we strive to mitigate legitimate concerns, for example by using redaction to protect the identities of at-risk intelligence agents.”
Pompeo points out that Assange is not a U.S. citizen and has no First Amendment rights while he sits in a London embassy.
“I’m glad that the Justice Department has found a way to go after Assange. He’s gotten a free ride for too long,” commented Rep. Peter King, R-New York, adding that Assange has “caused tremendous damage to our national security … put American lives at risk.”
Concerned that prosecuting Assange could open a bigger can of worms, Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project told reporters, “Never in the history of this country has a publisher been prosecuted for presenting truthful information to the public. Any prosecution of WikiLeaks for publishing government secrets would set a dangerous precedent that the Trump administration would surely use to target other news organizations.”
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