Yesterday, British officials dragged Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy after the nation revoked his asylum status. Standing before a British court on the same day, he was found guilty of failing to surrender to an outstanding warrant from 2012. Also on the same day, the United States unsealed a grand jury indictment against Assange, charging him conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. Now, with the US seeking extradition, the issue will be litigated in British courts. Sharp lines have been drawn by those who find the arrest and potential extradition of Assange concerning and those who laud the charges and recent moves against him.
Last Thursday, Wikileaks tweeted that a high level source within the Ecuadorian state informed the organization Julian Assange would be expelled within “hours to days” from the Ecuadorian embassy. In an article I wrote earlier this week, I expanded upon how charges stemming from sexual assault allegations in Sweden, which has since been dropped, led to Assange’s asylum stay in the UK and how tensions were rising between Ecuador and WikiLeaks.
Assange, who is an Australian national, pleaded not guilty to the 2012 charge of failing to appear in court. District Judge Michael Snow, who found Assange guilty, added that Assange’s behavior was “the behaviour of a narcissist who cannot get beyond his own selfish interest.”
The charges in the US, which Assange may soon face, stems from his involvement with then government whistleblower Bradly Manning (now known as Chelsea Manning) in releasing over 700,000 government documents. Accused of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the “narrowly construed” indictment “alleges that Assange encouraged Manning to search for classified information and that he offered to help break a password to a database containing classified material.” Publicly revealed chat logs shows Manning asking Assange if he was “any good” at cracking hashes, to which he replied “yes.” It is unknown if Assange was able to crack the encryption. Additionally, when Manning told Assange he had no more information to supply, Assange replied, “curious eyes never run dry in my experience.”
Some find the narrowly tailored indictment manages to avoid implicating free speech rights, though charges could still be added. Many free speech advocates, according to reporting by Reuters, were worried that Assange could be charged with violating the Espionage Act for publishing information provided to him. The article states that under the Obama administration, there was a “conscious decision not to bring charges against Assange on the grounds that WikiLeaks’ activities were too similar to what conventional journalists do.”
The sticking point here for many in the mainstream revolves around the alleged agreement to help break an encrypted code. Regardless, many still take issue with the indictment and what could come of it.
For instance, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stated “while there is no First Amendment right to crack a government password…Criminally prosecuting a publisher for the publication of truthful information would be a first in American history, and unconstitutional….We have no assurance that these are the only charges the government plans to bring against Mr. Assange.” The ACLU director, Ben Wizner, added that prosecution “would be unprecedented and unconstitutional and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations.”
Further, University of Georgia media law professor Jonathan Peters takes issue with this charge in that “The indictment discusses journalistic practices in the context of a criminal conspiracy: using encryption, making efforts to protect a source’s identity, and source cultivation”
Barry Pollack, an attorney for Julian Assange, stated the following: “It is bitterly disappointing that a country would allow someone to whom it has extended citizenship and asylum to be arrested in its embassy. First and foremost, we hope that the U.K. will now give Mr. Assange access to proper health care, which he has been denied for seven years. Once his health care needs have been addressed, the U.K. courts will need to resolve what appears to be an unprecedented effort by the United States to extradite a foreign journalist to face criminal charges for publishing truthful information.”
Concerning the charges of aiding in breaking an encryption, Pollack responded, they “boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identity of that source.”
The record indicates that Manning had already provided documents to Assange and the breaking of the encryption would have safeguarded Manning’s identity searching for additional document. The defense seems set to argue if any attempt was made to crack a code it was to protect the identity of Manning, which should be considered a journalistic norm.
While the consensus of mainstream outlets seems to agree that any proof of Assange breaking encryption should be viewed as a non-journalistic act, many find this stance puzzling. Glenn Greenwald and Micah Lee of The Intercept, for example, point out that charges were brought up even though “no new evidence or facts” has been discovered since the Obama DOJ “…not exactly renowned for being stalwart guardians of press freedoms — concluded that it could not and should not prosecute Assange because indicting him would pose serious threats to press freedom.” Additionally, they say that Manning already had access to the government document database in question and the indictment never alleges hacking. Rather, it “accuses Assange of trying to help Manning log into the Defense Department’s computers using a different username so that she could maintain her anonymity while downloading documents in the public interest and then furnish them to WikiLeaks to publish.” Many, thus, argue that safeguarding of the identity of a source is not only permitted but an ethical part of journalism.
The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, echoing The Intercept, issued the following statement:“The indictment and the Justice Department’s press release treat everyday journalistic practices as part of a criminal conspiracy. Whether the government will be able to establish a violation of the hacking statute remains to be seen, but it’s very troubling that the indictment sweeps in activities that are not just lawful but essential to press freedom — activities like cultivating sources, protecting sources’ identities, and communicating with sources securely.”
It is not difficult to find plenty of opinions on either side of the issue. This is a historic moment, globally, that can monumentally impact both whistleblowing and international relations. I will continue to monitor and report on any events that unfold from here.