Trump administration officials were enthusiastic when Ecuador decided to expel Julian Assange from its embassy in London, where he had received sanctuary for nearly seven years. British authorities promptly jailed him for jumping bail on sexual assault charges in Sweden, and U.S. officials began plans to have Assange extradited to face espionage charges in this country. He just turned 48 in prison on July 3.
Last month, the Department of Justice added 17 counts to the one-count indictment that it had filed years earlier. His current imprisonment in Britain and the probability of a lengthy extradition battle have delayed the prospect of a high-profile trial in the United States, but that outcome remains Washington’s goal. The United States reportedly submitted a formal extradition request on June 6.
The issues at stake go far beyond whether Assange is an admirable (or even a reasonably likeable) person. He symbolizes a crucial fight over freedom of the press and the ability of journalists to expose government misconduct without fear of criminal prosecution. Unfortunately, a disturbing number of “establishment” journalists in the United States seem willing—indeed, eager—to throw him to the government wolves.
Official Washington’s hatred of Assange borders on rabid. The website WikiLeaks, which he and his colleagues founded in 2006, has published voluminous quantities of leaked documents—in some cases highly classified documents. Those revelations have embarrassed, even discredited, powerful government officials and political factions in the United States and other countries. Among WikiLeaks’s revelations were specifics about the torture of terrorist suspects at CIA “black sites” in the United States and allied countries, and evidence of U.S. war crimes, notably brazen killings of civilians, including two Reuters reporters, in Iraq. Some of the most spectacular news accounts emerged because of leaked documents that a young Army private, Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning had given to WikiLeaks.
U.S. officials were furious about such information becoming public. They not only prosecuted Manning for espionage—eventually imposing a draconian 35-year prison sentence—but they filed an espionage charge against Assange. The ongoing attacks on him are a bid for censorship powers not seen since the Nixon administration sought to prevent The New York Times and The Washington Postfrom publishing the Pentagon Papers. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the government’s bid for prior restraint. The ruling did not explicitly address the question of whether authorities could prosecute journalists once a story using classified documents was published. However, a succession of administrations have refrained from pursuing that option, and the prevailing assumption was that post-publication attempts at prosecution might run afoul of the courts as well. Individuals who leak items to the press remained as vulnerable as ever to prosecution for espionage, but members of the press have enjoyed de facto immunity. With the Assange case, that situation threatens to change.
U.S. foreign policy mandarins have sought to overturn or at least dilute the Pentagon Papers precedent from the outset. Their preferred alternative is Britain’s Official Secrets Act. Passed in 1911, that statute prohibits news outlets from publishing any information that the government deems confidential. Following the Supreme Court decision, Dean Acheson, one of the key architects of Washington’s post-World War II foreign policy, called for “a severe Official Secrets Act to prevent irresponsible or corrupt transfer of secret papers from the government to publishers.” During the 1980s and 1990s, hawkish types expressed similar attitudes. Michael A. Ledeen, a special adviser to the secretary of state, enthusiastically endorsed the British model. Ledeen was especially upset by the publication of Bob Woodward’s 1987 book Veil, an exposé of CIA dirty tricks. Ledeen stated that “such a book ought not to have been published,” adding that with an American Official Secrets Act, it would not have been.