The recent arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has provoked a wide spectrum of responses in the media, but many journalists seem to recognize the Trump administration's attack on the publisher as setting a dangerous precedent for freedom of the press. Many reports have focused on what Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer deems a mischaracterization of Assange's character that is used to justify a heinous persecution and bury the fact that Assange, in his publishing of news, has acted much like any newspaper.
"It's kind of a shame that we have to say, put in this disclaimer, 'whatever you think of Julian Assange,'" the Truthdig editor in chief tells his guest, Bruce Shapiro, in the latest installment of "Scheer Intelligence." "Because of course, any whistleblower is going to be attacked, and it's the traditional argument of shooting the messenger. ["] Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning more spectacularly ["] distributed at least 700,000 military, war and diplomatic records. And there is no question of the news value of those records, the right of the public to know that information, the need of the public to know that information. There has not been one documented example of an injury or death as a result of the release of that information."
Shapiro, a contributing editor to The Nation and the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is concerned about the ethical question surrounding the alleged assistance the WikiLeaks founder proffered whistleblower Chelsea Manning when she was trying to crack a password. And yet, the potential use of the Espionage Act, which Shapiro reminds us, "has never been used against a journalist in the history of the United States, or against a publisher" is far more disconcerting to Shapiro.
"The danger to press freedom by allowing the government to root around in source relationships like this far outweighs whatever my judgments on Assange's own character or state of mind may be," Shapiro tells Scheer. "I think what we have to focus on now is how the government is " exploiting, you know, the complicating factors of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks to undermine all kinds of watchdog reporting here in the United States."
What's at stake, in other words, is not one man's life but rather the very essence of the press freedoms the U.S. was founded on. Assange's arrest is about national security reporting, the criminalization of source-journalist relationships involving leaking and, more broadly, an "attempt to criminalize investigative reporting," Shapiro argues. The Nation contributor also notes the courage behind Manning's decision to return to jail rather than take further part in the government investigation into Assange.
"Chelsea Manning is doing something that I find unprecedented in the history of American journalism," Shapiro says. "We often hear, or from time to time hear, about journalists going to jail to protect a source. I've never before heard of a source willingly go to jail to protect a journalist."
Listen to the entire discussion between the two journalists regarding Assange, the rare heroism of whistleblowers and the government's menacing assault on the First Amendment. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the media player and find past episodes of "Scheer Intelligence" here.
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of "Scheer Intelligence," where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it's Bruce Shapiro, a contributing editor to The Nation magazine and the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. And we're here to discuss -- I'm probably misusing the concept of trauma as you define it. But the presence of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, has been traumatic for his critics, and certainly in the Democratic Party and elsewhere, and even for journalists. And he's now been charged by the U.S. government with a single count of violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, for attempting unsuccessfully to understand a password or change it; he failed. And that's led to the arrest and extradition attempt to take him from England to face this charge, and presumably other charges can be added on. And you have, the reason I wanted to talk to you, Bruce Shapiro, is that you wrote a number of articles, but most recently in The Nation, the indictment of Julian Assange as a threat to press freedom. So can you basically summarize your view of this?
Bruce Shapiro: Sure. And I suppose I should start by saying that my view of this is that it's a mess. It's contradictory, it's complicated. And I think it's important to separate, for this conversation, whatever personal views or political views we may have of Julian Assange as an individual, or WikiLeaks as an institution. And instead, look at the indictment and say, what are its implications for the work of journalism and journalists, what are its implications for publishing, what are its implications for free expression. That's what I've tried to do. A lot of news organizations, I think, have kind of stepped back from Assange with the revelation in this indictment that he seemed to be actively trying to crack a government password at the request of his source, Chelsea Manning. Usual press practice would be to accept leaked materials, but not to participate actively in the breaking into the file cabinet, whether a real file cabinet or a virtual one. And because he crossed that line, some free press folks have said, Oh, that's it, we don't need to worry about it anymore.
I disagree strongly. And it's for a couple of reasons. First of all, the underlying charge is not just the limited charge of having tried to crack a password; that's sort of a predicate to get him extradited and maybe add more later, who knows. But even in this limited indictment, it's a conspiracy charge. The indictment charges Assange and Chelsea Manning with conspiracy, and in particular conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act, which has never been used against a journalist in the history of the United States, or against a publisher. And the nature of that conspiracy is everything surrounding this act of purported password-cracking back in 2010. The indictment details Assange's conversations with Manning, his attempt to reassure her that the effort was worth it, sort of cajoling, stroking. Talks about them discussing how best to protect her, to cover her tracks. This is the kind of conversation that journalists -- especially those who report on national security, but other kinds of investigative reporters, too -- have with sources every day. And so this indictment in order to get to this limited act of password-cracking, is criminalizing the work, the day-to-day work of investigative reporting. That seems to me to be very dangerous. I think the government, the Trump administration is counting on a lot of people's dislike of Julian Assange personally to get this through to, to establish the precedent for criminalizing investigative reporters' relationships with leakers.
You know, the Obama administration, which was no friend of whistleblowers -- which prosecuted more whistleblowers than any administration in history -- the Obama administration looked at this same material and concluded that it would intrude on the First Amendment, that it would be a threat to freedom of the press, to prosecute Assange. It wasn't worth it to them. The Trump administration, now Secretary of State Pompeo, formerly the head of national intelligence, the Trump Justice Department, now under Attorney General Barr, have decided for political reasons, I think, to turn around that decision by the Obama Justice Department and go after Mr. Assange. Again, whatever you think of Assange, the question is, what are the implications of this indictment for the practice of investigative reporting? And that worries me very much.
RS: Yeah, it's kind of a shame that we have to say, put in this disclaimer, "whatever you think of Julian Assange." Because of course, any whistleblower is going to be attacked, and it's the traditional argument of shooting the messenger. The fact of the matter is, there's two points to be made. First of all, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning more spectacularly, and the real victim of prosecution here so far, has -- you know, they distributed at least 700,000 military, war, and diplomatic records. And there is no question of the news value of those records, the right of the public to know that information, the need of the public to know that information. There has not been one documented example of an injury or death as a result of the release of that information. So the rump of this whole issue here, the documents that were released, that really showed evidence of serious war crimes, the killing of civilians, shooting of reporters, everything else -- no one has gone for jail on the other end. No one has, you know, been held accountable for any of those crimes. And Chelsea Manning, of course, has been prosecuted, and then was pardoned and is now back in jail because she won't cooperate with the grand jury, having said she has said everything she can. The interesting thing here is that Julian Assange is in the position -- the same the New York Times and the Washington Post were in the Pentagon Papers case.
BS: Well, you know -- yeah.
RS: Ellsberg was Chelsea Manning, and the fact of the matter is, whether you like the publication or not, basically with the exception of this breaking the password charge, Julian Assange is a publisher. And the interesting thing is that Chelsea Manning, who supplied the password, was not charged with this, and with this failed effort. And this was used, again, to drag Julian Assange into a court in England.