Why the Assange Arrest Should Scare Reporters

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Por: Nicolas Lobatón González

Why the Assange Arrest Should Scare Reporters


Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates court on April 11, 2019 in London, England. After weeks of speculation Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was arrested by Scotland Yard Police Officers inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in Central London this morning. Ecuador's President, Lenin Moreno, withdrew Assange's Asylum after seven years citing repeated violations to international conventions.   Jack Taylor/Getty Images

The WikiLeaks founder will be tried in a real court for one thing, but for something else in the court of public opinion.

Julian Assange was arrested in England on Thursday. Though nothing has been announced, there are reports he may be extradited to the United States to face charges related to Obama-era actions.

Here’s the Washington Post on the subject of prosecuting Assange:

A conviction would also cause collateral damage to American media freedoms. It is difficult to distinguish Assange or WikiLeaks from The Washington Post.”

That passage is from a 2011 editorial, “Why the U.S. Shouldn’t Try Julian Assange.”

The Post editorial of years back is still relevant because Assange is being tried for an “offense” almost a decade old. What’s changed since is the public perception of him, and in a supreme irony it will be the government of Donald “I love WikiLeaks” Trump benefiting from a trick of time, to rally public support for a prosecution that officials hesitated to push in the Obama years.

Much of the American media audience views the arrested WikiLeaks founder through the lens of the 2016 election, after which he was denounced as a Russian cutout who threw an election for Trump.

But the current indictment is the extension of a years-long effort, pre-dating Trump, to construct a legal argument against someone who releases embarrassing secrets.

Barack Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, said as far back as 2010 the WikiLeaks founder was the focus of an “active, ongoing criminal investigation.” Assange at the time had won, or was en route to winning, a pile of journalism prizes for releasing embarrassing classified information about many governments, including the infamous “Collateral Murder” video delivered by Chelsea Manning. The video showed a helicopter attack in Iraq which among other things resulted in the deaths of two Reuters reporters.

Last year, we reported a rumored American criminal case against Assange was not expected to have anything to do with 2016, Russians, or DNC emails. This turned out to be the case, as the exact charge is for conspiracy, with Chelsea Manning, to hack into a “classified U.S. government computer.”

The indictment unveiled today falls just short of a full frontal attack on press freedoms only because it indicts on something like a technicality: specifically, an accusation that Assange tried (and, seemingly, failed) to help Manning crack a government password.

For this reason, the language of the indictment underwhelmed some legal experts who had expressed concerns about the speech ramifications of this case before.

“There’s a gray area here,” says University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck. “But the government at least tries to put this at the far end of the gray area.”

Not everyone agreed. Assange lawyer Barry Pollock said the allegations “boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identify of that source.”

“The weakness of the US charge against Assange is shocking,” tweeted Edward Snowden. “The allegation he tried (and failed?) to help crack a password during their world-famous reporting has been public for nearly a decade: it is the count Obama’s DOJ refused to charge, saying it endangered journalism.”

Part of the case clearly describes conduct that exists outside the normal parameters of press-source interaction, specifically the password issue. However, the evidence about this part of the conspiracy seems thin, limited mainly to Assange saying he’d had “no luck so far,” apparently in relation to attempts to crack the password.

The meatier parts of the indictment speak more to normal journalistic practices. In its press release, the Justice Department noted Assange was “actively encouraging Manning” to provide more classified information. In the indictment itself, the government noted Assange told Manning, who said he had no more secrets to divulge, “curious eyes never run dry.”

Also in the indictment: “It is part of the conspiracy that Assange and Manning took measures to conceal Manning as the source of the disclosure.”

Reporters have extremely complicated relationships with sources, especially whistleblower types like Manning, who are often under extreme stress and emotionally vulnerable.

At different times, you might counsel the same person both for and against disclosure. It’s proper to work through all the reasons for action in any direction, including weighing the public’s interest, the effect on the source’s conscience and mental health, and personal and professional consequences.

For this reason, placing criminal penalties on a prosecutor’s interpretation of such interactions will likely put a scare into anyone involved with national security reporting going forward.

As Ben Wizner of the ACLU put it: “Any prosecution by the United States of Mr. Assange for WikiLeaks’ publishing operations would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations.”

Unfortunately, Assange’s case, and the very serious issues it raises, will be impacted in profound ways by things that took place long after the alleged offenses, specifically the Russiagate story. It’s why some reporters are less than concerned about the Assange case today.

About that other thing, i.e. Assange’s role in the 2016 election:

Not only did this case have nothing to do with Russiagate, but in one of the odder unreported details of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, he never interviewed or attempted to interview Assange. In fact, it appears none of the 2800 subpoenas, 500 witness interviews, and 500 search warrants in the Mueller probe targeted Assange or WikiLeaks.

According to WikiLeaks, no one from Mueller’s office ever attempted to get a statement from Assange, any WikiLeaks employee, or any of Assange’s lawyers (the Office of Special Counsel declined comment for this story). A Senate committee did reach out to Assange last year about the possibility of testifying, but never followed up.

As Pollock told me in February, “[Assange] has not been contacted by the OSC or the House.” There was a Senate inquiry, he said, but “it was only an exploratory conversation and has not resulted in any agreement for Mr. Assange to be interviewed.”

Throughout the winter I asked officials and former prosecutors why officials wouldn’t be interested in at least getting a statement from a person ostensibly at the center of an all-consuming international controversy. There were many explanations offered, the least curious being that Assange’s earlier charges, assuming they existed, could pose legal and procedural obstacles.

Now that Assange’s extant case has finally been made public, the concern on that score “dissipates,” as one legal expert put it today.

It will therefore be interesting to see if Assange is finally asked about Russiagate by someone in American officialdom. If he isn’t, that will be yet another curious detail in a case that gets stranger by the minute.

As for Assange’s case, coverage by a national press corps that embraced him at the time of these offenses — and widely re-reported his leaks — will likely focus on the narrow hacking issue, as if this is not really about curtailing legitimate journalism.

In reality, it would be hard to find a more extreme example of how deep the bipartisan consensus runs on expanding the policing of leaks.

Donald Trump, infamously and ridiculously, is a pronounced Twitter fan of WikiLeaks, even comparing it favorably to the “dishonest media.” His Justice Department’s prosecution of Assange seems as counter-intuitive as the constitutional lawyer Barack Obama’s expansion of drone assassination programs.

Both things happened, though, and we should stop being surprised by them — even when Donald Trump takes the last step of journey begun by Barack Obama.

Everything Julian Assange Is Accused of, Explained

From a sexual assault investigation to criminal conspiracy, here’s a breakdown of the accusations against the WikiLeaks founder.

The country of Ecuador withdrew its political asylum for Julian Assange on Thursday, paving the way for the WikiLeaks founder’s arrest in the United Kingdom and possible extradition to the United States. Assange has lived in the country’s London embassy in since June 2012. On Twitter, Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, said the country could no longer abide Assange’s “discourteous and aggressive” behavior, the “hostile and threatening” declarations made by WikiLeaks, nor his “transgressions of international treaties.”

In addition to publishing nearly 20,000 DNC and Clinton campaign emails believed to have been hacked by Russian operatives in the midst of the 2016 election, Assange reportedly failed to clean up after his cat and skateboarded inside the embassy, increasing tensions with his hosts. (They outlined their expectation for Assange’s conduct in a memo this past fall.)

But Assange’s arrest is not related to any efforts to influence the 2016 election nor, contrary to the fears of press freedom advocates in the U.S., do they appear to be related to his role as a publisher. The WikiLeaks founder was taken into custody on Thursday for skipping bail in 2012 when he was wanted for questioning in connection with sex crimes allegedly committed in Sweden, and separately, for allegedly offering assistance in 2010 to an army private attempting to hack the Defense Department.

Coercion, Sexual Molestation, Rape (Sweden)
Back in 2010, the international public prosecution office in Gothenburg, Sweden issued an arrest warrant for Assange after two women came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct. The women, who knew each other and Assange, had similar stories of encounters that began consensually but allegedly devolved into coercive and even violent experiences. Swedish police wanted to question the WikiLeaks founder on suspicion of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion stemming from the incidents with the women, who were referred to by the initials AA and SW. The warrant that was eventually issued detailed four alleged offenses:

  1. Unlawful coercion – On 13-14 August 2010, in the home of the injured party [AA] in Stockholm, Assange, by using violence, forced the injured party to endure his restricting her freedom of movement. The violence consisted in a firm hold of the injured party’s arms and a forceful spreading of her legs whilst lying on top of her and with his body weight preventing her from moving or shifting.
  2. Sexual molestation: On 13-14 August 2010, in the home of the injured party [AA] in Stockholm, Assange deliberately molested the injured party by acting in a manner designed to violate her sexual integrity. Assange, who was aware that it was the expressed wish of the injured party and a prerequisite of sexual intercourse that a condom be used, consummated unprotected sexual intercourse with her without her knowledge.
  3. Sexual molestation: On 18 August 2010 or on any of the days before or after that date, in the home of the injured party [AA] in Stockholm, Assange deliberately molested the injured party by acting in a manner designed to violate her sexual integrity i.e. lying next to her and pressing his naked, erect penis to her body.
  4. Rape – On 17 August 2010, in the home of the injured party [SW] in Enköping, Assange deliberately consummated sexual intercourse with her by improperly exploiting that she, due to sleep, was in a helpless state. It is an aggravating circumstance that Assange, who was aware that it was the expressed wish of the injured party and a prerequisite of sexual intercourse that a condom be used, still consummated unprotected sexual intercourse with her. The sexual act was designed to violate the injured party’s sexual integrity.

Assange has denied any criminal wrongdoing, though according to police documents reviewed by the Guardian, he admitted to having sex with one of the women, AA. (The documents reviewed did not pertain to the fourth accusation by the woman known as SW.)

In September 2010, after Assange was questioned by police and while the investigation was still underway, he left Sweden for the United Kingdom. Swedish prosecutors say Assange fled after his lawyers were alerted their client was to be arrested the same day. Assange would later claim he was “set up,” suggesting the accusations were part of a U.S. conspiracy to destroy WikiLeaks. His lawyer, Mark Stephens, called the alleged victims “honey pots.”

He remained in the United Kingdom for the next two years, fighting his extradition to Sweden. In June 2012, shortly after the Supreme Court of Great Britain rejected his appeal, Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London — where he remained until Thursday.

The Swedish investigation into Assange was “discontinued” in 2017, but not, prosecutors stressed, because they no longer suspected him of a crime, only because they could not formal notify him of the criminal suspicions against him while he remained inside the embassy. Marianne Ny, the director of public prosecution, said at the time, “If he, at a later date, makes himself available, I will be able to decide to resume the investigation immediately.”

On Thursday, it appeared the Swedes were poised to do so. The Swedish Prosecution Authority announced one of the alleged victims had come forward and asked that the case be resumed. “We will now examine the case in order to determine how to proceed,” Eva-Marie Persson, deputy director of public prosecution said in a statement, adding with a note of caution, “The investigation has not yet been resumed, and we do not know today whether it will be.”

She did not give a timetable for a decision; the statute of limitations for the crimes of which Assange is suspected does not run out until 2020.

Failing to Surrender to Court (United Kingdom)
London’s Metropolitan Police entered the Ecuadorian embassy at the invitation of the Ecuadorian ambassador on Thursday. The country withdrew Assange’s asylum “after his repeated violations to international conventions and daily-life protocols.” He was arrested for failing to surrender to court back in June 2012. He booked at a central London police station before appearing in court, where he was found guilty of skipping bail. Two hours after his arrest, the Metropolitan Police announcedthat Assange was “further arrested” on behalf of the United States.

Conspiracy to Commit Computer Intrusion (United States)
After news of his arrest broke, the Justice Department confirmed it was seeking Assange’s extradition to U.S. to face a single count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.

In court documents unsealed Thursday, the Department of Justice alleges Assange agreed in 2010 to help former army private Chelsea Manning crack a password stored on Defense Department computers. (According to the indictment, Assange failed in his efforts.) The indictment describes Manning telling Assange, “after this upload, that’s all I really have got left.” To which Assange replies: “curious eyes never run dry in my experience.”

Manning pleaded guilty in February 2013 to violating military regulations. She was released in 2017 after President Obama commuted her sentence. Manning was subpoenaed to testify against Assange in February of this year and was arrested and held in contempt of court when she refused. She remains in custody today.

If convicted, Assange faces up to five years in prison for the single conspiracy count. The DOJ reportedly expects to bring more charges against him. Assange’s lawyers said Thursday they would fight the extradition request.

Taken from: rollingstone.com

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