Trump Espionage Act Prosecution of Julian Assange Threatens Press Freedom

Interview with Kevin Gosztola, managing editor of the investigative news website, conducted by Scott Harris

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested inside Ecuador’s London embassy on April 11, after the South American nation’s President Lenín Moreno withdrew asylum protection. Assange had taken refuge in the diplomatic compound in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over a sexual assault case. 

Assange now faces extradition to the U.S., after the Trump Justice Department unsealed a 17-count indictment against Assange for violating the Espionage Act for his publication of classified military and diplomatic documents in 2010, in addition to one earlier charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. Assange worked with former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who had leaked hundreds of thousands of State Department cables and military files that exposed incidents involving American military misconduct in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Journalists and media outlets across the country have raised the alarm that invoking the Espionage Act is a direct attack on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which if upheld by the courts would criminalize journalists who engage in investigative reporting on national security issues. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Kevin Gosztola, managing editor of and co-host of the podcast, “Unauthorized Disclosure,” who examines the Trump administration’s unprecedented use of the 1917 Espionage Act and the threat it poses to freedom of the press.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: It’s important to recognize that the Obama administration did not charge Julian Assange or anybody else affiliated or associated with WikiLeaks. Back in around 2013 they recognized that they had something called a “New York Times problem.” If they prosecuted Julian Assange, then whatever they used against him could be used to prosecute an editor or a journalist working for the New York Times, including on this material because they published WikiLeaks materials that Chelsea Manning disclosed.

And so, they backed away. But the Donald Trump administration has decided that they would like to make Julian Assange a test case for cracking down on leaks. I believe they see Julian Assange as an easy target because there is so much animosity and hostility toward him as a personality. So they believe that they can use that to their advantage to extradite, bring him to the United States, put him on trial, and use him as a kind of test case to set some confines and also discourage journalists from publishing certain classified information that, especially if you’re talking about Republicans, they believe that should not be published.

Now, there’s a bit of bipartisanship when it comes to cracking down on leaks among Democrats and Republicans. But certainly one would agree that Democrats are less willing to buy into this idea that there should be what you call “prior restraint,” meaning that you could tell a publication not to publish certain information about national security matters. On the other hand, you have quite a loathing among Republicans and they actually were the worst when it came to the WikiLeaks disclosures back in 2010 with people who are Republican even going so far to say that Julian Assange needed to be assassinated. In my opinion, this case is a test run to try to impose some constraints on freedom of the press.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Kevin, if the courts uphold these 17 counts or any number of counts leveled at Julian Assange under the Espionage Act, what would be the impact on journalists and news outlets everywhere across this country?

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Well, in my opinion, it would really discourage people from engaging in what you call national security journalism. For example, everyone might remember the Edward Snowden documents that were published from the NSA (National Security Agency). I think if you were Glenn Greenwald or Laura Poitras, and you are involved in publishing those documents, you would be putting yourself at great risk because the government could then turn around and say, “We have this case where we prosecuted Julian Assange. And not only do we want to prosecute the leaker, we want to go after the journalists because they should have known not to publish classified intelligence.”

It’s important to recognize that what they’re doing in their indictment is they’re arguing that Julian Assange solicited this material from Chelsea Manning and that was how they managed to get this and then publish it. And they’re actually targeting Julian Assange for publication. They’re describing a very standard journalistic interaction that goes on between a source and a publisher. It happens all the time that people talk to each other and the publisher finds out that the source has access to information. Then they build a relationship. They build rapport. They build trust and then they go forward and they get that source to provide documentation for whatever they’re going to expose that’s in the public interest.

BETWEEN THE LINES: The British courts will now decide whether Julian Assange is extradited to the United States to face these charges. There’s also another set of charges from Sweden, I believe, that are pending in British courts, but tell us about the decision that the British courts will have to make about extradition now that these 17 counts under the Espionage Act have been leveled at Julian Assange.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Essentially, what I know from following this case and also following his asylum request which was granted by Ecuador, is that he’s going to probably be arguing that he is charged with a political offense. And that this Espionage Act thing is a crime that carries substantial amount of time in prison: “You send me to the United States, I could be cruelly mishandled because there are supermax prisons where people get put away for 22 hours out of 24 hours of the day.”

And I expect that in the UK and then if he pursues his appeals through the wider European courts that they’ll listen to the sort of humanitarian arguments that will be made. They’ll make a case that the Espionage Act is being pursued politically. They’ll make a case involving freedom of expression and these freedom of press issues that’ll be available in order to try and convince a judge to deny extradition.

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