For the first time in US history, a publisher of information has been indicted under the Espionage Act. Hours ago, the DOJ announced they were bringing 17 Espionage Act charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. This is an addition to a previous charge of conspiring to crack a password to a DOD computer. All of these charges stem from WikiLeaks’s decision to publish information provided to it by whistleblower Chelsea Manning. This trove of documents contained information about US war crimes and general misconduct. In publishing these documents, WikiLeaks worked with a variety of international news outlets, including The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spegel, Le Monde and Al Jazeera. There is little question that publishing this information was in the public interest.
Espionage Act prosecutions against whistleblowers who give information to the media used to be a rarity. However, during the administration of Barack Obama, this practice became the norm. The Trump Administration has further cemented our authoritarian new normal with their Espionage Act indictments against whistleblowers Reality Winner, Terry Albury, and Daniel Hale.
In spite of the unprecedented war on whistleblowers, the Obama administration decline to prosecute Assange under the Espionage act. Their reasoning for doing so was simple–such charges would be an erosion of press freedom. Charges have never been brought against a publisher under the Espionage Act, because it has long been accepted that such a move would be unconstitutional. As the general counsel for the New York Times has warned, prosecuting WikiLeaks for publishing classified information would open the door to prosecuting the New York Times for similar acts. Given that the New York Times, along with many other major media outlets, published parts of the information in question, as it served as the basis for their stories, this warning is particularly on point.
The U.S. government has fought to keep secret its program of disappearances and torture, detention sites, and even what countries it bombs. But it isn’t just official secrecy that has helped obscure the nature of U.S. wars. Evidence of the human toll of U.S. wars isn’t hard to find. It’s certainly not a secret to those in other countries who live it daily. But for much of the mainstream U.S. media, there is little if any true reckoning with the civilian cost of war. WikiLeaks is currently in the crosshairs of the U.S. government, because it challenged this secrecy head on. Its fate will impact all those who wish to shine light on the U.S. empire.
Today’s indictments against Assange are both an unprecedented attack on press freedom and an attempt to silence those who would expose US governmental misconduct.