With all the threats to civil liberties sprouting in America, the extradition trial of Julian Assange in London may seem a lesser priority. The United States is seeking to extradite Assange to the United States to face charges under the Espionage Act.
But whatever you think of Assange, his indictment is an escalation of the powers the U.S. government uses to control whistleblowers, as Binoy Kampmark reports from the courtroom for Counterpunch.
You have to keep in mind there are two different kinds of whistleblowers in the news, outsiders and insiders. The outsiders use civil disobedience. The insiders use the law. As I wrote here last October
Legal whistleblowers work within the system seeking to make the government work better. Civil disobedience whistleblowers go outside the system (and the law) seeking to change or disrupt government policy. With their very different perspectives on power, the two tribes of whistleblowers aren’t necessarily all that friendly.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. press gives more favorable coverage to legal whistleblowers than civil disobedience whistleblowers.
Former DHS official Brian Murphy, who recently came forward to say Trump officials are suppressing DHS intelligence findings on Russian efforts to influence the election, is a classic insider whistleblower. Murphy is getting a lot of favorable coverage, while Assange is not.
The Assange case shows that both kinds of whistleblowers need defending for the simple reason that the laws the government uses to punish outsiders like Assange can be used to punish an insiders who leak to mainstream journalists.
As Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation explained on the stand in London on Wednesday:
“The decision to indict Julian Assange on allegations of a ‘conspiracy’ between a publisher and his source or potential sources, and for the publication of truthful information, encroaches on fundamental freedoms.” WikiLeaks was a pioneer in secure submission systems such as SecureDrop, one that had been emulated by media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and Al Jazeera. It was incumbent upon journalists that they “develop relationships with their sources” and attempts to punish publishing activity arising from the use of “leaked documents of public importance” would face First Amendment difficulties.
The Espionage Act had been previously floated to punish investigative journalists such as James Risen, James Rosen, Jim Bamford, Ben Bradlee, Seymour Hersh and Neil Sheehan. But the government had always chosen not to go after a journalistic figure. Assange’s arrest and charging in 2019 broke with this tradition.
This trial, it is worth remembering, has nothing to do with Assange’s actions in the 2016 campaign or allegations that he collaborated with Russia’s GRU.
The prosecution countered with the argument that Assange is not a journalist.
A form of fallacious logic came into play: the US Department of Justice had no interest in prosecuting journalists and would be breaching their own prosecutorial guidelines in doing so; Assange was not a journalist, therefore showing appropriate discrimination.
Timm had an appropriate response to this nonsensical approach.
“In the US, the First Amendment protects everyone. Whether you consider Assange a journalist doesn’t matter; he was engaging in journalistic activity.” And if the DOJ was in breach of federal rules, it should follow that they be held accountable.”
Here is Timm’s statement for the record.