NYT Condemns Julian Assange's Espionage Act Case—3 Years After Indictment
In a joint letter to the Biden administration, major news organizations raised concerns about the prosecution of the WikiLeaks publisher. But is it too little, too late?
We'll never forget it.
On assignment for an alt-weekly in New York, we were inside the courtroom and adjacent media center at Fort Meade, a U.S. Army installation and home of the National Security Agency (NSA) and U.S. Cyber Command, for the court martial of former U.S. Army Private First Class Chelsea Manning, and naively expected to be fighting for laptop space with a crowd of eager journalists. After all, the most famous whistleblower since Daniel Ellsberg was being court-martialed for exposing corruption, war crimes, and other unsavory misdeeds by the U.S. government during the brutal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Manning's trial was also a test of the country's precarious civil liberties amid an ever-encroaching security state, growing war machine, and broad attacks on journalism, especially as it related to whistleblowers.
As we surveyed the scene that day, disbelief quickly set in. Yes, there were journalists there—very good ones, actually. One had been documenting the proceedings for the Associated Press, the country's premier wire service, another had been covering the trial routinely for the Huffington Post, while most others represented independent outlets that had very few resources—yet they came, day after day, to make sure one of the most consequential prosecutions in modern history was being documented. The message from absent mainstream media circles couldn't be any more clear, though: They didn’t care, proving their borderline-religious rhetoric about their role in American society hollow. If they truly cared about democracy, about press freedoms, about the ability of a single person to question authority and expose darkness, they would've been there—and not just on days that promised explosive or headline-grabbing testimony.
We’ll come back to that—and other examples in a bit—because their early and sustained silence demands accountability. Yes, of course, we’re incredibly happy that deep-pocketed media outlets are finally taking a stand in this critical, critical, critical case. We just want to make sure the public knows the truth, the whole story.
We were compelled to call all this out upon hearing of the recent letter from a consortium of media outlets, The New York Times among them, against WikiLeaks co-founder and publisher Julian Assange’s extradition case and potential Espionage Act trial in the United States. These were the same outlets that more than a decade earlier had teamed up to report on the contents of the documents Manning provided to WikiLeaks.
“This indictment sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s first amendment and the freedom of the press,” The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and El País, warns in a joint letter.
“This group of editors and publishers, all of whom had worked with Assange, felt the need to publicly criticize his conduct in 2011 when unredacted copies of the cables were released, and some of us are concerned about the allegations in the indictment that he attempted to aid in computer intrusion of a classified database,” they wrote. “But we come together now to express our grave concerns about the continued prosecution of Julian Assange for obtaining and publishing classified materials.”
Assange in 2019 was indicted on 17 counts under the archaic, World War I-era Espionage Act. The law, which we documented in a previous episode, was originally intended to target spies. Congress later passed an amendment making it illegal to “willfully utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the Constitution of the United States” and to “publish any language intended to incite, provoke, or encourage resistance to the United States, or to promote the cause of its enemies.”
Perhaps the most notable figure to be charged and prosecuted under the law at the time was the socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs. Such cases, however, became exceedingly rare over the proceeding decades, until Daniel Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act for leaking the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of the Vietnam War, to The New York Times.
“The government came up with a cockamamie claim that the Espionage Act covered the publication of the Pentagon Papers. I say it's cockamamie because no one had ever thought the Espionage Act—passed in 1918, and we're now talking about 1971—applied to publication,” James Goodale, the lawyer that represented the Times in the Pentagon Papers, previously told News Beat.
Ellsberg and the Times both prevailed in the end, but the Pentagon Papers case suggested a new, unsettling period was on the horizon for the U.S. media.
Decades later, Ellsberg and the Times would be replaced by the likes of Manning and WikiLeaks—with Assange as the public face of the organization. Manning, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison, had her sentence commuted by then-President Obama after she served seven years. Assange, who is being held in the U.K. as he awaits a decision about whether he’ll be extradited to the United States for trial, may yet face the wrath of the U.S. Department of Justice, which has a near spotless record in Espionage Act cases.
That brings us to the letter from the Times and others. While we’re highly critical of corporate media outlets for a great many reasons, it’s encouraging that some of the most influential media outlets in the world have decided to publicly back Assange. But we also have to be honest: It shouldn’t have taken this long. Assange was indicted three years ago and spent many more years in self-imposed imprisonment at the Ecuadorian embassy in London before his stay was revoked in 2019. Whatever misgivings or disagreements the larger media ecosystem had with Assange are secondary to his status as a publisher. Now it’s becoming increasingly likely that Assange will face the wrath of a government that despises him—so much so that there was a plan to kidnap and assassinate him—the media is growing concerned about its own culpability in future leak cases.
The Assange episode is just one of many instances in which the mainstream media has undermined its central obligation—to hold the powerful accountable and expose corruption and wrongdoing, and yes, to advocate for and protect the courageous sources that enable such journalism to happen in the first place.
One of the most glaring examples is from the Washington Post, which in 2016 published an editorial dismissing a potential pardon for NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The Post editorial board essentially challenged Snowden to return to the United States and face a prosecution they surely knew would result in a years-long prison sentence, and criticized him for accepting asylum status in Russia—the country where he was marooned after U.S. officials revoked his passport. This is the very same newspaper that gladly accepted and celebrated the Pulitzer Prize it earned for its NSA reporting!
Also of note, the Post editorial bizarrely lamented that Snowden “pilfered” documents related to the NSA’s PRISM program—a program that the Post itself reported on. Criticisms of Snowden aside, it’s remarkable that the Post was arguing against the news value of a subject that its own reporters covered with great fanfare just a few years earlier.
As we come full circle, let’s consider the decision by the Times to publish a piece that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers. The op-ed, which seems to accept that the revelations contained within the then-secretive history of the Pentagon Papers were newsworthy, actually paints Ellsberg as the villain—not the presidents or countless officials that lied about the deadly war!
“But consider an opposing view. By leaking the secret study, Mr. Ellsberg was engaged in nothing less than an assault on democracy itself,” it states.
The author, writing in the Times, argues that all leaks are unacceptable—although nothing is said about approved government leaks that occur routinely in Washington, such as those that inform the underlying narrative of movies that function as CIA propaganda like “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“Given that the leaking of national-security secrets is a venture fraught with moral uncertainty, Mr. Ellsberg’s legacy is at best mixed,” the piece continues. “One can admire the single-minded tenacity with which he pursued his aim of ending the Vietnam War. And one can take note of the fact that he neither directly endangered national security nor accomplished (at least in the short term) his main objective of turning public opinion against the war.
“But he was still a rogue actor, who if the fundamental ground rules of our constitutional democracy are to be respected, deserves a measure of condemnation along with the celebration that he has already earned.”
It’s with this much-needed context that we read letters of support from prominent media organizations for people like Assange.
Does the Times deserve to be lauded for publicly standing up to a DOJ that in recent years has used its power to utterly destroy whistleblowers? Sure.
But in this case, it may be too little too late.
Much of the corporate media, for all their genuflecting about democracy, has abandoned the core principles of journalism.
And that’s why we so appreciate the motley crew of journalists who reported on the Manning trial with such vigor and diligence during those days back at Ft. Meade. With no official transcripts provided by the government, they knew it was up to them to tell the rest of the world what was happening in a courtroom on the grounds of a U.S. Army installation that happened to be the headquarters of one of the most powerful spy operations in the world.
Perhaps if powerful media organizations used their influence over the last two decades to push back against an unprecedented wave of whistleblower prosecutions, they wouldn’t be in a situation in which they’re now in legal jeopardy for publishing classified information. With press freedoms currently under threat, they’ve decided to fight back via a strongly worded letter.
“Publishing is not a crime,” the letter correctly asserts.
Unfortunately, they should’ve been shouting that out from their corporate rooftops in defense of people like Manning, Snowden, John Kiriakou, Thomas Drake, Jeffrey Sterling, Reality Winner, and so many others, years ago. Instead, they waited for the threat to reach their doorsteps. It’s arrived. And journalism may never be the same.
For more on the United States’ war on whistleblowers and the erosion of the free press, check out these episodes:
This episode seeks to rectify that narrative and detail the significance and ongoing horrors of Chelsea Manning’s leaks.
How an anti-spy law evolved into a weapon aimed at the free press.
This is the story of how whistleblowers and journalists became the targets of a national security state obsessed with secrecy.
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