Assault On The First Amendment

On Thursday, the US Department of Justice announced 17 additional charges against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange who is currently serving a 50 week sentence in London for bail jumping after he was removed from the Ecuadoran embassy. After his arrest last month, Assange was charged with attempting to hack the Pentagon computer system. These new charges all fall under the 1917 Espionage Act. This is the fist time that the US government has brought charges against the publisher of material exposing evidence US war crimes.

The WikiLeaks founder faces a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison in the US if convicted of all the charges against him.

WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, Kristinn Hrafnsson, labelled the new charges facing Assange as “the evil of lawlessness in its purest form”.

He added: “With the indictment, the ‘leader of the free world’ dismisses the First Amendment – hailed as a model of press freedom around the world – and launches a blatant extraterritorial assault outside its border, attacking basic principles of democracy in Europe and the rest of the world.”

The new charges against Assange raise profound questions about the freedom of the press under the first amendment of the US constitution. They may also complicate Washington’s attempts to extradite him from London.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s director of Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, Ben Wizner issued this statement:

For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information. This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration’s attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment. It establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets. And it is equally dangerous for U.S. journalists who uncover the secrets of other nations. If the US can prosecute a foreign publisher for violating our secrecy laws, there’s nothing preventing China, or Russia, from doing the same.

No matter your feelings for Assange or whether you agree that he is a journalist or not, according to Trevor Timm, at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, this sends a chilling message:

Put simply, these unprecedented charges against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are the most significant and terrifying threat to the First Amendment in the 21st century. The Trump administration is moving to explicitly criminalize national security journalism, and if this prosecution proceeds, dozens of reporters at the New York Times, Washington Post and elsewhere would also be in danger. The ability of the press to publish facts the government would prefer remain secret is both critical to an informed public and a fundamental right. This decision by the Justice Department is a massive and unprecedented escalation in Trump’s war on journalism, and it’s no exaggeration to say the First Amendment itself is at risk. Anyone who cares about press freedom should immediately and wholeheartedly condemn these charges.

Robert Mackey at The Intercept argues that charging Assange with esionage, it could make his extradition to the US less likely :

Charging Julian Assange with 17 violations of America’s World War I-era Espionage Act on Thursday, federal prosecutors in Virginia might have undermined their own chances of securing the extradition of the WikiLeaks founder from the United Kingdom.

That’s because the new charges relate not to any arcane interpretation of computer hacking laws, but to WikiLeaks’ publication of hundreds of thousands of American military reports and diplomatic cables provided by the former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010.

The fact that WikiLeaks published many of those documents in collaboration with an international consortium of leading news organizations — including The Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, El País, and Der Spiegel — ensured that the charges against Assange were immediately denounced by journalists and free speech advocates as an unconstitutional assault on press freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. [..]

The uproar could make it easier for Assange’s lawyers in the U.K. — where he is currently serving a 50-week jail term for violating bail — to argue that he is wanted in the United States primarily for embarrassing the Pentagon and State Department, by publishing true information obtained from a whistleblower, making the charges against him political in nature, rather than criminal.

That would make his transfer to Virginia at the end of his jail term in London unlawful, since Article 4 of the U.S.-U.K. extradition treaty, signed in 2003, clearly states that “extradition shall not be granted if the offense for which extradition is requested is a political offense.”

In what could be an attempt by prosecutors to distinguish Assange’s publication of those documents from their use by news organizations, the indictment focuses on cases in which WikiLeaks published military intelligence files that were not redacted to remove the names of Iraqis and Afghans who had provided information to U.S. forces.

Declan Walsh, who was The Guardian’s Pakistan correspondent at the time, recalled that Assange was indifferent to the harm he might cause by revealing those names, but, as the journalist Alexa O’Brien has reported, there appears to be no evidence that any of those individuals were killed as a result of the online disclosures.

British authorities are already faced with a competing extradition request from Sweden, where prosecutors have reopened an investigation of Assange for rape in response to a complaint filed in 2010. That case has already been adjudicated in England’s High Court. After Assange lost his final appeal against extradition to Sweden in 2012, he took refuge in Ecuador’s Embassy in London, where he lived until his asylum was revoked this year.

A British judge will issue a preliminary decision on whether to grant priority to the Swedish request or the American one, but the ultimate decision on Assange’s extradition will be made by a politician, the U.K. home secretary. [..]

Mark Klamberg, a professor in public international law at Stockholm University, argued last month that Assange might even have more legal protection against extradition to the U.S. if he is sent to Sweden, since Swedish law also bars extradition for political offenses, and any decision to send him to the U.S. would require the assent of the U.K. too.

This may take months to resolve since British Prime Minister Theresa May resigned today which will require the appointment of a new government and a new Home Secretary,

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow reports on new criminal charges filed against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and explains why, as detestable a character as Assange may be, the charges are an assault on American press liberties.