I have stayed out of the WikiLeaks scrum to date, mainly because the relatively few cables published to date (only 1,269 of the more than 250,000 cables they possess have been released so far) did not provide that much new on the subjects I normally write on as opposed to just confirming or further supporting previous knowledge and/or suppositions. This is certainly not to say they have not been interesting reading or useful to many others, the WikiLeaks material has been all that.
But now comes the bellicose fixation of the United States government on criminally prosecuting WikiLeak’s editor-in-chief Julian Assange. What started out as the usual idiotic yammering of Rep. Peter King and Sen. Joe Lieberman has turned into an apparently dedicated and determined effort by the Department of Justice to charge Assange. As the following discussion will demonstrate, it will require dicey and novel extrapolation of legal theories and statutes to even charge Assange, much less actually convict him.
The interesting thing is this type of prosecution flies directly in the face of the written charging guidelines of the DOJ which prescribe a prosecution should be brought only where the admissible facts and evidence are “sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction”. As we have seen in so many instances over the last few years, the DOJ uses this requirement to decline prosecution on a whole host of matters they simply do not want to touch, even where the evidence for conviction of serious crimes is crystal clear and unequivocal. Take for instance the case on the blatant destruction of the abu-Zubaydah and al-Nashiri torture tapes for instance (see here and here), where the DOJ and John Durham used just this basis to decline prosecution because the DOJ just does not, you know, go out on limbs.
So, why would the Obama Administration be so aggressive against Assange when doing so flies in the face of their written guidelines and standard glib protocol? Is it really all about prosecuting Assange? That would be hard to believe; more likely it is not just to monkeywrench Assange and WikiLeaks, but to send a hard and clear prior restraint message to the American press. This is almost surely confirmed by the rhetoric of Joe Lieberman, who is rarely more than a short ride away from his disciple and friend Barack Obama on such matters, and who is making noises about also prosecuting the New York Times.
Never before has the Espionage Act, nor other provisions of the criminal code, been applied to First Amendment protected American press in the manner being blithely tossed around by US officials in the WikiLeak wake. Avoidance of First Amendment press and publication has been not just the general position of the DOJ historically, it has been borne out by significant caselaw over the years. If you need a primer on the hands off attitude that has been the hallmark of treatment of press entities, you need look no further than New York Times v. United States, aka the “Pentagon Papers Case”. In NYT v. US, the government could not even use the Espionage Act in a civil context against the press, much less a criminal one as they propose for Assange, without being forcefully shot down. Daniel Ellsberg is right when he says that “Every attack now made on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was made against me”.
The Barack Obama Administration, who rode into office on a platform and promise of less secrecy, more transparency and a respect for Constitutional principles, has proved itself time and again to be anything but what it advertised. And to the uninformed populous as a whole, ill served by the American press that is being pinched in this process, Julian Assange presents an attractive vehicle for this prior restraint demagoguery by the US government. The public, especially without strong pushback and fight from the press, will surely bite off on this craven scheme. Read more