Assange’s Arrest Revives Debate on Limits of Free Speech

Early on April 11 U.S. time, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and arrested. According to NBC, the arrest came at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice, who will seek Assange’s extradition on charges of hacking into U.S. government computers. Those charges stem from Assange and WikiLeaks’ role in distributing material obtained from U.S. military files by whistleblower Chelsea Manning. That material provided important insight into American actions in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including documentation of the killing of Iraqi and Afghan civilians.

Assange also appears to face charges for failing to appear in British court in relation to sexual assault charges in Sweden. The charges in Sweden have since been dropped, though Swedish prosecutors maintain Assange’s guilt.

Assange will now face an extradition hearing in the U.K. That hearing, and the debate around his actions, should be of particular interest to those involved in the cryptocurrency world. Assange was an active participant in the so-called “cypherpunk” movement that directly gave birth to the uncensorable digital currency bitcoin. The same commitment to individual privacy and distrust of authorities led Assange to establish WikiLeaks. (Assange even authored a book about the cypherpunk movement.)

Among commentators, responses to Assange’s arrest have been divided. His supporters, who regard WikiLeaks as a journalistic entity, argue the arrest has dire implications for global press freedom. The London-based Center for Investigative Journalism, which has worked with WikiLeaks, issued a statement noting that “WikiLeaks is a publisher. Any charges now brought in connection with that material, or any attempt to extradite Mr Assange to the United States for prosecution … is an attack on all of us.” Journalist Glen Greenwald describes the arrest and charges as “the criminalization of journalism.”

Edward Snowden, whose leaks about U.S. government spying were also published by WikiLeaks, described the arrest as “a dark moment for press freedom.”

More neutral observers have expressed similar fears. A statement from the American Civil Liberties Union claims that “Any prosecution by the United States of Mr. Assange for WikiLeaks’ publishing operations would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations.” Matthew Ingram of the Columbia Journalism Review, writing in November of 2018 about leaks indicating the U.S. would level charges against Assange, noted that “receiving classified documents from a source and then publishing them is something many media organizations do routinely.” The U.S. has reportedly been reluctant to charge Assange until now for this very reason—what Ingram calls “the New York Times problem.” Because publications including the Times have published portions of the classified documents distributed by WikiLeaks, charging Assange could also invite broader attacks on the media. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias made a similar point this morning.

Those misgivings came before the specific charges against Assange were unsealed this morning, and the DOJ seems to have at least superficially circumvented the “New York Times problem.” Assange is being charged not with publishing classified materials, but with directly participating in Manning’s hack by cracking a password to a U.S. Department of Defense computer, as well as “actively encouraging” her to exfiltrate more information.

However, Trevor Timm, Executive Director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, has described even these charges as “pretty flimsy,” pointing out that the Assange’s alleged assistance came after WikiLeaks received from Manning all of the documents they ultimately published. That would suggest the specific charges are an expedient workaround to allow an attack on a publisher.

If what we know about Assange and WikiLeaks stopped there, there might be consensus that the charges are a pure power play by U.S. authorities—vindictive punishment for Assange’s role in repeatedly embarrassing the military-industrial-intelligence complex. Some nationalists have always regarded Assange, Snowden, and Manning as enemies of the U.S. But the information they uncovered was widely seen as a form of healthy transparency, particularly in the case of an Iraq War that Americans across the political spectrum have come to see as deeply misguided. By 2017, this view became widespread enough that President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence for her actions—the same actions that Assange may now be extradited for aiding.

However, Assange’s actions since his work with Manning have colored responses to his arrest. Some cheered the move against Assange on the grounds that WikiLeaks had abandoned the neutrality of a “publisher” and morphed into a primarily political entity involved in espionage. That belief seems, particularly for some longtime supporters of former Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, to override broader concerns about freedom of the press and government abuse of power.

One representative defense of Assange’s arrest came from Neera Tanden, head of the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Tanden focused on WikiLeaks’ distribution of damaging emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee by Russian agents during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

Assange does appear to have opposed and disliked Clinton, and in at least one instance, WikiLeaks attempted to coordinate its data dumps with the Trump presidential campaign, requesting access to some of Trump’s tax returns in exchange. Those attempts appear to have met with little interest from the Trump campaign. Events surrounding the election are not referenced in the charges Assange is now facing, and political bias alone does not rob an organization of freedom of speech (just ask Fox News).

Nonetheless, a Salon politics writer drew connections between Assange’s arrest, the rape charges against him, his “hatred” of Hillary Clinton, and WikiLeaks’ distribution of the DNC emails.

WikiLeaks has also been frequently posited as a factor in alleged collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence. But according to the nonpartisan Politifact, there is as yet no clear evidence that WikiLeaks collaborated with Russia to acquire or distribute the DNC emails. The report on Russian election interference recently filed by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, though it resulted in no charges of foreign collaboration against the Trump camp, may clarify the role of WikiLeaks if and when more of it is released.

Many have highlighted a hypocrisy in such sentiments: the same political faction that vilified President George W. Bush for his actions in Iraq is now drawing knives on a man who helped expose those actions.

Even the left-leaning Washington Post has highlighted the temptation for liberals to celebrate Assange’s arrest, and warned against giving in to it.

There is a line of reasoning, then, that leads from WikiLeaks’ apparent partisan motives during the 2016 election, toward the idea that the organization is a tool or ally of Russian intelligence efforts, and therefore doesn’t deserve basic free-speech protections. But that argument appears to be a tenuous one, and it may open the door to a much larger threat: a U.S. government free and eager to pursue and imprison those who reveal unpleasant facts.