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Assange’s plea deal sets a chilling precedent, but it could have been worse


Plea Agreement WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has reached Clashes with prosecutors are bad for press freedom in America. But the outcomes could be worse.

The deal, finalized Wednesday in a remote U.S. federal court in the western Pacific, clears the way for him. Free walking He had previously spent more than five years in British custody, much of which he spent fighting extradition to the United States, in exchange for pleading guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act.

The legal dispute, which ended in ambiguity, jeopardized the ability of journalists to report on military, intelligence or diplomatic information that officials consider secret. The First Amendment right of a free press to reveal information beyond what those in power approve is a fundamental principle of American self-government.

The agreement means that for the first time in U.S. history, the collection and publication of information the government considers secret has been successfully criminalized. The new precedent will send a threatening message to national security journalists, who may be deterred from doing their work because of the greater risk of prosecution.

But its reach was also limited, averting a larger threat. Because Assange agreed to a deal that he would not challenge the legality of applying the Espionage Act to his actions, the outcome avoided the risk that the case could lead to a Supreme Court ruling that would approve prosecutors’ narrow interpretation of the First Amendment’s freedom of the press.

“He’s basically acknowledging what journalists have always done and must do,” said Jamil Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “It will cast a shadow on press freedom — but it’s a different shadow than judicial decisions that say this activity is criminal and not protected by the First Amendment.”

In short, he added, the results are mixed from a press freedom perspective and can’t be seen as “all bad, and can’t be seen as all good.”

The case’s interpretation of the First Amendment has often been influenced by a fierce debate over whether Assange is a journalist and by Democrats’ anger over his role in hacking Democratic emails during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Assange chose to release the information obtained by Russian hackers at an appropriate time to attack Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and undermine National Party Congress and then Steadily share batches In the final stages of the campaign.

But what matters for press freedom is not who counts as a journalist, but whether journalistic activity—whether by journalists or others—can be considered a crime. Moscow secretly helps Donald J. Trump Won the 2016 election.

Instead, the charges focus on early publications that brought him notoriety and made him a hero to the anti-war left: A video A US helicopter shot and killed civilians in Baghdadincluding a Reuters photographer; Military incident records documenting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; 250,000 diplomatic cables U.S. embassies from around the world; Files on Guantanamo Detainees.

this Narrow crime information The charges Assange pleaded guilty to mainly consisted of one count of conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act. Court documents said Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning and Assange agreed that she would send him national security documents, even though he did not have a security clearance, and that he would then “communicate those documents” to other persons who were also “not authorized to receive” them — that is, publish them.

It was once extremely rare to charge a government official with a security clearance with leaking national security information for press releases, but In the 21st century, such prosecutions have become the norm. The Justice Department began regularly charging leak cases in the middle of the Bush administration and has continued the pattern through successive administrations.

Ms. Manning was part of that wave, despite being charged by the military justice system, pleading guilty in a 2013 military tribunal and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Most of the sentences were commuted in January 2017; She has been detained for a total of about seven years since her arrest.

But successfully prosecuting a non-government official for obtaining national security information of public interest while working with a source is different. No one has ever been charged under the Espionage Act for journalistic conduct, in part because it has long been widely believed that applying the statute to such conduct is unconstitutional.

The charges against Assange thus cross a line. They suggest that the 21st-century crackdown on leakers could expand to include criminalizing the same kinds of disclosures that highlighted events after September 11, 2001, including abuses such as warrantless wiretapping and torture, as well as everyday news reporting on military, intelligence or diplomatic affairs that helps people better understand the world.

The Bush administration’s Justice Department took the first step in that direction after a Pentagon official leaked classified intelligence about Iran to two lobbyists for the pro-Israel group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In addition to indicting the official (who pleaded guilty), prosecutors in 2005 went after the two lobbyists—even though they were not officials and had no security clearances—and Further spreading secrets to journalists.

But a judge made a questionable ruling that weakened the case, and The Obama-era department eliminated it in 2009..

The following year, after Assange began publishing Ms. Manning’s leaks, Justice Department officials began to consider whether he could be charged with a crime. Setting a precedent This could be used against mainstream news outlets like The New York Times, which also sometimes collect and publish information the government considers confidential.

Yet the Trump administration’s Justice Department went ahead with its case against Assange, filing a secret criminal complaint in late 2017 and obtaining a sealed grand jury indictment a few months later. The move ensured that the government could seek his arrest and extradition if he left the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had been holed up for years.

The initial indictment The issue of press freedom has been largely avoided Indicted Assange on narrow charges, accusing him of participating in a conspiracy related to hacking. But in 2019, the Justice Department Espionage Act charges addedtaking a gamble and turning it into a major test of the First Amendment.

The Biden administration moved forward with plans to extradite Assange to face criminal trial on all of these charges after taking office in 2021. The Biden-era Justice Department also reached a plea deal in the case, dropping the hacking-related charges but winning a conviction under the Espionage Act.

While the case is unlikely to give the Supreme Court an opportunity to limit press freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, the government is still using Assange as an example, which may well cause some national security journalists to give up reporting important news for fear of facing similar prosecution.

If the free flow of news information to the public is indeed impeded in the future, thereby undermining America’s democratic system, officials from both administrations should bear joint responsibility.

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