Saturday, April 13, 2019
I've been listening to National Public Radio's coverage this week on the arrest of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and the reporting has generally been abysmal. In other words, it has been par for the course.
At least four things have stood out to me in the NPR coverage I have heard. First, the NPR reporting on the withdrawn (but possibly soon-to-be resumed) Swedish sexual assault investigation has consistently failed to fully report Assange's position. As Wired noted nearly two years ago: "Assange has always maintained that extradition to Sweden was a thin ruse intended to make him vulnerable to further extradition to the United States, where it's widely believed that a secret grand jury for years was investigating him for WikiLeaks-related crimes." (I offer no judgment on the veracity of Assange's protestations that he was innocent of the Swedish allegations.)
Second, the range of guests NPR has hosted on the Assange segments has generally run the gamut from "I don't like Assange much" to "I really dislike the treacherous Assange". For instance, on the day Assange was arrested NPR interviewed Leon Panetta, secretary of defense and CIA director during Obama administration.
(NPR thought it not worth mentioning that Panetta was also Bill Clinton's OMB director and, later, chief of staff or that Panetta endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016. Less than three months before the election, Panetta also went to bat for her regarding alleged Clinton Foundation improprieties during her tenure as Secretary of State. In 2017, Clinton blamed Wikileaks, in part, for her 2016 loss to Donald Trump. And why mention that less than a year ago the DNC filed a lawsuit against Wikileaks?)
Predictably, Panetta is in favor of the extradition and prosecution of Assange: "So I think ... as a result of the impact of releasing this classified information that he ought to be subject to the laws of the United States and face our system of justice." He also raised the Clinton defeat: "Well, there's no question that there was a huge amount of attention, particularly to WikiLeaks and the impact of WikiLeaks on the 2016 election. There's no question that as a result of the information that he was able to release, it had a huge impact in terms of our politics ..." In response to a question about a recent Tweet by Edward Snowden on Assange's arrest, Panetta avoided commenting on the substance of Snowden's position and launched an ad hominem attack.
Third, NPR on-air personalities and guests have repeatedly made (or declined to challenge the accuracy or relevance of) the claim that Assange/Wikileaks are not covered by the 1st Amendment because they allegedly released classified material without redactions of sensitive material.
Just today, NPR hosted former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin, who asserted Assange is not a "legitimate journalist", in part, because Assange allegedly declined to redact material that "mainstream journalists" wanted him to remove and, further, that Assange wouldn't even listen "to that case [for redactions]". McLaughlin makes this claim twice in the segment and it is never challenged.
I am unaware of any "not enough redactions" exception to the freedom of the press. Moreover, in October 2010, CNN reported:
With the posting of 400,000 classified documents from the Iraq war, WikiLeaks has shown a much heavier hand redacting compared to its previous publication of documents.Assange's role in the alleged failure to redact names in the July leak is not discussed in the CNN article, which does go on to say concerning later releases: "An initial comparison of a few documents redacted by WikiLeaks to the same documents released by the Department of Defense shows that WikiLeaks removed more information from the documents than the Pentagon" (emphasis added). Yep, Wikileaks apparently withheld more information than the US military but you're not likely to learn that on NPR.
After the leak in July of more than 70,000 Afghanistan War documents, the website was heavily criticized by the U.S. government, the military and human rights groups for failing to redact names of civilians in the documents, putting them at risk of retaliation by the Taliban.
In the same piece CNN also reported: "Even with redaction, the Pentagon is critical of the documents' release, saying the site had no right to publish and is not equipped to understand what information is harmful." This seems to suggest that Wikileaks failure to redact what the military wanted redacted was due to incompetence or negligence, not malice. In any case, where does the 1st Amendment require journalists to keep secret what the government wants kept secret?
Finally, it is striking that NPR's coverage has featured very little discussion of the substance of the actual charges against Assange' let alone the substance of the material Chelsea Manning provided for Wikileaks to publish (see e.g. the video below). The unsealed federal grand jury indictment is only seven pages long and pretty straightforward but NPR has instead covered ancillary issues, such as Assange's cat, with the seeming goal of smearing and convicting Assange in the court of public opinion.
Assange's purported crime appears to be agreeing to help Manning crack a government password (Indictment, para. 7). However, the indictment also indicates that Assange's assistance did not extend to him actively accessing a restricted government computer system. Thus, paragraph 9 of the indictment speaks of "the portion of the password Manning gave to Assange". At first glance this seems analogous to asking Assange, from afar, for help opening a physical combination safe. It's akin to Assange saying "try this combination" while not turning the dial himself or even being in the same room.
If it's illegal for a journalist to help someone from afar break the password of a computer file or crack a safe then would it also be illegal to open/unseal a stolen envelope clearly marked "Top Secret" and containing classified material or turn the pages of a stolen document clearly marked "Top Secret"? What about helping to decipher an encrypted text? If not, why not? What's the substantive difference between these acts?
To be clear, if Assange sat at a keyboard and unlawfully attempted to access classified files while they were still stored on a government system then that would seem to be an overt, illegal act. However, that's not what Assange is accused of doing.
He is accused of conspiring to help Chelsea Manning do that and, under the particular circumstances, that seems a little fuzzier, especially when something as important as the 1st Amendment is in play. But as Glenn Greenwald puts it:
Neither the most authoritarian factions of the Trump administration behind this prosecution, nor their bizarre and equally tyrannical allies in the Democratic Party, care the slightest about press freedoms. They only care about one thing: putting Julian Assange behind bars, because (in the case of Trump officials) he revealed U.S. war crimes and because (in the case of Democrats) he revealed corruption at the highest levels of the DNC that forced the resignation of the top 5 officials of the Democratic Party and harmed the Democrats’ political reputation.
Collateral Murder - short version
Download the US indictment of Assange here (PDF): https://www.justice.gov/usao-edva/press-release/file/1153481/download
Here, in no particular order, are some alternative views on the Assange arrest that you're not likely to hear represented on NPR:
- "7 Years of Lies About Assange Won't Stop Now" Consortium News
- "Julian Assange's Arrest Should Worry Anyone Who Cares About Freedom of the Press" The Nation
- "EFF Statement on Assange Indictment and Arrest" The Electronic Frontier Foundation
- "Espionage? Computer Crimes? The DOJ's Cast Against Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange" MintPress News
- "10 Reasons Assange Should Walk Free" Foreign Policy Journal
- "Yes, You Should Fear the Arrest of Julian Assange" The American Conservative
- "How You Can Be Certain That The US Charge Against Assange Is Fraudulent" Caitlin Johnstone
- "The Washington Establishment Seems Pretty Happy About Julian Assange's Arrest" Reason
- "Julian Assange's life is in danger" World Socialist Web Site