Trump Against the First Amendment

Julian Assange after being arrested by U.K. authorities in May. (Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Trump Against the First Amendment

It's a potential calamity for the First Amendment and a free press

For a time it looked as if the federal government's case against Julian Assange had it right: he was indicted on one count of conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer network. No matter what one may think about a whistleblower, a journalist or a crusader, breaking and entering is a crime, and it's difficult to make the case that obtaining information through criminal means is justifiable. The government may have had trouble proving that Assange himself was hacking computers. He relied on former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to gain access to 250,000 diplomatic cables in 2010. The government claimed he was trying to help Manning break a code to do so. The government had an arguably reasonable case.

That changed a week ago when the government filed an entirely different indictment, slapping Assange with 17 counts under the Espionage Act-not for breaking into a Pentagon computer, not for stealing information, but for publishing the 2010 documents.

That's a problem. Because suddenly, Assange, who is a remarkably distasteful narcissist with the morals of a worm, and who has no problems conspiring with Russian henchmen, is being turned into something of a hero again. Or at least an anti-hero, which amounts to the same thing. (The early years after Wikileaks' founding in 2006 were classic if raw whistleblowing stuff, their worth measured by a reliable ratio: governments loathed the leaks in direct proportion to how much national papers and their readers devoured what Wikileaks gave them: banking, big oil, and climate change scandals, and of course the Pentagon revelations which, manner of acquisition aside, showed our government's conduct in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo at its abject worst, as if Vietnam taught nothing better than how to better hide mendacity and war crimes. Wikileaks' record during Assange's confinement to his 350 square feet at the Ecuadorian embassy in London curdled as Assange did, his pronouncements-"The surest escape from the mundane is to teleport into the tragic realm"--his behavior and his morals trending more toward Alex Jones than any recognizable journalist. That was his intention: "We come not to save journalism but to destroy it," he told a New Yorker reporter two years ago.)

Who he is scarcely matters. The outlets Wikileaks provided and the journalism it enabled does, though he unwittingly may be the very means of journalism's destruction at Donald Trump's hands. You could always rely on the Trump Administration to overreact. It's doing so in this case, not by protecting secrets, but by declaring war on journalists. Trump has spoken several times of wanting to rewrite libel laws and demolish long-standing First Amendment standards, even those that apply to speech about politicians. Maybe this is his way to challenge the law and get a radical ruling from his new buddies on the Supreme Court. It's a potential calamity for the First Amendment and a free press.

The day before the 17-count indictment was announced I was reading in the French press about eight reporters being summoned and interrogated by the French intelligence services over the reporters' roles in exposing corruption under Emmanuel Macron, including a reporter from Le Monde. I couldn't believe it was happening in France, which is no slouch when it comes to press freedoms. (Remember Charlie Hebdo.) But I certainly never imagined it could happen here, at least not since booze and bollocks got the better of Joe McCarthy. That's what the indictment against Assange amounts to.

It's a variation on the way the government tried to go after Daniel Ellsberg, who gave the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. That secret history revealed every government lie that made the Vietnam War possible. Nixon tried to demolish Ellsberg's life by going after him personally while challenging the Times's right to publish the Pentagon Papers all the way to the Supreme Court. Nixon failed on both counts, decisively and rightly so at the Supreme Court, even when he claimed the Times was publishing secrets that endangered national security. Because the public's right to know will almost always trump government's claims to secrecy.

Same with Wikileaks. The overwhelming majority of documents Assange put on line just provided transparency that neither warranted nor deserved secrecy. Most secrets don't. He was criticized for publishing the names of diplomatic sources or spies in a few cases, supposedly putting American interests and individuals in danger. In all those years to date, there's not been a single document published by Wikileaks that led to the somebody's harm. At least none that we know of. I'm pretty sure that if the government could make that linkage, it would have been screaming it from the top of the Washington Monument.

Instead, we have the president hanging from that obelisk like King Kong, firing missiles at us, enemies of the people. It isn't Assange who was indicted last week, but the First Amendment.

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© 2023 Pierre Tristam