|JACK TAYLOR / GETTY IMAGES EUROPE|
Does the U.S. indicting and now trying to extradite WikiLeaks' Julian Assange undermine press freedoms? Yes it most certainly does, but no more so than yelling fire! in a crowded theater undermines freedom of speech.
The wild-haired Assange's arrest by British authorities inside the Ecuadoran embassy in London on Thursday morning after his asylum was rescinded was primarily in response to U.S. charges that he conspired in 2010 with Chelsea Manning, a U.S. Army intelligence analyst then known as Bradley Manning, and others to break a Defense Department computer password, illegally obtain and then publish secret U.S. military and diplomatic documents.
Manning was imprisoned for seven years for violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses. It is unclear what charges Assange would face in the U.S., but they likely would result in a lengthy sentence if he is found guilty.
"This sets a dangerous precedent for all media organizations and journalists in Europe and elsewhere around the world," Assange attorney Jennifer Robinson said. "This precedent means that any journalist can be extradited for prosecution in the United States for having published truthful information about the United States."
Not necessarily so.
Computer hacking is not exactly a press freedom, while the 47-year-old WikiLeaks founder clearly crossed the line from defending freedom to abetting tyranny in enthusiastically and repeatedly aiding Russian cyberwarriors in helping elect Donald Trump -- in no small part because of his twisted embrace of Vladimir Putin, his own misogyny and hatred for Hillary Clinton -- in driving WikiLeaks over to the dark side.
Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2012 to avoid being extradited to Sweden on since-dropped rape and sexual molestation charges and the larger fear that Sweden would then send him to the U.S. and charge him with espionage because of his role in publishing the troves of secret documents during the era in which WikiLeaks played a vital role in pushing back against government secrecy and abuses of power.
In rescinding Assange's asylum, Ecuadoran President Lenin Moreno cited his involvement in what he described as WikiLeaks' meddling in the internal affairs of other countries, including the leaking of documents from the Vatican in January.
In the few interviews Assange has given since the 2016 election, most notably for Raffi Khatchadourian in The New Yorker, his trademark cockiness evaporates when asked about the by-now well documented ties between WikiLeaks and hackers working for the Kremlin, which he has furiously denied as mountains of evidence render his lies increasingly fantastical.
This despite the beyond obvious coordination between the public boasts of Assange and at least one Trump confidante -- Roger Stone.
Stone was in close contact with Assange at pivotal moments during the presidential campaign and releases of tens of thousands of emails damaging to Clinton by WikiLeaks from Russian hackers, notably Guccifer 2.0, an online persona used by two Russian intelligence agencies, and the DCLeaks website that the agencies ran and hackers and trolls repeatedly linked back to in unleashing fake news and anti-Clinton hashtags at the probable prompting of the Trump campaign's digital team.
In particular, these fusillades targeted voters in three nominally blue swing states where the digital team found unexpected weakness in voter support for Clinton. Trump eked out victories in those states in winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote.
While Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigated Assange and his interactions with Stone were part of Stone's indictment in January and the July 2018 indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers who hacked Democratic emails, it is not known if those events are elaborated on in Mueller's final report. And there is the possibility that Mueller could not prove that Assange knowingly engaged in a conspiracy. The report is being redacted by Attorney General William Barr prior to its release to Congress amidst charges he is engaging in a whitewash to scrub the report of information that might incriminate Trump.
"I love WikiLeaks," Trump exultantly declared after the 2016 campaign as Clinton licked her wounds and argued correctly that WikiLeaks had played a key role in keeping her from the Oval Office.
In April 2017, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, now secretary of state, characterized WikiLeaks as a "nonstate hostile intelligence service," as opposed to a journalistic organization, and a threat to U.S. national security, while the president was singing a very different tune after Assange's arrest.
"I know nothing about WikiLeaks, it's not my thing," Trump lied. "I know really nothing about him. It's not my deal in life."
There is a contemporaneous parallel for Assange's betrayal of the founding principles of WikiLeaks.
Myanmar head of state Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize for her decades-long campaign against that country's military junta, but has become the embodiment of evil herself as she persecutes the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, who are fleeing the country by the tens of thousands in the face of missile attacks on their burning villages that she undoubtedly ordered or, at the very least, could have stopped but did not.
While goings-on in the country formerly known as Burma is an abstraction for most Americans, the fact that the Oval Office is occupied by a profoundly unqualified narcissist who has turned the national mood from cautious optimism to dread most definitely is not.
I am a career journalist and steadfast defender of press freedoms and am among the millions of people who once hailed Assange. He founded WikiLeaks in 2006 and began taking on the world's most powerful institutions, a crusade that fueled democratic uprisings, brought forth human-rights cases and laid bare the hypocrisies of America as superpower as revealed in the trove of classified military records from Iraq and Afghanistan and State Department diplomatic cables provided Assange by Manning.
But somewhere along the way Assange wandered into a moral wilderness. The WikiLeaks grail was to hold institutions accountable, but it is now WikiLeaks itself that is unaccountable.
In the seven years Assange was holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy his methodology and his motivations changed. Some of the more recent WikiLeaks disclosures have caused genuine harm with no discernible benefit other than feeding Assange's immense ego. These have included revealing the identities of teenage rape victims in Saudi Arabia, dissidents in China and anti-government activists in Syria.
Assange has not been coy about his hatred for Clinton and affection for Putin, although he would have had Assange assassinated in a heartbeat as he has many journalists if it suited his autocratic needs.
When Assange was briefly jailed in England in 2010 because of British government concern that he would flee the country to avoid extradition to Sweden, Putin cast him as a symbol of Western hypocrisy. "Why have they hidden Mr. Assange in prison?" the Russian leader asked.
Two years later, Assange agreed to do a talk show on RT, a Kremlin-sponsored news and propaganda outlet. While the show folded after 12 episodes, he continued to appear on RT to promote his interests, including America bashing. RT's U.S. affiliate, RT America, actively promoted some of the fake news stories that helped undermine Clinton's campaign.
Assange's hate Clinton-love Putin thing also informs his passionate denials about collaborating with Putin's hackers. By design, the WikiLeaks site nominally prevents him from knowing where submissions come from so the identities of sources can be kept secret. So how then can Assange know that Russians were not the source of the emails? Then there is the question of how he got them in the first place.
Whatever one thinks of Assange's election disclosures," writes The New Yorker's Khatchadourian, "Accepting his contention that they shared no ties with the two Russian fronts [Guccifer 2.0] requires willful blindness."
Assange, once asked what he would do if he learned that intelligence agencies were using WikiLeaks as a "laundry" for information warfare, replied: "If it's true information, we don't care where it comes from. Let people fight with the truth, and when the bodies are cleared there will be bullets of truth everywhere."
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