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How Julian Assange And WikiLeaks Changed Journalism

WikiLeaks founder arrested by the Metropolitan Police on April 11
WikiLeaks founder arrested by the Metropolitan Police on April 11
Margaret Sullivan


For press-freedom advocates, Julian Assange has long been a polarizing figure. And his arrest Thursday in London once again ignited the seemingly endless debate:

Is the WikiLeaks founder, who until Thursday had been holed up in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London for years, essentially a publisher — though a notably strange one — who believes in taking radical steps to expose government secrets, and who thus should be afforded the same First Amendment protections given to news organizations? Or is he a reckless traitor — and by no means a journalist — who deserves no such consideration and who should be prosecuted without worrying about free-press concerns.

The nature of the charge from the U.S. government will make a difference.

Assange is being charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, with the government saying that he conspired with former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning — and that he helped Manning crack a classified Defense Department password. He is not, notably, being charged under the Espionage Act, which has been used in recent years to go after journalists and their sources. Manning was imprisoned for seven years, in part for being found guilty of violating that act.

There's a substantial gray area here. And a troubling one.

The question hinges on this: Did Assange cross a crucial line by allegedly encouraging the password hack — a line that no legitimate journalist would, or should, cross? Assange's attorney certainly doesn't think so.

The charges, Barry Pollack said, "boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identity of that source." And some journalists were quick to agree. The prominent First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams said Thursday that he hadn't made up his mind fully on the case but that one thing relieved him. The indictment is narrow in scope, not based on what journalists do all the time: receive and publish classified information, he told CNN.

What Assange is accused of — breaking into secure government computers — "is fortunately not commonplace journalistic conduct."

Still, there's a substantial gray area here. And a troubling one.

"The indictment discusses journalistic practices in the context of a criminal conspiracy: using encryption, making efforts to protect a source's identity, and source cultivation," said University of Georgia media law professor Jonathan Peters.

Those practices, he told me, are not only routine and lawful, "they're best practices for journalists." In fact, WikiLeaks and Assange — and certainly Edward Snowden's 2013 leak of vast amounts of government information, bringing widespread government surveillance to light — have helped to usher in a new era for journalists.

Pro-Assange protest in New York on Paril 11 — Photo: William Volcov/ZUMA

News organizations now provide secure drop boxes for sources. They wisely use encryption applications such as Signal to converse with, and receive information from, sources.

That these practices are cast as part of the conspiracy "should worry all journalists, whether or not Assange himself is seen as a journalist," Peters said. What is distinct, though, is the conspiracy to break the password on a secure network.

"That would distinguish Assange in practice from traditional journalists."

That Assange is such a strange and, to many, unsympathetic character may enter too much into the debate. He's hard to defend. "When governments are trying to restrict press rights of any kind, the inclination is not to go after the most popular kid in the room — it's to go after the least popular," Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, told me last year.

Before we turn our backs on Assange, we ought to think deeply about what's at stake.

What WikiLeaks has consistently done, Timm said, "is publish information that is true and that the government considers secret." Recall the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War, which Daniel Ellsberg nearly 50 years ago stole from the Pentagon and delivered to The New York Times and The Washington Post. Even before the attempt to crack the password, Manning had given WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of classified records, prosecutors said. The material allegedly included four nearly complete databases, comprising 90,000 reports from the Afghanistan war, 400,000 reports from the Iraq War and 250,000 State Department cables, The Post reported Thursday.

The American Civil Liberties Union's director, Ben Wizner, remains firmly in Assange's corner. Prosecuting him "would be unprecedented and unconstitutional and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations."

I'm inclined to agree.

Yes, Assange crossed a line if he indeed conspired with his source to break a secure government password. But the risks to news organizations of prosecuting him remain very real. Before we turn our backs on Assange, we ought to think deeply about what's at stake. Casting him to the wolves as nothing but a narcissistic bad actor — "not like us," of course — may seem tempting. But organizations that aren't so very different in their aims may suffer the consequences.

The gray area here is bigger than it looks — and so are the dangers to traditional journalism and the public interest.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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