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New York Times, other media call for Assange charges to be dropped

The outlets warned the case could criminalize U.S. journalists’ work exposing government secrets

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange greets supporters from a balcony of the Ecuadoran Embassy in London in 2017. (Frank Augstein/AP)

The New York Times and four leading European news organizations called on the Justice Department to drop criminal charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, warning in an open letter Monday that the case could criminalize U.S. journalists’ work exposing government secrets and potential wrongdoing.

The news organizations acknowledged that they had been critical of Assange for releasing unredacted information in the past, and some were concerned by allegations in a federal indictment that Assange “attempted to aid in computer intrusion of a classified database.” Professional news organizations forbid reporters from gathering information through unethical or illegal means.

But much of Assange’s indictment focuses on his 2010 and 2011 disclosure of thousands of pages of classified military records and diplomatic cables about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which had been shared by former Army private Chelsea Manning. The news organizations said that they partnered with Assange more than a decade ago to reveal “corruption, diplomatic scandals and spy affairs on an international scale,” and that the trove of records he made available is still being mined by journalists and historians.

The letter was signed by Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger and the editors and publishers of the Guardian (Britain), Le Monde (France), Der Spiegel (Germany) and El Pais (Spain).

“This indictment sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press,” they wrote.

After this story was published, a spokeswoman for the Times said the news organizations were asking prosecutors to drop only the publishing-related charges against Assange, not the hacking-related counts in the indictment.

Assange, who is currently detained in a London prison as he appeals an order from the British government extraditing him to the United States, says he’s the target of a political prosecution and that the U.S. prison system would not treat him humanely.

The Justice Department refrained from prosecuting Assange under President Barack Obama. After President Donald Trump took office, the Justice Department asked federal prosecutors in Virginia to revisit the case. They ultimately obtained an 18-count indictment charging the WikiLeaks founder with a hacking conspiracy and disclosure of national defense information, which officials say put lives in danger.

The indictment has stirred controversy inside the Justice Department. Prosecutors filed some of the charges under the Espionage Act of 1917, a World War I-era law that had been used to charge spies or officials leaking information from inside the government, but never publishers or broadcasters.

Two federal prosecutors in Virginia who were involved in the Assange case argued against bringing charges under the Espionage Act, concerned that, among other things, it posed risks to First Amendment protections.

Justice Department officials declined to comment on the open letter Monday.

Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha said Sulzberger signed the letter in consultation with the company’s legal department. “No editors were involved,” she said.

The Washington Post also published news articles about some of the documents Assange unearthed. In 2019, Martin Baron, then the executive editor of The Post, criticized the Assange indictment: “Dating as far back as the Pentagon papers case and beyond, journalists have been receiving and reporting on information that the government deemed classified. Wrongdoing and abuse of power were exposed. With the new indictment of Julian Assange, the government is advancing a legal argument that places such important work in jeopardy and undermines the very purpose of the First Amendment.”

A spokeswoman for The Post pointed to Baron’s statement on Monday and declined to comment further.

Barry Pollack, a U.S.-based lawyer for Assange, said: “Media organizations in the U.S. and abroad are right to express their concern about the criminal charges brought against Mr. Assange and the extraordinary threat to First Amendment values presented by the U.S. prosecution and extradition request.”