The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Don’t celebrate the indictment of Julian Assange

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump praised WikiLeaks for publishing hacked Democratic emails. He has changed his tune with the arrest of Julian Assange. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

Julian Assange, I think we can all agree, is a dirtbag. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing that he’s been arrested and will apparently be extradited to the United States.

Here’s what just happened:

British authorities arrested WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Thursday in response to a U.S. extradition request, and a U.S. federal court unsealed an indictment charging him with a single count of conspiracy to disclose classified information that could be used to injure the United States. ...
The U.S. indictment unsealed Thursday accuses Assange of agreeing to help [Chelsea] Manning break a password to the Defense Department’s computer network in 2010. That, prosecutors alleged, would have allowed Manning to log in with another username. The indictment includes no evidence that the password-cracking effort actually succeeded.
Even before the password cracking, though, Manning had given WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of classified records, prosecutors alleged. 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.

As you probably know, Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012, where he sought asylum to avoid sexual assault charges in Sweden. The Obama administration, while critical of Assange, decided that the First Amendment implications of charging him with a crime were too troubling, so they declined to do so.

That’s because, whatever you think of WikiLeaks, if we criminalize receiving classified information, some of the most important works of journalism in American history would be transformed into crimes, and every reporter who works on national security would be a potential criminal.

There's a clear rule journalists follow: If my source stole important documents and gives them to me, I can write about what they contain. What I can't do is break down the door to the government building so he can get inside.

That is essentially what Assange is being charged with: conspiring with Chelsea Manning to break into government files. According to the indictment, “Assange agreed to assist Manning in cracking a password stored on United States Department of Defense computers” in order to find more documents. (Her attempt was apparently unsuccessful.)

But given the magnitude of what WikiLeaks has published over the years and the criticism the organization has received, that one charge seems an awful lot like a pretense, a way of charging Assange with something so they can extradite him. And Assange may be wondering why his service to President Trump didn’t protect him from this.

Which gets to one reason there are plenty of liberals feeling satisfied at seeing Assange led off in handcuffs. While WikiLeaks’ modus operandi was highly controversial before 2016, it was at least operating according to a defensible set of principles, promoting the idea that people everywhere should know the things governments seek to conceal. But then in 2016, Assange and the group seem to have essentially decided that, for whatever reason (loathing of Hillary Clinton, probably), they would cooperate with the Russian government in a joint effort to help get Trump elected president of the United States. That effort was successful, and it was not exactly a victory for the cause of transparency and press freedom.

Up until 2016, conservatives were generally more critical than liberals of WikiLeaks, given the conservatives’ greater suspicion of whistle-blowers and the idea of exposing government secrets. I’m sure many of them felt a twinge of ambivalence when the organization to which they had been so hostile joined the Trump cause and their candidate himself began praising them lavishly on the campaign trail. “I love WikiLeaks!” Trump proclaimed, and mentioned them 164 times in the final month of the campaign. But they got over it; to take just one example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who became intensely critical of WikiLeaks after the election, was a big fan during the campaign.

The hypocrisy of Trump and his supporters doesn’t tell us much one way or the other about whether it’s a good thing that Assange was arrested. If prosecutors can prove the charge that he attempted to assist in the hacking of government systems, then he can be held accountable for that. But if what’s really at issue is WikiLeaks publishing classified information, we should be concerned about who the Trump administration will go after next.

Read more:

Erik Wemple: Julian Assange fails the smell test

The Post’s View: WikiLeaks does America’s enemies a big favor

Julian Assange: WikiLeaks has the same mission as The Post and the Times

The Post’s View: The White House shows its contempt for the free press