Hero or Criminal
By Stephen Tuttle | April 20, 2019
Julian Assange is either a constitutionally protected journalist exposing scoundrels and malfeasance — or a criminal computer hacker who tried to access classified Department of Defense files. Hero or criminal.
Assange, an Australian national, founded Wikileaks in 2006 as a distribution center for information not found elsewhere, usually because it was either classified or had been kept quiet lest someone be embarrassed.
Before he ever encountered Bradley Manning, Assange had already released documents describing procedures at Guantanamo Bay, Barclay Bank's tax evasion schemes, extra-judicial police killings in Kenya, and a host of other material, including e-mails from Sarah Palin's Yahoo account.
Bradley Manning, now Chelsea Manning, was an Army intelligence analyst stationed in Iraq. She began feeding documents to Assange and Wikileaks in 2010, including appalling videos from both Iraq and Afghanistan showing American troops killing civilians. Altogether, it was evidence that at least some of what we'd been told about our wars wasn't true.
Wikileaks also published State Department emails showing that some in our diplomatic corps gossiped like junior high-schoolers when they thought nobody was listening or looking.
Altogether, Manning passed nearly 750,000 documents, some classified, along to Assange, and Wikileaks published them that year and the next.
Some hailed Wikileaks as the next great journalistic enterprise, a depository of information that could be neither traditionally obtained nor published. Others considered him a gadfly who encouraged criminal behavior by hackers.
(Manning, it should be noted, was court-martialed for espionage and related offenses, pleaded guilty to some and was convicted of others, and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. President Obama commuted her sentence to seven years already served. Manning has been in jail since March of this year for contempt of court for refusing to testify in a grand jury investigation concerning Assange.)
Then came 2016 and the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton, the results of which were published by Wikileaks. Assange denies it was the Russians who provided the material, but every United States intelligence service, both foreign and domestic, begs to differ.
Meanwhile, Assange was being pursued by authorities in Sweden, on a sexual assault accusation, and had fled to the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, where he was given asylum. U.S. authorities had intentions of their own.
Sweden ultimately dropped their investigation (though they’ve indicated they might reconsider that decision) and Assange was finally evicted from the Ecuadoran Embassy, basically for being a very poor house guest.
He was immediately arrested on warrants from the United States.
He isn't being charged for releasing any documents, classified or not, stolen by Manning, or hacked by the Russians. Troubling as that might be to many, our courts have consistently ruled that publishing such material is protected by the First Amendment. The Pentagon Papers, which helped expose how we'd been consistently lied to about our war in Vietnam, is the most famous example but hardly the only one. We have a long tradition of insiders and informants helping journalists expose the ugly underbellies of industry and politics.
It seems hacking is the new inside information. Unfortunately, sites like Wikileaks are less than careful with what they publish. Credible news organizations are careful to redact information that might, for example, place an intelligence asset at risk or expose an ongoing investigation. Wikileaks, and other such sites, believe no censorship is acceptable and publish everything.
But Assange isn't accused for publishing anything. He's charged with actively trying to assist Manning in hacking into Department of Defense sites in the search for more documents. Publishing something purloined by others is protected; doing the thieving yourself, especially involving classified documents, is way over a distinct line.
Assange denies the charges, though there are emails that seem to support them. Regardless, he is likely to be in England for some time; extradition can be a long, complicated process there. Our government will be required to undertake much jumping through hoops before England will send him here. It won't help that both British politicians and the public are split on whether or not Assange should be charged with anything.
Wikileaks and the others will go on regardless of what happens to Assange. There are now multiple confederations of hackers regularly invading government and corporate sites. Seemingly always a step ahead of software designed to stop them, their intrusions might be illegal, but publishing the material they obtain is not.
Julian Assange is alleged to have crossed the line from publisher to illegal hacker. If he's ever returned here, he could become a prison inmate. To many, he will be a martyr to a righteous cause — exposing the truth at all costs. To others, he'll just be a criminal receiving his just punishment.
Or he might be both.