You probably heard Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, was arrested by British authorities yesterday. Mr. Assange has been living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012.
Assange is expected to be extradited to the United States, where he will face charges for “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion,” for helping then-Private Bradley Manning create a secure password to allow Manning to hack defense department computers and download classified documents. The documents would then be transmitted to Wikileaks via a drop box.
The US Government’s argument is that anytime an individual helps a whistleblower obtain classified information, or proactively acts to protect the whistleblower’s identity, they violate federal law. If the government succeeds, it will mean that journalists will be little more than passive recipients of information. This will obviously have a chilling effect on journalists’ willingness to work with whistleblowers and violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the First Amendment.
Kevin Gosztola, writing for Shadowproof blog, has a good analysis of the case:
The WikiLeaks website publicly solicited submissions of classified, censored, and other restricted information,” the indictment states. “Assange, who did not possess a security clearance or need to know, was not authorized to receive classified information of the United States.”
Reporters or editors for media organizations publish stories based upon on leaks of classified information all the time and typically do not have security clearances.
If a precedent were set where journalists had to possess a security clearance, it would create a threat for any reporter relying upon such information to expose abuses of power or corruption committed by the U.S. government, including but not limited to security agencies.
It was part of the conspiracy that Assange encouraged Manning to provide information and records from departments and agencies of the United States,” according to the indictment. “It was part of the conspiracy that Assange and Manning used a special folder on a cloud drop box of WikiLeaks to transmit classified records containing information related to the national defense of the United States.”
In this section, prosecutors further allege Assange “aided” and “abetted” “espionage” as a co-conspirator by specifically criminalizing the act of using a drop box.
Several journalists and media organizations use drop boxes to accept documents from sources. One well-known setup is called SecureDrop. It would appear the Justice Department would like to establish a precedent that discourages media organizations from using this practice when engaging in journalism.
The second part of the alleged computer crime explicitly notes the indictment is pulling from two sections of the Espionage Act—793(c) and 793(e)—even though Assange was not charged with violating the Espionage Act.
Additionally, there is the timeline of events that appears in the indictment. On March 8, 2010, prosecutors allege Assange “agreed” to assist in cracking a password so she could anonymously access Defense Department computer connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network that held the documents.
Manning had a security clearance because she was an all-source military intelligence analyst in Baghdad. She did not need Assange to help her obtain access. What the prosecutors are claiming is her interest in shielding her identity, and the fact that Assange allegedly was willing to help her protect her identity, opened him up to a charge of conspiracy.
The indictment highlights chats that allegedly occurred between Assange and Manning over the Jabber online chat service. What the indictment does not state is that the account Manning corresponded with was “Nathaniel Frank.” The U.S. government believes Assange used this account, but they will have to prove it in order to mount a successful prosecution.
During Manning’s Article 32 hearing in December 2011, before her case proceeded to a court-martial, military prosecutors presented evidence they said would show Assange “attempted to devise a way to browse SIPRnet anonymously.”
Read the whole piece here.
Read Patrick Eddington of Cato on the case here.
Watch Dr. Paul discuss the Assange case here.