WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange walks free

The World’s host Marco Werman speaks with author and investigative journalist Michael Isikoff about the implications of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s case.

The World
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Wikileaks founder Julian Assange walked out of a courtroom last week in the US territory of the Northern Mariana Islands last as a free man. That was after striking a deal to plead guilty to a single charge of publishing US military secrets.

Outside the courthouse, his attorney, Barry Pollack, said his client never should have been charged under the US Espionage Act in the first place.

“In the 100 years of the Espionage Act, it has never been used by the United States to pursue a publisher, a journalist, like Mr. Assange,” Pollack said.

Assange’s story is complicated. US intelligence officials say Wikileaks played a key role in disseminating material hacked by Russian intelligence agencies. The World’s host Marco Werman spoke with investigative journalist Michael Isikoff, co-author of “Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump,” about what it all means.

Marco Werman: Describe what Assange did in 2010 that caused such an uproar in the first place.
Michael Isikoff: He obtained and publicly released thousands of internal State Department
cables documenting America’s foreign policy over the years, its meddling in foreign
countries, the views of American diplomats about foreign leaders and foreign
developments. And it really was a quite revealing insight into corners of American foreign
policy we hadn’t seen before. He also then began releasing other material about military
operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, including potential incidents in which civilians were
killed. It was labeled by some as war crimes. And it caused quite a stir within the US
national security establishment.
As you say, there are hundreds of thousands of documents. Just walk us through a few examples of the things he released.
Well, there was video of an attack in Iraq in which innocent civilians were killed. I think some of those State Department cables were deeply embarrassing to American officials, candid views about foreign leaders in Yemen and elsewhere who were US allies. At the time, Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. She was quite exorcised over this, as were people in the Obama White House.
So, many of these materials were classified US military documents, and the release was one of the largest breaches of secret information in US history. Do we know now, more than a decade later, whether those leaks put people in danger?
That was the view of US officials, and it factored into the indictment that was ultimately brought against him under the Trump administration, that some of the materials
identified the sources for the US government, journalists, government officials and others
who cooperated with the United States, and to have their identities revealed publicly, US
officials argued, endangered their lives.
That video of the US Army shooting at Iraqi civilians was one of the most-stunning revelations of that Wikileaks dump. What would you say is the argument for releasing
that publicly?

Well, I think that the excesses of the US military and intelligence community
overseas are very much of public interest. Those are the kind of stories that I think any
journalist or major news organization would pursue if they had access to the material.
And what are the arguments for not releasing it?
The strongest argument that US officials made is revealing the identities of sources for the US government, that put their lives and the lives of their families at risk. There’s no question about that. Now, clearly, Assange is a complicated character, and there is plenty to criticize in what he has done.

He’s been lionized as a First Amendment martyr because so much of the material he did release was of legitimate public interest. But at the same time, he’s also engaged in conduct that most professional journalists would not do.

One of the charges against him was that he worked with one of his sources, Chelsea Manning, to instruct her on how to penetrate a classified database, to basically hack into privileged information. That’s not something that would be ethical for any journalist at a mainstream news organization to do.

And, of course, you know, the big elephant in the room was the critical role he played in facilitating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Many argue that Wikileaks ultimately became a key platform for Russian intelligence agencies used to distribute hacked materials. Assange was at the center of that, right?
Absolutely. I mean, he was a central figure in Russia’s interference in the 2016
presidential election. Multiple investigations, from Robert Mueller’s to the United States
Congress, confirmed that it was the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU, that
hacked into the Democratic National Committee and also the Clinton campaign through
the [John] Podesta emails, and they laundered that stolen material through Wikileaks and Julian Assange.
So, a question that a lot of people have been asking, did Assange act
as a journalist or just a publisher with a platform or an activist?
In some cases, he acted as a journalist. In other cases, particularly the 2016
experience with Russia, it looks much more like an activist who’s trying to politically
influence things.
I mean, in Journalism 101, activist, then, you’re not a journalist. Does being an activist cancel out his bona fides as a journalist?
Well, that was the ultimate conclusion of the United States government. But,
you know, it is worth noting that, look, that indictment became quite controversial. A
number of press groups and First Amendment groups said it’s really hard to draw a line
between journalism and activism. And once you start doing that, you could potentially
endanger the First Amendment rights of all of us.
For the first time in US history, gathering and publishing information the government considers secret has been successfully treated as a crime, thanks to this guilty plea. What message does that send, not just to reporters in the US, but around the globe?
That’s a legitimate issue. Look, I mean, for all of the stuff that Assange did that we find questionable, that most journalists might find questionable, it’s also true that he spent more than five years under harsh conditions in the Belmarsh Prison in England without ever having been convicted of a crime. And that’s something that I think gave a lot of people pause. It was one of the reasons the Australian government was pushing the Biden administration to end this long saga.
So, final question: Is there such a thing as a public right to know? And if so, what does the Assange case tell us about where the line is between the importance of national security and this overriding value of transparency in airing the truth?
As a professional journalist all my adult life, there’s absolutely a public’s right to know about what its government is up to. Drawing that line when there are people’s lives who could be endangered, when there are legitimate law enforcement or national security operations that could be endangered, can be a tough one. And, we’ve seen that in the Assange case.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Click above to listen to the entire discussion.

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