Hearing Coverage

Hearing Highlight: Assange Is Not a Journalist, Manning Is Not a Whistleblower, Up Is Down, and Night Is Day 

Read the full report from day 2 of Julian Assange’s final bid to appeal his extradition here. Find all extradition coverage here.

Supporters outside the courtroom in London (FreeAssangeNews)

February 21, 2024 — In order to avoid the pesky press freedom issues that rights groups and media outlets everywhere are warning its Assange prosecution poses, the U.S. government has to claim all kinds of extraordinary falsehoods that fall apart under the mildest scrutiny.

Representing the U.S. today, CPS barrister Clair Dobbin had to argue that Julian Assange is not a journalist, that Chelsea Manning is not a whistleblower, and that the indictment of Assange is a narrowly focused punishment of the release of sources’ names rather than a wholesale assault on the freedom of the press.

Anything but a journalist 

The U.S. is desperate to claim that Julian Assange is not a journalist. The prosecution of Assange has garnered global attention for many reasons, including that major media outlets around the world have condemned the charges as landmark threats to the First Amendment, so the U.S. needs to fix that image. The tactic they’ve chosen is to try to separate Julian Assange from other journalists. To keep mainstream journalists happy, but also to keep them from paying too much attention to the Assange case because it might threaten their jobs, the U.S. goes to great lengths to suggest Assange is anything but a journalist — a hacker, a spy, an activist, whatever it may be. 

“The district judge rejected outright that [Assange] was to be treated as a journalist or akin to a publisher,” Dobbin declared.

“He solicited the bulk disclosure of classified information and was party to Ms. Manning’s theft of classified information,” Dobbin said, “and then indiscriminately and knowingly published to the world who acted as sources of information to the United States. It is these key facts that distinguish [Assange] from the New York Times and other media organizations; it is these facts that distinguish him.”

Assange’s press cards (via Stella Assange)

Julian Assange has a press card. He has many press cards — from the International Federation of Journalists, the European Federation of Journalists, and the Australian Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance. He has written and edited books and articles, he’s hosted an interview television show, and he’s published carefully redacted databases in close partnership with other media outlets around the world to break news in those outlets’ local regions. 

He’s also won scores of journalism prizes, including the Walkley Award, the most prestigious award in Australian journalism and frequently referred to as the Australian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize.

But even this misses a bigger point. The First Amendment isn’t just for journalists. Meaning it isn’t just for whomever this or that judge determines is a journalist either. The First Amendment protects types of activity, not types of people. It protects the freedom of the press, which includes newsgathering, reporting, and publishing alike. 

Press freedom experts have warned time and again that the charges against Assange present a direct threat to this journalistic work. The New York Times, which hasn’t always been Assange’s most ardent defender, said the indictment “aims at the heart of the First Amendment.”

Mainstream reporters have said the indictment terrifies them. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barton Gellman said:

I am very much worried that the precedent that the present US administration is trying to set with Assange is dangerous, and quite new in the American legal tradition. Assange is charged with asking for information, with receiving information, and with publishing information. And I don’t mind saying that those are exactly the things that I do. And there has never been a prosecution for espionage based entirely on publication. If that’s allowed to stand, there’s absolutely no reason why it couldn’t be used against the Washington Post or the New York Times or CNN.

Dobbin again tried to separate Assange from other journalists by focusing on his alleged agreement with source Chelsea Manning to uncover more abuses, publish more documents, and allegedly conceal her identity. “Entering into this agreement is what takes Assange well outside the activities of a responsible journalist.”

But other journalists do this kind of thing all the time. Journalism professor Mark Feldstein testified in 2020:  

Feldstein confirmed that soliciting information is “standard journalistic behavior.” When teaching journalism, Feldstein talks about asking sources for evidence, actively seeking information, working with them to find documents that are newsworthy, and directing them as to what to find out. “It’s all routine,” he said.

Also routine are efforts to conceal sources’ identities. “Trying to protect your source is a journalistic obligation” Feldstein said, adding, “We use all kinds of techniques to protect them, including payphones, anonymity, encryption, removing fingerprints from documents, reporters do this all the time.”

As Gellman told the Committee to Protect Journalists, “If asking questions and protecting a source are cast as circumstantial evidence of guilt, we’ll be crossing a dangerous line.”

Chelsea Manning’s motives

Dobbin said it was “unrealistic to submit that” Chelsea Manning “gave any thought to specific disclosures she wanted to raise.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Though the Espionage Act charges against her afforded no public interest defense during the merits stage of her court martial, Manning made a point to submit a personal statement to the court, in which she expounded at length on her crisis of conscience, her ultimate decision to make certain documents public, her desire for change and her careful selection of which databases would give the public the best window into the war on terror without putting her fellow soldiers at risk.

On her decision to release the Collateral Murder video, Manning said, 

I hoped that the public would be as alarmed as me about the conduct of the aerial weapons team crew members. I wanted the American public to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan are targets that needed to be neutralized, but rather people who were struggling to live in the pressure cooker environment of what we call asymmetric warfare. After the release I was encouraged by the response in the media and general public, who observed the aerial weapons team video. As I hoped, others were just as troubled – if not more troubled that me by what they saw.

The State Department diplomatic cables were the only set of documents that Manning worried, initially, had the potential to cause damage. “Of the documents released, the cables were the only one I was not absolutely certain couldn’t harm the United States,” she said at first. She kept reading.

The more I read the cables, the more I came to the conclusion that this was the type of information that should become public. I once read and used a quote on open diplomacy written after the First World War and how the world would be a better place if states would avoid making secret pacts and deals with and against each other.

I thought these cables were a prime example of a need for a more open diplomacy.

She knew exactly which cables had which sensitivity levels, and she knew that it would be safe to release them. She acknowledged that “exposing this information might make some within the Department of State and other government entities unhappy,” but she knew that it wouldn’t cause actual harm.

Given all of the Department of State cables that I read, the fact that most of the cables were unclassified, and that all the cables have a SIPDIS caption, I believed that the public release of these cables would not damage the United States, however, I did believe that the cables might be embarrassing, since they represented very honest opinions and statements behind the backs of other nations and organizations.

Manning’s motive could hardly be clearer. But the government has to portray this desire to stop war crimes as a random act of anarchy — anything to take our eyes off of what was actually in those documents. 

Will the High Court see through it?

Every major media outlet, press freedom group, and civil liberties organization can see the obvious: Assange is a journalist, Manning was a whistleblower, and the charges against Assange are dangerous. So far though, British courts have been willingly led astray, taking U.S. prosecutors at their word and plugging their ears to the world’s laments. 

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s 2021 ruling, though it narrowly blocked extradition for the time being on health grounds, otherwise took every U.S. argument at face value and ignored the testimony of experts. Since then, even more evidence has come in revealing U.S. intentions. Eight months after Baraitser’s ruling, more than 30 former U.S. intelligence and national security officials confirmed to Yahoo News that the CIA had drawn up plans to kidnap and kill Julian Assange.

The story also revealed that the DOJ hurried a legal case against Assange just to get out ahead of a rogue CIA.

Some National Security Council officials worried that the CIA’s proposals to kidnap Assange would not only be illegal but also might jeopardize the prosecution of the WikiLeaks founder. Concerned the CIA’s plans would derail a potential criminal case, the Justice Department expedited the drafting of charges against Assange to ensure that they were in place if he were brought to the United States.

Three years have passed since Baraitser’s ruling. Assange’s health, which prevented him from even attending this week’s proceedings by video link, has deteriorated greatly. The indictment has already had a chilling effect, as journalists worry they could face charges and prospective whistleblowers with even fewer places to turn with their evidence of abuse.

The British High Court has a chance now to take another look at the facts in front of them, and to take an honest look at what they’ve been hearing from the prosecution and whether it passes the smell test. 

This award-winning publisher, who painstakingly redacted names, worked with local outlets to ensure accuracy, and published evidence of war crimes…is just a reckless hacker?

This intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, who combed over databases to select the documents most important for the public interest, and knew that doing so would put herself at great personal risk…gave no thought to what she released? 

Does that sound right?