Daniel Ellsberg was put on trial by the Nixon administration in 1972, charge with violating the Espionage Act because he leaked a secret history of American involvement in Vietnam to The New York Times—the Pentagon Papers. But his trial was halted and the charges dismissed because of misconduct by the government. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: The Trump Administration recently indicted Julian Assange on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act. His crime was that in 2010, WikiLeaks posted on its website devastating material that Army intelligence office Chelsea Manning had copied from Iraq war logs and diplomatic documents. The most notable was a video shot by American soldiers in an Apache helicopter in 2007 that showed them killing at least 17 civilians, including two Reuters journalists, on the streets of Iraq, something that should have been prosecuted as war crime. The video made headlines around the world. In 2013, Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for espionage. Obama commuted her sentence in January 2017. The Obama Justice Department never brought charges against Julian Assange. Why do you think they didn’t?
Daniel Ellsberg: WikiLeaks in 2010 also published Hillary Clinton’s classified cables—she was secretary of state for Obama—so Assange earned her fury and hostility. And she wasn’t the only one in the Obama administration who would have loved to see Assange as well as Chelsea Manning behind bars. We now know that inside the Justice Department they definitely were considering indicting him, but concluded that they could not indict him without using a legal theory that would apply just as well to any of the newspapers that had printed WikiLeaks’ disclosures. That included The New York Times, The Guardian, El País in Spain, and Le Monde in France. So they chose not to take on the press directly, since in our country that would so clearly be a blatant violation of the First Amendment, which protects or guarantees freedom of the press. The Obama administration felt there was no constitutional way to bring the case that the Trump administration has now brought. That difference is hardly surprising at this point in the Trump administration. Trump has as much contempt for the American Constitution and Bill of Rights as, let’s say, Dick Cheney did. He doesn’t feel bound by it, so the question now is whether the media and Congress and the public will rise to the defense of the Constitution in ways they haven’t done in the past.
JW: We’re speaking here under the assumption that WikiLeaks is a publisher in the same category as The New York Times. And indeed, The New York Times did cooperate with WikiLeaks in publishing the Chelsea Manning information. But people on the other side argue that WikiLeaks is not a legitimate publisher. The Washington Post, for example, ran an editorial saying Assange is not a “real journalist” because WikiLeaks just dumps material into the public domain, “without any effort independently to verify its factuality or give named individuals an opportunity to comment.” What do you say to the argument that what Assange does at WikiLeaks is not really journalism?
DE: Journalists, including at The Washington Post, who say that indicting and prosecuting and convicting Julian Assange doesn’t threaten them are either lying to themselves or lying to the public or both. It’s absurd. They’re in a state of denial. Glenn Greenwald recently had an excellent op-ed in The Washington Post, quoting a decision by Justice Warren Burger of the Supreme Court in 1977. He made it very clear that the First Amendment does not apply only to “journalists.” And who designates those? There’s no licensing of them, as Greenwald points out. The First Amendment applies to anyone who acts as a journalist—as he says, “The protections of the First Amendment apply to anyone who informs the public.” Today, with digital venues, that can be virtually anybody.
JW: Many of my friends point out that Julian Assange actively helped Donald Trump become president, and that he’s being investigated for rape in Sweden, and therefore we shouldn’t support him. What do you say to that argument?
DE: This is very important. First of all, let me just repeat that the indictment of Julian Assange is the first shot in a new war directly against all of journalism, and certainly investigative journalism—against what Trump calls “the enemy of the people,” the news media. And especially the ones that he says publish “fake news,” like The Washington Post and The New York Times. In other words, this indictment is meant to criminalize journalism and especially investigative journalism. It’s a direct campaign against democracy in this country. That has nothing to do with Julian Assange’s character or practices or status.
It’s no coincidence that they chose, as the first defendant, a man who has in the last couple of years lost the support and even the respect of nearly everyone. He’s probably the most unpopular person in the media. The administration hopes that by using this law against an unpopular person, the press will dissociate itself from him, the Congress will not support him, the public will not support him. But the First Amendment does not apply only to a responsible press, to a press that checks all of its information carefully with the government and elsewhere. That’s not what the First Amendment is.
In the case of Assange, the fact that his revelations in 2016 clearly helped Trump win is deplorable. I’ll go further. The Mueller report in particular mentioned tweets by Julian Assange well before the 2016 campaign, saying that he thought Trump in balance was less dangerous than Hillary Clinton. He thought that Trump was a outsider who would stir things up and change policies that needed changing. I think that was a terrible judgment. The impact of his actions based on that idea are even more catastrophic than almost anyone could have foreseen.
So I strongly disagree with his judgment on that, and his values. But on the issue of freedom of press, if it were Steve Bannon facing extradition or prosecution on these charges, or Breitbart News or Fox News, I would be just as concerned and just as committed to opposing that—not because I would defend what they said, but because their right to say it is a foundation of our republic. So I would call on all the people who dislike Julian Assange and say that those feelings have to be set aside. Opposing his extradition and prosecution is essential, because those acts will be followed by the prosecution of journalists who publish anything that embarrasses or criminalizes or exposes this administration. Not fighting this prosecution is just paving the way for journalism by handout. We now face an unprecedented assault on freedom of the press in this country.