Talking Points

Charging Julian Assange with espionage is a greater threat to democracy than Jan. 6

The mob attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was a shameful and tragic day. Some in Congress on the Jan. 6 congressional committee believe it represented a threat to American democracy.

Yet some of these leaders support another threat to our democracy that is arguably even greater.

Controversial Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is wanted by the United States for leaking classified government information in 2010 and 2011 that revealed potential war crimes perpetrated by the United States. The U.S. wants him tried for espionage, and, late last week, a U.K. court granted his extradition.

Assange and his defenders contend leaking secret government information to the public is what any journalist might do on a regular basis. Basic reporting.

This is not new. When The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers in 1971, which showed how the president had deceived the public about the Vietnam War, the Richard Nixon administration sued the paper. Henry Kissinger called the leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, "the most dangerous man in America." Nixon reportedly raged at his aides over Ellsberg, telling them to "destroy" that "son of a b---h" and "I don't care how you do it."

Successfully representing The New York Times then was attorney James Goodale. When former President Barack Obama was seeking to punish Assange, Goodale compared the situation to the Pentagon Papers case, telling The Guardian in 2013 "it's the very same thing ... [Y]ou've got to remember, [Chelsea] Manning's the leaker. Everyone says Assange is a leaker. He's not a leaker. He's the person who gets the information." That means "if you go after Wikileaks criminally, you go after the Times," amounting to "the criminalization of the whole process," Goodale argued.

The criminalization of journalism?

A free press is the cornerstone of any democratic society. Some will continue to argue whether the problematic Assange is actually a journalist, just as some now debate whether the Jan. 6 attack represents something greater than just the chaos of that day. But if Assange were found guilty of espionage for his actions, there is good reason to fear it would have a chilling effect on America's free press and do irreparable harm to our democracy. 

Goodale warned of this very prospect back in 2013. "It's absolutely frightening," he said.