Collateral Damage: Assange Plea Deal & a Dark Day for Journalism

A photo of Julian Assange holding a document. Image Description: A photo of Julian Assange holding a document.

Summary: Julian Assange finally gets his freedom. But the plea deal also represents a historic first: A journalist has been convicted under the anti-democratic Espionage Act.

In a historic move with far-reaching consequences for journalism, Joe Biden’s Department of Justice obtained a plea deal in its prosecution of WikiLeaks co-founder and publisher Julian Assange, setting a dangerous precedent that undermines constitutionally protected press freedoms and, by extension, democracy itself.

On Monday, Assange reportedly agreed to plead guilty to one felony count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified U.S. national defense documents under the Espionage Act, an archaic World War I-era law that’s been deployed like a cudgel by various presidential administrations to punish whistleblowers.

The Assange plea agreement marks the first time in history that a journalist or publisher has been successfully convicted under the Espionage Act, increasing the likelihood of similar legal proceedings in the future.

And in case you think that’s unrealistic, revisit the extreme policies of the Obama administration, which not only labeled one journalist a “co-conspirator in a leak investigation but nearly sent famed investigative reporter James Risen, formerly of The New York Times, to prison for refusing to reveal his source for a chapter of his book about a plot to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.

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For Assange and his loved ones, it’s difficult to argue that the deal with the U.S. DOJ represents anything but a huge victory. Initially beloved by factions of both sides of the aisle for publishing unflattering secrets weaponized against each other, he became public enemy No. 1 with the release of the “Collateral Murder” video in July 2007, which showed U.S. forces gunning down Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists from Apache helicopters. WikiLeaks followed that up with the publication of diplomatic cables and secret documents related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq detailing other war crimes and atrocities.

After languishing in a high-security London prison for five years following the revocation of his seven-year asylum status by the Ecuadorian government and subsequent arrest by UK authorities in 2019, Assange is finally free.

The path to get to this point has been grueling and, until last month, it seemed all hope was lost. But in a surprise victory, Assange won the right to appeal his extradition to the United States in May, which led observers to believe that it would force the hand of the DOJ. And they were right. Faced with two choices—prolong the extradition process or settle with Assange and give him back his freedom—they chose the latter.

While free press advocates and Assange’s supporters celebrated his release this week—appropriately so—it’s difficult to view this as anything but a seismic defeat for press freedoms in the United States

As mentioned, this is a historic first—and that can’t be underscored enough: The United States just prosecuted a publisher under the Espionage Act, one of the most anti-democratic laws on the books today. There’s no going back from that.

According to reports, U.S. prosecutors have agreed to sentence Assange to five years in prison—effectively the time he served incarcerated in the UK. The U.S. government, in a sense, got everything it wanted: charge the long-reviled Assange for his role in revealing damning secrets to the world, put him through a torturous extradition process, and secure a conviction via a guilty plea that enables them to argue they punished someone for the crime of publishing the truth.

To the casual news reader, the whole affair may seem somewhat mind-boggling, though much less so once you wholly accept the absolute hypocrisy and all-consuming greed at the core of every politician, regardless of party—especially during an election year. The same administration that deceitfully traffics in pro-democracy propaganda to extol the ostensible virtues of Joe Biden was prepared to drag a publisher to court for the crime of doing his job—a wholly undemocratic process.

That all changes now. They get the legal win and consequential ability to tout their toughness against those who dare to expose the unflattering sins of the U.S. death machine, and the additional gravy of arguing (in bad faith) that they set Assange “free” after the Trump DOJ initiated the prosecution (which the hawkish Obama administration declined to act on). As he’s attempted with the ever-mounting civilian body count in Gaza—which he publicly laments while supplying the very bombs and weapons used in the ongoing massacres—Biden gets to walk both sides. (How’s that working out for ya Joey, you sly old dog?)

It’s truly remarkable and abysmally tragic that in the nearly 25-year history of the so-called ‘war on terror,’ the only people held criminally responsible for any of its abuses have been truth seekers: whistleblowers Chelsea Manning, Thomas Drake, Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou, Daniel Hale, and now Assange.

In true imperial fashion, none of the people who architected and spread the weapons of mass destruction lie, made torture government policy, rendered people to black sites, or kidnapped and imprisoned people at Guantanamo Bay have ever been held accountable. Instead, they’re afforded the privilege of the mainstream media whitewashing their blood-soaked legacies despite the carnage they collectively wrought—carnage and generations of suffering Assange and others have brought to the fore.

Rather than hmm let’s see, to start, hold actual murderers accountable, rein in an out-of-control military industrial complex, cease exporting death across the globe, at least attempt to pause self-perpetuating endless war, or address any of the (at the bare minimum) unflattering behaviors or flat-out deadly acts, both parties seek to kill the messengers.

To the chagrin of the elite media, you can argue that Assange has done more for press freedoms and journalism than any other publisher or journalist in contemporary history. For that, he was unfairly punished, his reputation tattered, and his physical and emotional well-being potentially irreversibly damaged. (It’s actually a miracle he’s still alive at all, given the secrets he’s exposed and isolating existence he was forced to endure.)

But that wasn’t enough. They wanted a pound of flesh. A wound that would cut so deep that it would, in a sense, create collateral damage—affecting everyone in the media.

Yes, June 24 was a good day for Assange—no doubt. But it was also a dark day for the free press. Biden got to set a precedent: If you embarass us by exposing truths, you will be destroyed.

How the mainstream ‘press’ and ‘journalists’ can spin this as anything other than a complete and vicious assault on the very heart of journalism is beyond us. Yet looking back, perhaps it’s not so surprising. We were two of only a mere handful of journalists at Ft. Meade covering then-U.S. Army Private Chelsea Manning’s court martial for leaking many of the secrets to WikiLeaks that Assange has been crucified for ultimately publishing. (So was Alexa O’Brien.) Here was a whistleblower on trial under the Espionage Act for exposing—in the case of the ‘Collateral Murder’—an actual massacre. The intent of the government to prosecute Assange was known way back then, as were its potential ramifications to press freedoms.

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Where were the MSM headlines or reports warning of such an assault—or dare we dream, criticizing it? Independent news outlets such as Democracy Now! sure had them.

Was it because media darling and self-professed supporter of whistleblower protections, Democrat Barack Obama was the executioner? (For those keeping score—the Obama administration sought to prosecute more whistleblowers and leakers to the press under the Espionage Act than every other regime combined.)

In contrast, the Trump administration’s 2019 indictment of Assange garnered a flurry of condemnations from several editors of top U.S. newspapers including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.

The truth should never be politicized.

Though some may contend Assange accepting a plea deal does not set the same legal precedent that a conviction from a court decision would, its consequences are just as destructive.

Journalists everywhere now know their careers and lives can be crushed for reporting truths in the public good, damn the First Amendment.

That can have a chilling effect on what they choose to pursue, dig into, investigate, and disseminate. Ditto for sources who now might think twice about risking their livelihoods to share such information with a reporter.

They’re now fully aware that Democratic or Republican, administrations will vehemently defend their sins, their secrets, their crimes and their lies, to hell with us all.

A free press is vital to the survival of our fledgling, experimental republic. Without an independent press unchained and unfettered to report the truth in the public good, no matter what those truths may be, to hold the powerful accountable, and give the voiceless a voice—well, let’s just say that, as with the leaked footage of U.S. Apaches mowing down innocent civilians, very bad people get away with very bad things. Propaganda reigns.

We all suffer.

Make no mistake: Because of Assange’s plea deal, journalism will never be the same, and ultimately, democracy itself is the collateral damage.

This article originally appeared on the Free The Press (FTP) Substack. FTP, examines important issues with a critical lens, wades through government propaganda, calls out lies, and promotes the truth. Subscribe today.

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Rashed Mian is the managing editor of News Beat, and Christopher Twarowski is editor in chief of News Beat.