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U.S. Officials File New Charges Against WikiLeaks' Julian Assange

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. is ramping up its case against Julian Assange. Yesterday prosecutors brought a slate of new charges against the WikiLeaks founder, including alleged violations of the Espionage Act. In 2010, Assange published secret government documents containing national security information and revealing the names of U.S. government sources. Assange is already fighting extradition proceedings in London. Jennifer Robinson is one of Julian Assange's attorneys. I spoke with her this morning and asked what she made of these charges.

JENNIFER ROBINSON: This is an unprecedented attack on the media. This is what we've been warning about since 2010, that a publisher is going to be prosecuted for receiving and publishing truthful information. We've seen today the ACLU, other free speech groups, have come out with grave concern about what this means for all journalists in the United States and elsewhere. And we are very concerned about it. This is the Trump administration ramping up its attack on freedom of the press.

MARTIN: As you note, his - a large part of his defense is that he is, indeed, a journalist. But he puts out information indiscriminately. There is no editing, no context. And critics say that's not journalism as it's commonly understood.

ROBINSON: The First Amendment protects publishing, and WikiLeaks is certainly a publisher, as is Julian Assange. Whatever the debate about journalism, he does, in fact, provide context. And he has won journalism awards the world over. This is activity which is protected by the First Amendment. And you cannot distinguish between what - as The New York Times recognized overnight - you cannot distinguish between what WikiLeaks did and what The New York Times did in respect to this material. If WikiLeaks and if Julian Assange can be prosecuted for doing what they did, releasing information that revealed government wrongdoing, human rights abuse, war crimes, this sets a terrible precedent for all of the media.

MARTIN: Assange has been charged for his - what they're alleging is his complicity in illegal acts involving a former Army intelligence analyst, Chelsea Manning. How involved was Julian Assange in getting these documents?

ROBINSON: What this case boils down to is an allegation about a publisher and a journalist having conversations with a source, encouraging a source to get information and helping that source protect their identity while having discussions about how they ought to protect their identity. This is what journalists do all the time. You cannot distinguish between that and what journalists do. This will set a terrible precedent and so on (ph) - not just national security journalism, but public interest journalism across the board.

MARTIN: Did he actually help Chelsea Manning hack into those computers?

ROBINSON: There is absolutely no suggestion that hacking took place, that - if you get past the Department of Justice press release headline, what it boils down to is an allegation, which has not been proven, about conversations had between a publisher and a source about what information was available and how that information can be provided. That is what journalists do all the time.

MARTIN: If he's adamant that he committed no crime related to these charges, why then did he spend years holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London?

ROBINSON: Because he was concerned about precisely this outcome, that he would be sought for extradition and prosecution in the United States for publishing truthful information. His concern and fear about that has been proven to have been objectively reasonable and correct.

MARTIN: Jennifer Robinson is on Julian Assange's legal team.

Thank you so much for your time.

ROBINSON: You're very welcome. Thank you.

MARTIN: We're going to get another view on this now. Kevin Goldberg is legal counsel to the American Society of News Editors, specializing in First Amendment law. And he's in our studios. Thanks so much for coming in.

KEVIN GOLDBERG: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I just want to quickly address the issue of the Espionage Act being employed here. This is a first, is it not? I mean, the Espionage Act is usually used for government employees, no?

GOLDBERG: It usually is. And this isn't a first, but it's a close second. This is the second time, to my knowledge, in the more than 100-year history of that act that someone outside of government has been prosecuted for disseminating classified information. The first happened in 2006, where two lobbyists from AIPAC were prosecuted. The charges were eventually dropped after a First Amendment defense was successfully raised.

MARTIN: So is the question here whether or not Julian Assange is protected by the First Amendment as a journalist? I mean, we heard his attorney there argue that he is a journalist. He's a publisher/journalist, and thus should be afforded those rights. Is he those things?

GOLDBERG: I don't think the question is whether Julian Assange is protected by the First Amendment as a journalist. I think the question is whether Julian Assange is protected by the First Amendment. I personally do not think he is a journalist. I think he does things which are similar to journalists. I think at times he acts exactly as a journalist. And I think there are many times he does not. I certainly do not think that this should hinge on whether he is a journalist or not.

We've heard people from the Department of Justice say we would never do this to a journalist. I think making that distinction is almost as dangerous as the prosecution itself. We do not want the Department of Justice or any other arm of government deciding who is and who is not a journalist.

MARTIN: So if he is found to have conspired with Chelsea Manning to break into government files, then those rights would not apply.

GOLDBERG: Well, journalists are not immune from laws of general applicability. So if a journalist breaks into a house, they can't suddenly hold up his - that journalist cannot suddenly hold up his or her press credentials and say, it's OK; I can do this. I'm a journalist. That would similarly be true if it was found to be that there was illegal hacking or illegal breaking into a government file.

MARTIN: So how do you view this case from a bigger perspective? I mean, what could be the wider implications of this on the First Amendment?

GOLDBERG: Well, as I said, I don't believe Julian Assange is a journalist. I don't think this turns on whether he is a journalist. I do think that there are obvious implications for journalists. And I think there are obvious implications for any member of the public. We lose out, as members of the public, if journalists are chilled from engaging in newsgathering and publication. I really think that's going to happen. Think about all the stories we've heard over the past two years, decade, beyond, that involved release of classified information. One of the most obvious is the release of the Pentagon Papers. We learned a lot about the U.S. history and decision-making in Vietnam.

There are - there's information about the Bay of Pigs that was classified that certainly, in retrospect, even years after, was still classified but greatly contributed to our knowledge of U.S. policy-making. And we've seen things in recent years that are similar as well. If we don't have access to that information, we lose out on a significant amount of learning about what our government's doing. And I think that is the case here.

Journalists will be chilled if they're told, you could be punished, criminally punished, for disseminating this information. And activities - newsgathering activities that journalists engage in every day are things that are being prosecuted here. The largely sometimes passive receipt of information that Julian Assange had, simply putting out into the world, I'd like documents, is something journalists do every day. And that is one of the things he's actually being charged with as conspiring with Chelsea Manning. And that's dangerous - very dangerous.

MARTIN: Kevin Goldberg is legal counsel to the American Society of News Editors. Thank you so much.

GOLDBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.