One “law enforcement official,” whoever this person may be, said, “Nothing has occurred so far,” and, “If Assange came to the US today, he would not be arrested.”
“But,” the official continued, “I can’t predict what’s going to happen. He might be in six months.”
It is an odd statement for multiple reasons. Assange could not travel to the US if he wanted to do that today. He faces extradition to Sweden if he exits the Ecuadorian embassy in the United Kingdom. So, this is a nifty scenario that serves the purpose of easily dismissing claims that Assange might face persecution here in America.
Also, if it could happen in six months, isn’t this some kind of twisted bait? Like, hey, if he wanted to come here today, the government has not finished putting together a case yet but in the future there may be one?
The critical nugget, beyond the statement, is that the Washington Post was able to confirm the federal grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks is ongoing.
If one ignores that Assange has an asylum struggle for a moment, so long as the grand jury continues to investigate whatever it may be investigating—and it has been investigating the media organization for about three years—there is no reason Assange should even allow the thought of traveling to the US to cross his mind.
As WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson said to the Washington Post, “We will treat this news with skepticism short of an open, official, formal confirmation that the U.S. government is not going to prosecute WikiLeaks. It is quite obvious that you can shake up an indictment in a very short period of time.” And, “Unfortunately, the US government has a track record of being deceptive and of choosing its words carefully on this issue and other issues as well.”
Comparatively, last week Holder suggested the Justice Department would not prosecute former Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald. He said, “Unless information that has not come to my attention is presented to me, what I have indicated in my testimony before Congress is that any journalist who’s engaged in true journalistic activities is not going to be prosecuted by this Justice Department.”
The “unless” caveat is pretty significant. Let’s presume that it is entirely possible that some investigation into Snowden may have uncovered some evidence on how Greenwald interacted with Snowden and, knowing what we know about how the FBI labeled Fox News reporter James Rosen an “aider, abettor, and co-conspirator” to a leak, Greenwald has been put under the same microscope.
Holder went on to say, “I certainly don’t agree with what Greenwald has done. In some ways, he blurs the line between advocate and journalist. But on the basis of what I know now, I’m not sure there is a basis for prosecution of Greenwald.” Again, there could activities that have taken place in the Justice Department involving Greenwald that he does not know about. He may have decided to distance himself from any investigation into the leak like he distanced himself from the leak investigation that led to the seizure of Associated Press phone records.
Greenwald also does not know if there is some aspect of his past history that the government may choose to exploit if he were to return to the United States. The Justice Department may have something on Greenwald that they could give a veneer of legitimacy to pursuing, however, any peeling away of this veneer would uncover a political case.
Appropriately, Greenwald responded in an email to the Washington Post:
“That this question is even on people’s minds is a rather grim reflection of the Obama administration’s record on press freedoms…It is a positive step that the Attorney General expressly recognizes that journalism is not and should not be a crime in the United States, but given this administration’s poor record on press freedoms, I’ll consult with my counsel on whether one can or should rely on such caveat-riddled oral assertions about the government’s intentions.”
In the both the cases of Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald, who deserve to be able to enjoy protections traditionally afforded to journalists exercising freedom of the press, there is this cavalier and impetuous attitude. It is almost as if this is part of the payback for individuals that choose to expose the inner workings of American empire in their work. Officials will refuse to make statements that do not leave openings for further criminalization, even if they have no evidence to suggest that Assange or Greenwald will engage in illicit or illegal activity in the immediate future to warrant prosecution.
Assange is already in the Ecuadorian embassy, the subject of a grand jury investigation and has had records on his communications and the communications of WikiLeaks staffers and affiliated persons subpoenaed by the government. People like Jacob Appelbaum, a Tor software developer, who has been a volunteer for WikiLeaks, have been routinely harassed by the Department of Homeland Security.
Greenwald’s husband, David Miranda, was detained under a terrorism law and held for nine hours before being released. He had his electronics seized and the UK government has been defending the act of treating Miranda like a terrorist in court. The United States was told ahead of time Miranda would be stopped and has been leerily silent.
Free Press, a media reform organization that has been calling attention to the harassment and intimidation of journalists by the US government, sent 78,000 petitions to Holder demanding he protect press freedom.
Josh Stearns of Free Press wrote, “We shouldn’t have to ask the nation’s top law enforcement official to protect the First Amendment — but we should keep asking, as often as we need to. There has never been a greater need for a movement to come together around defending our rights to connect and communicate.”
Indeed, it should not be an open question whether journalists like Greenwald or Assange could return to the US or whether another journalist/documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has reported on documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, could leave Berlin to complete her documentary on surveillance in the US. That no one in the US government will clearly state that what was done is not a crime that would be prosecuted in just those exact words is reason to be wary and disturbed by whatever the Justice Department might be doing unbeknownst to us all.
Photo by Antonio Marín Segovi, used under Creative Commons license