For Immediate Release:
May 24, 2019
Government Accountability Project Statement on the Department of Justice’s Expanded Espionage Act Charges Against Julian Assange
WASHINGTON –On April 11, 2019, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested in London, charged with conspiring to facilitate whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s acquisition and transmission of classified information in order to make that information public. On May 23, 2019, the Department of Justice (DOJ) expanded the charges in its indictment to add 17 new counts of violations of the Espionage Act.
Government Accountability Project Executive Director and Founder, Louis Clark, stated:
“While Julian Assange is not a whistleblower himself, as founder of a media outlet that publishes information provided by whistleblowers, we recognize that his prosecution raises serious concerns for both national security whistleblowers and journalists. Having represented national security whistleblowers in the past, including National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake, we view decisions by the DOJ to prosecute journalists and whistleblowers with great skepticism.”
Since the Obama administration, the DOJ has sought to prosecute whistleblowers under the Espionage Act for giving classified information to the press about some of the most egregious abuses of law and public trust in history, but has ultimately refrained from prosecuting journalists who publish that information. That the DOJ is now using the Espionage Act to prosecute a publisher of information is a new level of assault on press freedom and the public’s right to know about serious government abuses.
Any time there is a prosecution of either a journalist or a whistleblower, there needs to be heightened skepticism because it is so anathema to the public interest to curtail freedom of speech, especially speech that represents one of the few means of exposing what the government is doing behind closed doors. This is even more true in the national security context, where every expert agrees there is massive over-classification and virtually no successful effort to curtail the problem. It is extremely easy to classify information and documents and almost impossible to declassify them.
Government Accountability Project believes there is a distinction between journalists actively and knowingly assisting a source in acquiring classified information and receiving classified information; the latter, including efforts to counsel and protect the identity, security and safety of a source, should never be considered unlawful but instead hallmarks of responsible and necessary journalism. Most journalists do encourage both whistleblowers and leakers to produce evidence and documents that may or may not be of public interest, but this is distinct from the intentional act of conspiring to knowingly access a computer without authorization to acquire classified information, the charge on which Assange was originally arrested. The new Espionage Act charges potentially criminalize the actions of responsible investigative journalists who work with national security whistleblowers.
In light of the DOJ’s aggressive and historic prosecution of whistleblowers, and because of this administration’s unprecedented hostility to the free press, we cannot trust the Justice Department to distinguish between lawful and unlawful journalistic practices without profound worry that it will muzzle free speech and chill both journalists and whistleblowers from exposing serious abuses that would otherwise continue without accountability. Whistleblower protections for national security employees continue to be ineffective and inadequate, with requirements to report internally to an agency Inspector General too often resulting in illegal reprisal against the whistleblower for reporting concerns. Further, the Espionage Act offers no public interest defense, stripping whistleblowers and journalists of the ability to argue and prove their motive was to serve the public interest, not compromise national security.
Until there are meaningful avenues and rights for whistleblowers to disclose classified information about wrongdoing within intelligence agencies, there should be heightened scrutiny and immense doubt about all efforts by the federal government to further chill free speech. Whistleblowers and the journalists and media organizations with whom they are naturally allied share the paramount goal of letting the public know what its government is doing in its name and supposedly in its national security interests.
Contact: Dana Gold, Senior Counsel & Director of Education
Phone: (202) 457-0034 ext. 160
Government Accountability Project
Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, Government Accountability Project’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, Government Accountability Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C