“He's a narcissistic dick, and nobody's idea of a journalist,” Keller told The Daily Beast concerning the spectacle of plainclothes British police officers dragging the disheveled, wildly bearded WikiLeaks founder from London’s Ecuadorian Embassy building, where Assange has been camping out for the past six and a half years, under diplomatic asylum, to evade arrest and extradition on rape charges in Sweden (allegations he denies).
Keller’s comments—in reaction to last week’s unsealed indictment of Assange by Donald Trump’s Justice Department for alleged “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion” with court-martialed former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning—reflect a general attitude of the American journalism establishment: He may be a narcissistic dick, but he’s our narcissistic dick.
In the wake of the 47-year-old Assange’s arrest last Thursday—a scene captured on video by RT, the Kremlin-funded television network on which Assange once hosted his own show—Keller was quick to stress that “the government should be very careful not to criminalize the act of publication or the legitimate journalistic pursuit of newsworthy information.”
Keller became acquainted with the Australian computer hacker more intimately than he might have liked in 2010 when Assange shared half a million purloined classified U.S. government documents on the military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Times, Britain’s Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel.
“Arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial and oddly credulous,” Keller described Assange in a lengthy account of the Times’ relationship with the WikiLeaks leader that likened him to “a bag lady… wearing a dingy, light-colored sport coat and cargo pants, dirty white shirt, beat-up sneakers and filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles” who also “smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in days.”
“Journalists, regardless of whether they’re likable or not, should not suffer criminal repercussions for journalism,” said Courtney Radsch, director of advocacy for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The key is that the First Amendment, at least in the United States, has a specific carve-out for freedom of the press, and that is not qualified by whether or not the individual involved is a nice guy.”
As HBO’s resident investigative satirist, John Oliver, put it on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight: “It is easy to dislike Julian Assange… Alongside the valuable information that WikiLeaks has helped release, they’ve also recklessly published the sensitive personal data of hundreds of ordinary people, potentially putting lives at risk. And that’s not even getting into the fact that WikiLeaks’ publication of hacked emails in 2016 helped elect Trump president.”
But Oliver continued: “You are allowed not to like him, but America’s current attempts to extradite him hang on a specific charge that many press advocates find unsettling.”
Fox News’s Sean Hannity, who interviewed Assange at his embassy lair in 2017 and even offered him a guest-hosting gig, was something of an outlier in offering his locked-up friend unreserved accolades.
“If you look at WikiLeaks’ record, they never printed a single thing proven untrue in like 12 years,” Hannity, who has frequently echoed Trump’s claim that the mainstream media is “the enemy of the people,” declared on his cable show. “Whether you like their work or don't, that's a much better track record than the fake news media mob here in America that has been doing nothing but lying and peddling you conspiracy theories for two-and-a-half years.”
The Assange indictment is limited to a single count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion—alleging that he helped Manning try “cracking a password” for unauthorized computer access, though it doesn’t indicate that the alleged attempt succeeded.
But—troubling to many—the indictment includes descriptions of what otherwise would be considered legitimate interactions between a journalist and a confidential source.
While the New York Times editorial board praised the Trump Justice Department for limiting the scope of the indictment—“The administration has begun well by charging Mr. Assange with an indisputable crime”—Norman Pearlstine, executive editor of the Los Angeles Times, said he isn’t sure that failing to crack a password is illegal.
“You and I receive stuff all the time [from confidential sources],” Pearlstine told The Daily Beast. “But if you were handed the key to my apartment in order to break into it, and you try the key and it doesn’t work, is that sufficient to merit an indictment? I don’t know if that is an indictable offense.”
On Sunday’s installment of CNN’s Reliable Sources media criticism program, Intercept D.C. bureau chief Ryan Grim pointed out that the Obama administration was aware of the password-cracking attempt years ago, and opted not to indict Assange.
“This is a threat to press freedom particularly in the way that the Department of Justice has kind of convinced the press, in its reporting of this, to slit its own throat, by taking the word of the Justice Department,” Grim said, adding that the indictment indicates that Assange was trying to help Manning obtain files to which his security clearance already gave him access, but anonymously. “They put ‘hacking’ in the press release, but it doesn’t appear anywhere in the indictment. Yet all the news coverage around it is, ‘Oh, Assange is not a journalist, he’s a hacker.’”
“The debate over who is and who isn’t a journalist sometimes misses the point. Let’s look at: what are the acts involved,” the CPJ’s Radsch said. “We are concerned about criminalizing such things as talking to sources, protecting the identity of confidential sources, gathering information and other issues that are really integral to the news gathering process…There is potential concern that [the indictment] is construing normal journalistic activity as part of a conspiracy.”
Perhaps ironically, Barack Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, was notorious for deploying a little-used, century-old law, the Espionage Act, to punish leaking by whistleblowers, at one point threatening New York Times investigative reporter James Risen with jail unless he revealed a confidential source; amid an outcry by journalists and advocacy organizations, Holder ultimately backed down.
“Under the Obama administration we saw that the Espionage Act was used more than all other administrations combined to try to get at leakers and whistleblowers,” Radsch said. “We’ve now seen that this [Trump] administration…has used at least six subpoenas of journalists, looking at the Espionage Act. The fact is that this precedent of using the Espionage Act to get at confidential sources was set by the prior administration, and this [Trump] administration is continuing that trend.”
Former Time magazine editor Rick Stengel, who served in the Obama administration as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, pointed out that the Assange arrest and indictment could have alarming implications for journalists worldwide.
“It's not unreasonable to think that any prosecution of Assange emboldens autocratic leaders to crack down on journalists or whistleblowers,” Stengel told The Daily Beast.
“But the tragic thing is that if you look at any of the countries we might be talking about—Turkey, China, Saudi Arabia and others—they do not have laws that protect freedom of the press and they do have laws that punish those who criticize the government. That's why it's so dangerous to be a journalist in those places, and why it may become even more dangerous.”
Ryan Grim agreed.
“None of this going to be viewed with the nuance that we’re bringing to it by authoritarian governments,” Grim said on CNN. “What they’re going to see is, ‘Oh, the U.S. in cracking down on press freedom, we can crack down on press freedom.’ They’re not parsing the indictment to see whether or not he was gaining access anonymously.”
Grim said the Justice Department’s effort to extradite Assange, a process that could take many months, is potentially even more ominous for journalists.
“A lot of things I’ve published break laws in, say, China, or the United Arab Emirates,” Grim said. “These countries have power over Interpol”—the international police organization. “Why can’t they now issue arrest warrants for me and other journalists as we travel and say ‘Look, the U.S. indicted Assange, who’s not an American citizen, for violating American laws, we want to extradite these American citizens, and let them face trial in our country?’”