Biden’s Choice on Julian Assange and the First Amendment

Charles Glass, The Intercept

Assange’s liberty represents that of all journalists and publishers whose job is to expose government and corporate criminality without fear of prosecution.

When Joe Biden becomes president of the United States on January 20, a historic opportunity awaits him to demonstrate America’s commitment to the First Amendment. He can, in a stroke, reverse four years of White House persecution of journalism by withdrawing the application to extradite Julian Assange from Britain to the U.S. This would be in line with the departures from Trump policies Biden is proposing on health care, environmental protection, and tax fairness. Assange’s liberty represents the liberty of all journalists and publishers whose job is to expose government and corporate criminality without fear of prosecution. We need and deserve to be protected against government control of the press.

By removing the 1917 Espionage Act charges against Assange, Biden would be adhering to the precedent established by the administration in which he served for eight years as vice president. President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice investigated Assange and WikiLeaks for three years until 2013 before deciding, in the words of University of Maryland journalism professor Mark Feldstein, “to follow established precedent and not bring charges against Assange or any of the newspapers that published the documents.” Equal application of the law would have required the DOJ to prosecute media outlets, including the New York Times, that had as large a hand in publicizing war crimes as did Assange himself. If prosecutors put all the editors, publishers, and scholars who disseminated WikiLeaks materials in the dock, there would not be a courtroom anywhere in America big enough to hold the trial. Obama decided against it, knowing it would represent an unprecedented assault on freedoms Americans hold dear.

President Barack Obama’s January 2017 decision to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the source for WikiLeaks’s revelation that American forces in Iraq were involved in murder and torture, is another indication that the Trump Justice Department’s prosecution of Assange was an aberration and not an irreversible policy to threaten journalists and whistleblowers everywhere.

Although the Obama administration prosecuted more journalists under the Espionage Act than all its predecessors combined, it pulled its punches in cases that would not withstand scrutiny. The DOJ investigated and wiretapped Fox News journalist James Rosen for publishing information on North Korean nuclear policy in 2013 from State Department security adviser Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, but it avoided a contentious and high-profile trial by declining to prosecute him. Kim pleaded guilty and received a 13-year sentence.

Biden has signaled his intention to return the U.S. to international cooperation, revoking Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to control Iran’s nuclear program…

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