“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press,” reads the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Yet, for the first time ever, a publisher is being prosecuted under the First World War-era Espionage Act. Julian Assange, co-founder of the whistleblower website Wikileaks, is facing 170 years in prison if he is extradited to the U.S. from the United Kingdom. The case could deal a monumental blow to the free press in the United States.
The U.S. first charged Assange in April with attempting to help a U.S. Army whistleblower break into a military computer system, for which Assange would face up to five years in prison. Then, on May 23, the Justice Department released a superseding indictment, with the additional 17 espionage charges. The new charges, The New York Times editorial board wrote on the day they were announced, “could have a chilling effect on American journalism as it has been practiced for generations. It is aimed straight at the heart of the First Amendment.”
The New York Times was one of many news organizations that partnered with the whistleblower website Wikileaks in publishing material that it was provided anonymously. From its launch in 2007, Wikileaks proved to be a reliable source for critical, documentary evidence of corporate and government malfeasance.
Also in 2007, Wikileaks released a secret manual from the Guantanamo Bay prison, written in 2003, that instructed guards to deny prisoners access to the Quran and bar Red Cross visits in order to “exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee” — a violation of international human rights law. Not long after, the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Center produced a secret document — subsequently leaked to and released by Wikileaks — that called Wikileaks “a potential force protection, counterintelligence, operational security, and information security threat to the U.S. Army.”
In April 2010, Wikileaks made international headlines when it released a video showing the indiscriminate targeting and killing of civilians in Baghdad. The video was recorded July 12, 2007, by a U.S. military Apache helicopter gunship, and includes audio of military radio transmissions.
Two Reuters employees — Iraqi journalist Namir Noor-Eldeen and driver Saeed Chmagh — were killed in the attack, along with at least eight other people, and two children were critically injured. The radio transmissions show not only the utter callousness of the soldiers, laughing and swearing as they kill, but also the strict procedure they follow, ensuring that all of their attacks are clearly authorized by their chain of command.
Reuters had repeatedly requested information from the Pentagon related to the death of its two employees, but had received nothing. It took one brave whistleblower and Wikileaks to reveal the horror of that helicopter attack, clear video evidence of a possible war crime.
The whistleblower was eventually identified as Pvt. Bradley Manning. Manning was jailed in solitary confinement in conditions that the United Nations described as tantamount to torture, then prosecuted and convicted. Immediately after being sentenced to 35 years in prison, Manning announced a gender transition, changing her name to Chelsea. President Barack Obama eventually commuted her sentence, and she was released from prison in May 2017.
Her ordeal was not over, however. In February 2019, she was called before a grand jury to testify about Wikileaks and Julian Assange. She refused to testify, indicating that she had testified fully during her 2013 court-martial. For that, she was jailed for two months. She was then called before a second grand jury. Refusing to testify again, she has been imprisoned since May 16.
As for Julian Assange, he had been living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012, where he had been given political asylum. He fled to the embassy, fearful that he would be extradited to the United States. On April 11, British authorities entered the embassy and forcibly arrested him. He is now serving a 50-week sentence for violating the terms of his bail in a separate case.
Nils Melzer, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, said after visiting Assange in the British prison where he is being held that he “shows all the symptoms of a person who has been exposed to psychological torture for a prolonged period of time.” Assange was reportedly unable to appear in his most recent court hearing due to failing health.
Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said of the new indictment:
“For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information. This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration’s attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment.”
Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Truthdig.