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Chomsky: Arrest of Assange Is “Scandalous” and Highlights Shocking Extraterritorial Reach of U.S.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman in Boston, as we sit down with Noam Chomsky for a public conversation. I asked him about the arrest of Julian Assange.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, the Assange arrest is scandalous in several respects. One of them is just the effort of governments—and it’s not just the U.S. government. The British are cooperating. Ecuador, of course, is now cooperating. Sweden, before, had cooperated. The efforts to silence a journalist who was producing materials that people in power didn’t want the rascal multitude to know about—OK?—that’s basically what happened. WikiLeaks was producing things that people ought to know about those in power. People in power don’t like that, so therefore we have to silence it. OK? This is the kind of thing, the kind of scandal, that takes place, unfortunately, over and over.

To take another example, right next door to Ecuador, in Brazil, where the developments that have gone on are extremely important. This is the most important country in Latin America, one of the most important in the world. Under the Lula government early in this millennium, Brazil was the most—maybe the most respected country in the world. It was the voice for the Global South under the leadership of Lula da Silva. Notice what happened. There was a coup, soft coup, to eliminate the nefarious effects of the labor party, the Workers’ Party. These are described by the World Bank—not me, the World Bank—as the “golden decade” in Brazil’s history, with radical reduction of poverty, a massive extension of inclusion of marginalized populations, large parts of the population—Afro-Brazilian, indigenous—who were brought into the society, a sense of dignity and hope for the population. That couldn’t be tolerated.

After Lula’s—after he left office, a kind of a “soft coup” take place—I won’t go through the details, but the last move, last September, was to take Lula da Silva, the leading, the most popular figure in Brazil, who was almost certain to win the forthcoming election, put him in jail, solitary confinement, essentially a death sentence, 25 years in jail, banned from reading press or books, and, crucially, barred from making a public statement—unlike mass murderers on death row. This, in order to silence the person who was likely to win the election. He’s the most important political prisoner in the world. Do you hear anything about it?

Well, Assange is a similar case: We’ve got to silence this voice. You go back to history. Some of you may recall when Mussolini’s fascist government put Antonio Gramsci in jail. The prosecutor said, “We have to silence this voice for 20 years. Can’t let it speak.” That’s Assange. That’s Lula. There are other cases. That’s one scandal.

The other scandal is just the extraterritorial reach of the United States, which is shocking. I mean, why should the United States—why should any—no other state could possibly do it. But why should the United States have the power to control what others are doing elsewhere in the world? I mean, it’s an outlandish situation. It goes on all the time. We never even notice it. At least there’s no comment on it.

Like, take the trade agreements with China. OK? What are the trade agreements about? They’re an effort to prevent China’s economic development. It’s exactly what they are. Now, China has a development model. The Trump administration doesn’t like it. So, therefore, let’s undermine it. Ask yourself: What would happen if China did not observe the rules that the United States is trying to impose? China, for example, when Boeing or Microsoft, some other major company, invests in China, China wants to have some control over the nature of the investment. They want some degree of technology transfer. They should gain something from the technology. Is there something wrong with that? That’s how the United States developed, stealing—what we call stealing—technology from England. It’s how England developed, taking technology from more advanced countries—India, the Low Countries, even Ireland. That’s how every developed country has reached the stage of advanced development. If Boeing and Microsoft don’t like those arrangements, they don’t have to invest in China. Nobody has a gun to their heads. If anybody really believed in capitalism, they should be free to make any arrangement they want with China. If it involves technology transfer, OK. The United States wants to block that, so China can’t develop.

Take what are called intellectual property rights, exorbitant patent rights for medicines, for Windows, for example. Microsoft has a monopoly on operating systems, through the World Trade Organization. Suppose China didn’t observe these. Who would benefit, and who would lose? Well, the fact of the matter is that consumers in the United States would benefit. It would mean that you’d get cheaper medicines. It would mean that when you get a computer, that you wouldn’t be stuck with Windows. You could get a better operating system. Bill Gates would have a little less money. The pharmaceutical corporations wouldn’t be as super-rich as they are, a little less rich. But the consumers would benefit. Is there something wrong with that? Is there a problem with that?

Well, you might ask yourself: What lies behind all of these discussions and negotiations? This is true across the board. Almost any issue you pick, you can ask yourself: Why is this accepted? So, in this case, why is it acceptable for the United States to have the power to even begin to give even a proposal to extradite somebody whose crime is to expose to the public materials that people in power don’t want them to see? That’s basically what’s happening.


Julian Assange indictment sends mixed messages on press freedom

By charging WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with hacking, the United States has avoided a direct challenge to press freedom. However, critics say the case could still have a chilling effect on journalism.

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London - Julian Assange arrested (Reuters/P. Nicholls)

The Justice Department has charged Julian Assange with a conspiracy to hack a United States government computer containing classified documents. That's according to its sealed indictment against the founder of WikiLeaks filed in March last year in a Virginia court, and unsealed on Wednesday. The indictment does not, however, charge Assange directly with publishing classified information.

It has been clear that the US had prepared a sealed charge against Assange ever since a court filing in a separate case late last year inadvertently mentioned him. However, the details of the indictment only became known when it was unsealed after Assange was arrested at Ecuador's embassy in London.

Safer route

Legal scholars say it was a prudent decision by the US government to charge Assange with one count of conspiracy to hack a government computer. Had the US leveled a much broader espionage charge focused on the publication of classified information, it likely would have been perceived as a direct attack on the freedom of press enshrined in the First Amendment of the US constitution.

"This distinguishes the illegal obtaining of information by hacking from the constitutionally protected publication of the information," said Frederick Schauer, a law professor with a focus on free speech issues at the University of Virginia. "This looks like, from the perspective of the government, a constitutionally safer way to proceed."

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WikiLeaks made global headlines by publishing the Iraq War Logs and a trove of US diplomatic cables

Unlike in many other countries, explained Schauer, it is not only legal but constitutionally protected in the US to publish illegally obtained information. But the actual act of obtaining that information, through theft or hacking for example, is illegal.

In the indictment, the US government alleges that "Assange agreed to assist in cracking a password stored on United States Department of Defense computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network, a United States government network used for classified documents and communications." If convicted, Assange faces a maximum prison term of five years.

Read more: Julian Assange's arrest sets dangerous precedent

"I think it was a strategic decision on the part of the government not to try to prosecute for anything to do with publication," said Schauer. "There will still be people who will talk about the First Amendment, there will still be people who talk about freedom of the press, but at least under existing constitutional doctrine the distinction between illegally obtaining and subsequent publishing is clear."

'Tarring' legitimate journalism practices

One of those people who has raised press freedom concerns is Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. He acknowledged it was important that the core of the indictment deals with the alleged hacking of a government computer and not the publication of classified information. But, said Jaffer, "the indictment inexplicably sweeps in a whole lot of activity that is not just lawful, but core to press freedom, like cultivating sources and communicating securely with sources."

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London, Julian Assange (picture-alliance/J.Wiseman)

Assange spent nearly seven years living inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London

The indictment details how Assange allegedly communicated with his co-conspirators, including Chelsea Manning, by using an online chat service, and how classified documents were transmitted via a cloud drop box.

"It seems pretty clear that the aim of the indictment is to tar those entirely legitimate journalistic activities by association with this alleged unlawful hack of the government database," said Jaffer. "So I would say that it is in a sense a kind of a relief that the indictment focuses ultimately on the hack of a government database, but it's very troubling that the indictment is worded so broadly and characterizes all this entirely legitimate journalistic activity as part of a criminal conspiracy."

Chilling effect?

What's more, added Jaffer, it is possible that the US Justice Department could file additional charges against Assange at a later time. For that reason, and for the fact that this government holds a hostile view towards the media generally, and national security journalism in particular, it is important to closely watch the Justice Department's handling of the Assange case, he said. "It's certainly possible that the government's prosecution could have a chilling effect on journalism."


The Next Woodward and Bernstein Could Go to Jail

Branko Marcetic
With the Julian Assange indictment, the Trump administration is launching its boldest attack on press freedom yet. And the #Resistance is cheering it on.

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Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates court on April 11, 2019 in London, England. Jack Taylor / Getty

Peter Gowan

Every day of the #Resistance is layered with such incoherence, reality itself threatens to bend under the weight of its contradictions. This process may have reached its apogee with the arrest and possible extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for the past seven years, fearing extradition to the US.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider the absurdity of the situation. Trump, who for years has been accused of being a Russian asset working in concert with Assange and WikiLeaks, prepared and filed secret criminal charges against Assange that are now finally unveiled. Meanwhile, for more than two years, the US media and the anti-Trump “Resistance” have been fretting about Trump attacking press freedoms and holding up the press as the last barrier standing between American democracy and full-blown autocracy, rightly cheering on as journalists obtained confidential, damaging information about the administration from high-level sources within the government. Now some prominent members of both groups are actually cheering as Trump prepares to try and criminalize the practice of journalism.

Some of the support for Assange’s arrest stems from confusion over what he’s being charged with. As the US indictment makes clear, this has nothing to do with the sexual assault accusations Assange faced in Sweden, which were dropped in 2017. (Assange was not found innocent of the charges.) Nor is it connected to Assange’s release of hacked emails from the DNC and Clinton campaign during 2016, which would be protected by the First Amendment. This indictment is entirely over the 2010 release of documents leaked by Chelsea Manning, for which she was imprisoned and tortured, and now imprisoned again. It’s here that the threat to press freedoms lie.

As the indictment reveals, Assange’s crime was conspiracy to gain unauthorized access to a government computer and, the crux of the indictment, “obtain information” that was classified and “could be used to the injury of the United States and the advantage of any foreign nation,” and to make public that information. In unambiguous terms, the indictment calls Manning’s “acquisition and transmission of classified information” so “WikiLeaks could publicly disseminate” that information the “primary purpose of the conspiracy.” Assange’s attempts to crack a government password, part of which was provided to him by Manning, is listed only as one of the “acts in furtherance of the conspiracy.”

In other words, for now, Assange is charged with hacking, or trying to hack, the US government. Had the Trump administration just gone after Assange for that, they might have been on solid ground. Instead, true to an administration that time and again has made clear it has little regard for the First Amendment, they’ve cast the net far wider, taking aim more broadly at the fact that Assange was trying to get his hands on classified information and make it public.

As the indictment lays out, part of the basis for conspiracy is that Assange and Manning used an online chat service to “collaborate on the acquisition and dissemination of the classified records,” that Assange “encouraged” Manning to provide him with these documents, and that Assange “took measures to conceal Manning as the source.” It could be that the Trump administration will add more charges later. Or it could be that, by making this the crux of the issue, the administration plans to use this case to chip away at protections for the press. Bear in mind that Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former CIA director and now his secretary of state, has gone on the record calling WikiLeaks a “hostile intelligence service” and charging Assange isn’t protected by the First Amendment. We know this administration’s motives.

This is exactly why press freedom advocates, organizations like the ACLU, and many on the Left have long opposed government attempts to prosecute Assange. All of the acts listed in the indictment — encouraging a source to provide classified information, concealing the identity of the source, and talking to the source about how to get the information out — are what journalists do every day, particularly those reporting on sensitive issues related to national security. Establishing this as the standard for which someone can be charged and prosecuted for criminal conspiracy would endanger the work of untold numbers of reporters.

The US government previously walked right up to this precipice, under Obama. In 2013, his Justice Department shocked observers when it revealed it had spied on and investigated a Fox News reporter as potentially criminally liable in the midst of a probe into classified leaks The government called the reporter, James Rosen, a “co-conspirator” in the case, because he had “asked, solicited and encouraged [the leaker] to disclose sensitive United States internal documents and intelligence information” through “flattery and playing to [the leaker’s] vanity and ego.” (The eventual story, as it happens, was privately deemed a “nothing burger,” which didn’t stop the Obama DoJ from ruining the leaker’s life over it.) In other words, the journalist was part of a conspiracy to get classified information because he “encouraged” a source to give it to him. Sound familiar?

The administration didn’t actually charge Rosen with a crime, ultimately. But the words of one Obama national security official shows why this is cold comfort. Rosen, the official said, “had actively asked people with access to classified information to break the law by providing him classified information he could publish.” More damningly, according to the official, he had “used false names and ‘dead drop’ email accounts to do so.” Just because the First Amendment protects publishing material, the official concluded, “doesn’t give reporters license to do anything they want to get that information.” This same mindset now forms the basis of this indictment against Assange.

If the Trump DoJ has its way, then journalists like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who have spent their careers getting classified information out of high-level sources — and who have been all but sanctified by an anti-Trump “Resistance,” which has adopted their Watergate investigation as a model for taking on Trump — could be treated as criminal conspirators by a future government.

Or let’s consider those outlets that reported on the classified Pentagon Papers in the 1970s. The plot of Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which was widely touted as a vital celebration of press freedom and resistance to authoritarianism in the age of Trump, depicted Washington Post reporters actively trying to convince Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers leaker who held a top-secret security clearance, to give them the secret documents. This, too, would potentially be criminalized if the administration prevails.

Unfortunately, some in the media, as well as the typically incoherent liberal and centrist “Resistance,” have done the opposite of resist. Instead, they’re supporting Trump on this.

“Assisting someone to break the law and access classified information is not protected by the 1st Amendment or the SCOTUS ‘NY Times vs. United States’ decision,” wrote one of NBC’s counterterrorism reporters.

Mother Jones‘s David Corn, who was earlier revealed to have given the now discredited Steele Dossier to the FBI in an effort to take down Trump, spent yesterday helpfully delineating between what is officially acceptable journalism and what isn’t. “Do not help sources break the law to obtain information,” he advised. “However, you can publish info that is brought to you.” Remember, journalism is simply publishing whatever secret information the government deems fit to reveal to you.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer professed his hope that now Assange could be “held to account for his meddling in our elections on behalf of Putin and the Russian government.” While the Trump administration is so far only charging Assange over hacking, Schumer is actively calling for Assange’s publication of leaks to be criminalized.

“Know what endangers journalists?” wrote Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor. “Assange working with Russian intelligence to elect a US president who calls journalists enemy of the people.” This is the illiberal, circular logic of the political establishment: we should tolerate Trump’s attempt here to potentially criminalize journalism, because he’s going after the guy who may have helped put the anti-journalism Trump in office in the first place.

The Trump Justice Department has been very clever here. By leading with the hacking charge, they are able to plausibly claim they’re prosecuting Assange on narrow grounds, even as the indictment makes clear that they intend to go much further. Meanwhile, a largely Democrat-aligned and sometimes alarmingly illiberal press, which has long loathed Assange but has been particularly hostile to him since he published damaging information about Clinton during the 2016 election, is so blinded by vengefulness that some are actually supporting what will constitute the administration’s most aggressive salvo against press freedom, far more threatening than banning Jim Acosta from the White House press pool.

These members of the media and the “Resistance” need to get a grip. The prosecution of Assange is not a referendum on everything the man ever done or who he is as a person. And the fact that Assange and WikiLeaks haven’t always acted responsibly in publishing information matters little in this case. The issue here is that, once he is extradited, the Trump administration may well end up achieving one of the national security state’s most cherished, long-held goals: restricting the publication of classified information by using a widely hated figure to set a precedent.

It will be a sad irony, to say the least, if they succeed with the backing of the press itself.