The imbroglio du jour of the political class is the question of whether Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder arrested last week in London, is a hero or a villain. Is he a journalist entitled to special treatment or a criminal deserving punishment?
And if pursuing then publishing classified materials is a federal offense, what kind of consequences should American journalists face for reporting classified information? Especially when the illicit information is intended not to warn the public of a legitimate threat posed by their government but for partisan political purposes—specifically, to advance the bogus Trump-Russia collusion hoax?
Assange has been charged in a federal district court in Virginia with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for allegedly working with former U.S. Army security analyst Chelsea Manning to access and post a massive trove of stolen classified documents.
“The primary purpose of the conspiracy was to facilitate Manning’s acquisition and transmission of classified information,” the indictment read. “Assange was knowingly receiving such classified records from Manning for the purpose of of publicly disclosing them on the WikiLeaks website.”
Some of Assange’s detractors insist his alleged attempt to steal classified information, and not the act of posting the illicit documents, makes him a criminal, not a journalist entitled to First Amendment protections.
“Assange wants to fight his case under the banner of press freedom,” Washington Post columnist David Ignatius argued last week. “His problem is that the Justice Department has drawn its indictment carefully enough that the issue is theft of secrets, rather than their publication. That’s why so many press advocates seemed to be distancing themselves from Assange after the news broke Thursday.”
Now, that is an interesting (and not entirely accurate) take coming from Ignatius. His newspaper has been one of the most egregious curators of classified government information in the Trump era. And “theft” is an ambiguous term that could apply to all sorts of shady tactics. From publishing details about private calls between the new president and other world leaders to helping fuel the downfall of Lt. General Michael Flynn, the earliest casualty of the Trump-Russia collusion scheme, the Washington Post has disclosed illegally sourced classified information on multiple occasions.
In January 2017, Ignatius was the first journalist to report that incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had spoken several times with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December 2016. Ignatius, in an attempt to help bolster the then-emerging plotline, further hinted that the conversations might have run afoul of an obscure law. “What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions?” Ignatius asked. “The Logan Act (though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about ‘disputes’ with the United States. Was its spirit violated?”
Ignatius’ article lit a firestorm of controversy for the incoming administration. It also served as a pretext for two post-inauguration briefings between acting Attorney General Sally Yates and White House counsel Don McGahn, where Yates told McGahn that Flynn might be vulnerable to Russian “blackmail” because his public statements didn’t line up with his private comments to Kislyak.
The details of those calls were leaked several days later to the Post. In a February 9, 2017 bombshell, three Post reporters claimed that Flynn did discuss Russian sanctions with Kislyak, contrary to Flynn’s public statements.
“Nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters,” according to the Post. “Officials began poring over intelligence reports, intercepted communications and diplomatic cables, and saw evidence that Flynn and Kislyak had communicated by text and telephone around the time of the [sanctions] announcement.” Since the calls occured in December 2016, the sources would have been Obama Administration officials who likely were complicit in the scheme to fuel the Trump-Russia collusion hoax.
They also were breaking the law. The details of the calls were gleaned from classified reports produced by “intelligence and law enforcement agencies that routinely monitor the communications of Russian diplomats,” the Post acknowledged. This violates a federal law under the Espionage Act that prohibits the disclosure of classified information—a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
During a congressional hearing in March 2017, Representative Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) pressed then-FBI Director James Comey about the leak to the Post.
“How would you begin your investigation… that a U.S. citizen’s name appeared in the Washington Post and the New York Times unlawfully?” Gowdy asked Comey. After Comey stammered and called the illegal leaks “terrible,” Gowdy continued to push. “One thing you and I agree on is the felonious dissemination of classified material most definitely is a crime,” the congressman said.
But the Post and its abettors were undeterred. In April 2017, two of the same reporters divulged how the FBI had sought and received a FISA warrant to spy on Trump campaign aide Carter Page. The article was sourced by “officials [who] spoke about the court order on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details of a counterintelligence probe.”
But, of course, that’s not why the officials wanted to remain anonymous and the Post was less than forthcoming to its readers about why they didn’t want their identities revealed. The reporters would have been more accurate—and truthful—by explaining that disclosing the existence of a FISA order to anyone also is a felony.
Two years later, as I’ve pointed out, the felonious leakers in both the Flynn matter and the Page FISA article have not been charged, let alone identified. Representative Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, appears poised to expose at least a few of the leakers when he submits eight criminal referrals to Attorney General William Barr perhaps as early as this week.
Nunes told Fox News host Sean Hannity that one of his referrals is a “global leaks referral which involves just a few reporters but could involve multiple people.”
Now, these reporters likely would argue that publishing classified information sourced from government officials engaged in a criminal act isn’t a crime itself because they are entitled to some vague protections under the First Amendment. Further, they would argue that, unlike the allegations against Assange, they did not directly attempt to “steal” the classified material from an email server or a computer hard drive or a government document vault.
But what if the reporters enticed the officials with pledges of, say, free tickets to basketball games or golf tournaments? What if the journalists persuaded the felonious leaker to divulge classified information with a promise of a night on the town? After all, that is exactly what the Justice Department’s inspector general concluded in his June 2018 report on the Clinton email investigation.
“We identified instances where FBI employees improperly received benefits from reporters, including tickets to sporting events, golfing outings, drinks and meals, and admittance to nonpublic social events,” the report disclosed. This fueled “a culture of unauthorized media contacts” that the IG detailed in two charts at the end of his report.
Or what if the reporter was being paid by political flacks to print classified information designed to harm the opposition? Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson is a former journalist with deep ties to the D.C. media claque. Turns out that Simpson was paying some of his journo-pals to write stories about the Fusion-planted Russia investigation.
Or what if the reporters and the news outlet published illicit national intelligence in order to win a major award? After all, the staff of the Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for its “deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage in the public interest that dramatically furthered the nation’s understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign.”
Or what if the reporter slept with the man in charge of classified documents for a powerful Senate committee just so she could get the scoop, as was the case with a young New York Times reporter, Ali Watkins, and her lover, 30 years her senior, who fed her secret info about the Trump-Russia investigation?.
Just because these journalists didn’t steal the Page FISA application or Flynn transcripts themselves should not excuse their culpability. Further, unlike previous examples of news organizations publishing classified information against the will of the federal government, none of this was done in the public interest or for national security. The Washington Post reporters were used as scribes for anti-Trump antagonists associated with the top echelons of our law enforcement and intelligence apparatus while refusing to inform their readers that the information they were publishing was sourced by people breaking the law. It’s hard to see how most Americans would consider that legitimate journalism protected by the First Amendment.
In fact, at least WikiLeaks posted the entire trove of documents and let the reader judge for himself what to make of the evidence. The Washington Post reporters, and others of their ilk, are worse, relying on politically-motivated Obama holdovers bitter that Donald Trump won the election who were doing everything in their power to undermine his presidency.
That’s not heroism, or even solid journalism. It’s exploiting special privilege for partisan purposes. Not only should that not be rewarded, it should be investigated and handled accordingly. It’s clear that the widely-accepted press protections under the First Amendment have been abused by the American media in service of sabotaging Trump’s presidency. The damage they’ve inflicted on the country and the individuals involved is as serious as any other criminal leak of classified information.
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