Press freedom advocates must be careful not to indulge Trump’s conspiracy theories while they lobby for whistleblower pardons.
In 2007, the Bush administration’s Justice Department sent me a letter saying it was conducting a criminal investigation into “the unauthorized disclosure of classified information” in my 2006 book, “State of War.”
When my lawyers called the Justice Department about the letter, the prosecutors refused to say I was not a “subject” of their leak investigation. That was ominous. If I were considered a “subject,” rather than simply a witness, it meant the government hadn’t ruled out prosecuting me for publishing classified information.
Eventually — after the Obama administration took over the case — the Justice Department decided to treat me only as a witness and did not try to prosecute me.
But in the future, the outcome of a similar case for a journalist might be very different if Julian Assange is successfully prosecuted on the charges brought against him by President Donald Trump’s Justice Department.
The Trump administration has charged Assange under the Espionage Act for conspiring to leak classified documents. The indictment focuses on his alleged efforts to encourage former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to leak classified documents to him and WikiLeaks. If the Assange prosecution is successful, it will set a dangerous precedent: that journalists can be prosecuted based on their interactions with sources who provide them with government secrets.
Such a precedent could make it extremely difficult for journalists to cover military, intelligence, and related national security matters, and thus leave the public in the dark about what the government is really doing around the world.
That is why the U.S. indictment of Julian Assange is so dangerous to liberty in America, and why the case against Assange should be dropped and he should be pardoned.
While Trump has still not publicly accepted his defeat in the 2020 presidential election, he has begun to issue a spate of pardons. On Tuesday, he issued pardons to a group that included two convicted of crimes in connection with the Trump-Russia investigation, and four former Blackwater contractors convicted of killing Iraqi civilians.
Despite the stench surrounding Trump’s latest pardons, supporters of several whistleblowers have launched public campaigns to lobby for pardons; the supporters of Assange and Edward Snowden have been the most vocal.
Like Assange, Snowden clearly deserves a pardon. Snowden’s massive 2013 leak documented the full extent of the National Security Agency’s domestic spying on Americans. But rather than recognize that Snowden has performed a public service, the U.S. government has forced him into exile in Russia. Meanwhile, Assange now sits in prison in Britain, awaiting extradition to face prosecution in the United States.
Public support for the pardon of whistleblower Reality Winner has also begun to build. Winner was arrested in 2017 and accused of anonymously leaking an NSA document disclosing that Russian intelligence was seeking to hack into U.S. election voting systems. That document was allegedly leaked to The Intercept, which had no knowledge of the identity of its source. (The Intercept’s parent company supported Winner’s legal defense through the First Look Media’s Press Freedom Defense Fund, which I direct.) She pleaded guilty in the case in 2018 and was sentenced to more than five years in prison, the longest sentence ever imposed in a case involving a leak to the press.
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court denied Winner’s request for compassionate early release after she contracted Covid-19 in prison. She remains in federal prison today.
Former Pentagon official J. William Leonard wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this week calling for Winner’s pardon, arguing in part that her “prosecution constituted overreach by the government.”
But there are other whistleblowers who deserve pardons as well.
During Trump’s four years in office, his administration has arrested and charged eight government officials in leak cases. That is almost equal to the record nine (or 10, depending on how you count) leak prosecutions conducted by the Obama administration over eight years.
Four of the leak cases during the Trump administration were connected to disclosures related to Trump, the circle of people around him, and the Trump-Russia inquiry. The Justice Department was clearly under intense pressure from Trump to go after people who leaked stories that Trump didn’t like.
Winner’s case was the first of those four. In addition, James Wolfe, the director of security for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, was charged in 2018 with making false statements to the FBI in connection with a leak investigation into a Washington Post story revealing that the government had obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to monitor Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign.
Wolfe pleaded guilty in 2018 to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with reporters and was sentenced to two months in prison.
Also in 2018, Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, who was a senior adviser at the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, was charged with disclosing reports about financial transactions related to people under scrutiny in the Trump-Russia inquiry, including former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort. She allegedly leaked the information to BuzzFeed News. In 2020, she pleaded guilty, and her sentencing is now scheduled for January 2021.
In 2019, John Fry, an IRS employee, was charged with leaking suspicious activity reports involving the financial transactions of Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, including information about how a company owned by Cohen received $500,000 from a company with ties to a Russian oligarch. The Trump Justice Department recommended prison time for Fry, but in 2020, a federal judge instead gave Fry probation and ordered him to pay a $5,000 fine.
Other whistleblowers have also been caught up in Trump’s crackdown, including FBI agent Terry Albury, who was arrested in 2018 and charged with leaking information about the systemic racial biases at the bureau, which were reported by The Intercept. And former intelligence analyst Daniel Hale was also arrested in 2019, charged with leaking information about the U.S. military’s use of drones to conduct targeted assassinations, also allegedly to The Intercept.
While most of the public lobbying for pardons for whistleblowers has focused on Assange and Snowden, and to a lesser extent Winner, the other whistleblowers prosecuted by Trump have largely been forgotten.
For the most part, the small press freedom community has made the case for Assange and Snowden on the grounds of the First Amendment, press freedom, and government transparency. Yet the campaign to convince Trump to pardon Snowden and Assange has also attracted a strange group of extreme Trump supporters. They argue that pardoning the two men offers Trump the opportunity to stick it to the so-called deep state.
The “deep state” is, of course, the mythical beast at the heart of so many of Trump’s conspiracy theories. Trump believes that a secret cabal of intelligence and national security officials has been trying to destroy him personally since at least the 2016 campaign.
It is important for press freedom advocates to steer clear of these deep state conspiracy theories and instead continue to argue for the pardons on the merits of press freedom. Indulging in Trump’s fantasies in order to win the pardons will only taint the cause of press freedom in the future.
It’s important for press freedom advocates to steer clear of deep state conspiracy theories and instead continue to argue for the pardons on the merits of press freedom.
As a journalist, I have spent much of my career covering, exposing, and criticizing the American national security establishment. Let there be no mistake: There is, in fact, a massive U.S. military-industrial complex, and a newer post-9/11 homeland security-industrial complex. Those two complexes overlap, comprising career military, intelligence, and federal law enforcement officials, executives at giant defense companies, and legions of smaller defense and intelligence contractors, as well as career political figures who take top positions in the defense and intelligence agencies when their party is in power, and become consultants or think-tank pundits when their party is out of power.
The military-industrial complex and the newer homeland security-industrial complex tend to support expansionist American national security and foreign policies, and since 9/11 have pushed for a continuation of American military involvement in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They are driven by greed and power, and they believe that endless war is good for business. As I wrote in “Pay Any Price,” my 2014 book, “America has become accustomed to a permanent state of war. Only a small slice of society — including many poor and rural teenagers — fight and die, while a permanent national security elite rotates among senior government posts, contracting companies, think tanks and television commentary, opportunities that would disappear if America was suddenly at peace. To most of America, war has become not only tolerable but profitable, and so there is no longer any great incentive to end it.”
What’s more, the national security establishment’s power stems in part from its ability to suppress the truth about its activities at home and abroad, and thus it seeks to punish whistleblowers and journalists who try to disclose the truth. The CIA, the NSA, and other elements of the national security apparatus frequently apply pressure on the Justice Department and the White House to prosecute whistleblowers who disclose their abuses.
I have had firsthand experience with this ugly phenomenon.
But acknowledging the gravitational pull of a militaristic national security establishment toward war and imperialism doesn’t mean that you believe in the existence of a deep state, as imagined by Trump and his allies.
Demagogues like Trump are dangerously effective at taking bits of truth and weaving conspiracy theories out of them. Trump has taken the truth about the existence of a military-industrial complex and twisted it into a conspiracy theory that claims that the military-industrial complex is actually a deep state out to destroy him personally. It is conspiracy theory victimology taken to its most extreme.
Among Trump’s ardent supporters, talk of a deep state often quickly descends into the madness of vile, rambling QAnon conspiracy theories.
Right-wing pundits and pro-Trump political figures, many of whom were longtime supporters of the government’s draconian counterterrorism measures instituted after 9/11, including the NSA’s illegal domestic spying program, suddenly became skeptics of the national security establishment when Trump began to complain about the investigation, conducted first by the FBI and later by special counsel Robert Mueller, into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and possible collaboration by the Trump campaign. Trump’s claims that he has been the victim of a “witch hunt,” a “hoax” investigation perpetrated against him by the deep state, have been the central theme of his conspiracy theory-laden presidency. And so ardent Trump supporters who accepted Trump’s deep state conspiracy theories now view pardons for Assange and Snowden through the “Russia hoax” narrative.
Newsmax, the pro-Trump website, recently published a column calling for pardons for Assange and Snowden. “If there is any way to thoroughly get back at the left over the next month, President Trump should make it a priority to pardon those individuals whose clemency would get the attention of the deep state,” wrote Kenny Cody at Newsmax. “For the deep state has worked against this president and his administration unlike any other previously.” Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly elected Republican representative from Georgia who has been criticized for being a QAnon supporter, also tweeted her support for pardons for Assange and Snowden.
I agree with @TulsiGabbard, @RepThomasMassie, and @mattgaetz!@realDonaldTrump should issue a full pardon to Julian Assange and Edward @Snowden.— Marjorie Taylor Greene ?? (@mtgreenee) November 27, 2020
Each risked his life to expose the crimes of Barack Obama and the Deep State against the American people.
Let them be free! https://t.co/hMyLHCFwIb
A smattering of Assange supporters are echoing the line of these pro-Trump pundits and right-wing politicians.
For example, Assange’s partner, Stella Morris, said on Fox News recently that she wants Trump to pardon Assange to protect him from the deep state. George Christensen, a member of Australia’s parliament, sent a message to Trump on a website devoted to a pardon for Assange, who is also an Australian. Christensen wrote, “The same people who are trying to take the election from you are the ones trying to prosecute Julian Assange.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat and one-time Democratic presidential candidate, tweeted that Trump should pardon Snowden and Assange because they “exposed the deception and criminality of those in the deep state.”
What makes any endorsement of the deep state trope by advocates of Assange and Snowden particularly dangerous now is that it comes at the same time that Trump is employing his persecution fantasies to claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him by a pro-Biden deep state.
The danger of enabling Trump’s deep state rhetoric was highlighted by a frightening story on Saturday, when the New York Times reported that Trump met on Friday with conspiracy theorist Sidney Powell and discussed making her some sort of “special counsel” to investigate baseless claims of voter fraud that Trump believes cost him the election. The same story revealed that Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani has talked about trying to seize voting machines from around the country to try to prove the fiction that they were rigged against Trump.
As the pro-Trump supporters pushing for pardons for Assange and Snowden remain silent on so many of the other leak cases brought during the Trump administration, they have also said nothing to counter Trump’s dangerous and hateful anti-press rhetoric, which has created a toxic climate for reporters working in the United States. Trump’s constant attacks on the press have convinced his supporters — as well as local, conservative politicians and law enforcement officials — to intensify their rhetorical, legal, and physical attacks on journalists around the nation.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, managed by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, shows that there have been 120 cases of a journalist arrested or detained on the job in the United States in 2020. The tracker found that during one week at the height of the racial justice protests in late May and early June, “more reporters were arrested in the U.S. than in the previous three years combined.” The tracker also found that more than a third of those journalists arrested were also beaten, hit with rubber bullets, or chemical agents.
The bottom line: Advocates of press freedom must remain disciplined as they campaign for the pardons for whistleblowers and make their arguments on the merits of press freedom. They must be careful not to indulge Trump’s conspiracy theories while they lobby for the pardons.
Accepting Trump’s insane conspiracy theories in order to get him to do the right thing has been the downfall of many prominent figures during Trump’s presidency. Enabling Trump’s worst instincts never works and only shreds the reputations of those who have sought to appease him.