What Is an Assange?

By John Cusack (originally published 1 Jan 2013)

john cusackThis week, I was proud to join the board and help launch the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a new organization which plans on crowd-funding for a variety of independent journalism outlets whose prime mission is to seek transparency and accountability in government. You can read about the first group of four organizations — which includes the National Security Archive, MuckRock News, and The UpTake and WikiLeaks — here.

Recently, I sat down with George Washington Law School professor and constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley and my close friend Kevin McCabe to discuss WikiLeaks’ impact on transparency, the government’s response, and the comparison to the Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (also a co-founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation). (And see a previous conversation with Jonathan Turley here.)

WikiLeaks was extralegally cut off from funding after two Congressmen successfully pressured Visa, Mastercard and PayPal into refusing to do business with the journalism organization in late 2010. We hope that the Freedom of the Press Foundation will become a bulwark against these types of unofficial censorship tactics in the future.

This is the first part of our conversation.


John Cusack: Did you guys see this piece by Ellsberg before the Election?

Kevin McCabe: No.

Jonathan Turley: No.

John Cusack: Was really meaningful, I think about what it meant to vote for Obama — Ellsberg’s is a principled stand — but had taken the Chomsky position to stop the Republicans in swing states. But do it with no illusions.

Jonathan Turley: Right.

John Cusack: Anyway, I thought the Ellsberg thing was fascinating. And I spoke to — Jon, you know Michael Ratner? He said he knew you —

Jonathan Turley: Yeah.

John Cusack: I spoke to him about this request to see Julian Assange in London. I was just thinking Assange, and as Hedges and Ellsberg sue over NDAA, we have a situation where, if things are as they appear to be, Assange is locked up for basically exposing war crimes.

Jonathan Turley: Yeah. I think the fascinating thing about Assange is that the very same act of disclosure, if he were recognized as a journalist, might have brought him the Pulitzer Prize. Assange holds this curious status. The media doesn’t quite know how to handle him. They can’t decide whether he is a villain or a hero, or some type of villainous hero. And many people are ignoring the content of a lot of what he disclosed.

You and I have talked about this in the past, John, that the material released by WikiLeaks ticked off the US government, primarily because it showed that the government had been routinely lying to the American people. That produced tremendous anger from government officials who are not used to be exposed in this way, including members of Congress. These are people who tightly control what the public knows and what information is allowed out of the government.

Frankly, most governments are used to lying to each other – to a degree that most people would find shocking. Part of diplomacy is the art of strategic lying. These cables show the level of deceit shown by government not only to other governments but to their own citizens, including our own. And so it was a tremendously embarrassing disclosure.

Some of these disclosures were quite startling and far more important than the media suggestion in the coverage. For example, we’ve talked about the cable showing the Obama Administration threatening Spain if Spain carried out its right under treaty to investigate the American torture program, in light of Obama’s refusal to do so.

John Cusack: Yeah, it doesn’t seem like this guy is being hunted around the world because he embarrassed some diplomats.

Jonathan Turley: Right, it is more than that.

John Cusack: I would love to discuss what these underlying legal principles are. Do you think he feels he’s doing something that should be done by journalists and publishers — do you think he’s filling a gap in journalism, or is this a new sort of journalism? Perhaps he doesn’t care about those distinctions, but should we?

Jonathan Turley: Well, the response to Assange is remarkable — it was something of a paradigm shift. The media’s used to insular disclosures that are controlled and focused on subjects like the secret prisons in Europe, or the torture program. What Assange did was a massive release of material that showed the breathtaking dishonesty by the US government and governments around the world . . . it showed how much of our domestic and international politics are just a type of kabuki, that–

John Cusack: In that way, it’s adequately analogous to the Pentagon Papers. In the same way – say Eric Holder signing statements saying you can kill American citizens is the same kind of bullshit legal patina akin to John Yoo’s torture document. What are the important difference or parallels, between the Ellsberg releases of the Pentagon Papers and WikiLeaks’ release of the exposure of war crimes and state lies?

Jonathan Turley: I think you make the right analogy. In one sense, the Pentagon Papers were so powerful because they were focused on the issue of deception with regard to the Vietnam War. Assange is almost hurt by the fact that his disclosures were 100 times broader than the Pentagon Papers.

Ironically, if he had simply taken parts of those disclosures and released them in isolation, he might have had a greater level of support. Instead, he released this comprehensive record of deceit by the US government and other governments. And frankly, I think the mainstream media had difficulty in covering it and describing it and processing it.

The result is that this guy is isolated, both in a legal and physical sense. He’s being basically held captive in this embassy, unless he’s willing to leave and be subject to arrest. He has good reason to suspect that the United States government is planning to deport him as soon as any government can get — any friendly government — can get their hands on him.

John Cusack: Yeah — I have no idea what the truth is in the matter. But I know that you haven’t seen too many governments taking such active interest and getting so actively involved in Swedish rape cases.

Jonathan Turley: Well, there’s a lot of skepticism with regard to the timing. The fact is the United States did need some government to grab Assange on the basis of some criminal allegation. Yet, we do not know fully the underlying facts.

Assange may indeed be a highly imperfect individual – even a rapist if these allegations were ever proven. As I’ve mentioned before, I tell my students all the time that our causes are often better than our clients. It’s just a reality of pro bono or public interest work. It is not uncommon to have people who raise important public interest issues, but may have committed great wrongs.

Frankly, I don’t know what the truth of the matter is. I know that Assange has offered to meet with investigators in the embassy, and that’s been refused. I’m a little uncertain of why it has been refused.

But in terms of the importance of WikiLeaks, I don’t think anyone can really question that there is considerable importance to those disclosures.

John Cusack: Yes, in many ways, it’s world-changing. Are Assange and Wiki leaks basically saying there’s no one who’ll do this journalism anymore, so we are compelled to do it? Or is he filling some other space, or trying to trump journalistic space. Legally, whats the difference? Why is he punished but the New York Times is not? They published his material.

I think you’re saying it’s such a vaster terrain than the Pentagon Papers that it may explain the frenzy — when the publisher for the New York Times and reporters around Ellsberg release had to just say to themselves — vietnam lies –all right, these guys are going to come after us — Maybe we’ll go to jail, maybe we won’t. But they made the call, and they published it. Wikileaks is going after all governments all over the world.

Jonathan Turley: I think what Assange showed, more than any journalist or activist perhaps in history, is the sheer degree of duplicity and deception by this government and governments around the world.

John Cusack: You think the primary crux of it is the thing as a whole, not just the Bradley Manning case, or any specific revelation? Manning is just the fulcrom point to stop it and destroy them.

Jonathan Turley: Yeah, I think it’s fascinating when you look at the reaction to Bradley Manning and Assange. The government really went to DEFCON 4 in dealing with these guys. And the question is why. I think the answer to that is they want to hoist the wretch. They want everyone to see these guys twisting in the wind, so no one will do this again.

And what is it that they did? They released —

John Cusack: They were whistleblowers.

Jonathan Turley: Right, they released information embarrassing to the government. But when you look at the media coverage, they clearly are unwilling to treat Assange as a whistleblower, and they are particularly unwilling to treat him as a journalist.

And so this sort of goes to this longstanding question of what constitutes a journalist in the age of blogs and Internet sites?

John Cusack: I guess that’s probably the question I was stumbling towards — what do you believe that difference is, from the constitutional perspective of freedom of speech, or its protection?

Jonathan Turley: Journalists have been adopting a very narrow definition because they have a legitimate concern that, with the ability to create a blog in a matter of minutes, everyone can claim to be a journalist. If everyone is a journalist, then no one will likely have journalistic privileges. Journalists survive on these privileges and those privileges will evaporate if everyone can claim them.

And so if you look at things like the National Press Club, they long have had a definition of a journalist that deals with how much the person gets paid to do journalism, excluding people who are legitimate journalists but are not receiving a full-time, or even a significant part-time, salary. Those definitions are highly artificial today. Most people are now getting their news from the Internet and from blogs.

Kevin McCabe: — in a reference in a Times story, the reporter referred to Chris Matthews and Katie Couric as journalists, who would be attending the Al Smith dinner. And I was going to send a note saying Chris Matthews is no journalist. At one time he was a columnist. But he’s a cable TV opinion guy now. I think that what you say just brings a striking relief to all of that. It’s just so obvious.

Jonathan Turley: It also creates this awkward position, where if Adam Liptak at the New York Times releases material from Assange, it’s a journalistic act. When Assange releases this information in bulk, it’s considered a terrorist act. And nobody seems comfortable with trying to explain that distinction. And I’m not too sure that they can.

There’s two ways to look at whether someone’s a journalist — their function and their motivation. And usually, we look at both. Well, what was the motivation of Assange? Assange’s motivation, it seems to me, was clearly to be a whistleblower and to release this information. But he was also doing an act which is identical to what journalists do.

And yet, if you look at how he’s treated in the newspapers, they’re not treating him as either whistleblower or journalist; they’re treating him somehow as sui generis, something unique. He’s an Assange.

John Cusack: Yes. What is the difference between him raising money, and putting up a website, WikiLeaks, and having his own investigative reporting team gather information and aggregating content; and the Huffington Post hiring folks doing the same– I watch her put her thing together and become the online newspaper… many of the people who were bloggers and are now journalists – great guys like Sam Stein — and they do a great job — now they have titles -they get accredited and go to the White House, and they are journalists, but primarily, they write online…

Jonathan Turley: Yeah, I think that’s true. The distinction I think you could draw between these acts — and I think you’re absolutely right in that concern. I think that part of the distinction is if the government was arguing that Assange is an actual hacker — if they’re saying that he broke into a computer system and removed this material–

John Cusack: -they’re basically saying that Assange is Anonymous.

Jonathan Turley: Right.

John Cusack: So their argument is if Assange is Anonymous; he’s a cyber-terrorist?

Jonathan Turley: Right. And if he’s a hacker, I think that does —

John Cusack: Does that hold up?

Jonathan Turley: Well, no — if he’s a hacker, it does put him in a different category, in the sense that he’s committing a crime —

John Cusack: Is he a hacker? Do we know that?

Jonathan Turley: Well, no, we don’t know that. In fact, many people insist that it’s clear he’s not a hacker, that he somehow got this material from a third party. But I don’t know the truth either way. But I think the one distinction we can draw, and the distinction that’s existed –

John Cusack: — Like the New York Times got from Ellsberg -he was the third party

Jonathan Turley: Right.

Kevin McCabe: But I think it’s important to re-frame this discussion here and look at this problem from a broader perspective than just Julian Assange. Because I am not interested in individuals.

I am interested in movements. We need a movement protecting the 1st Amendment and its broadest reach. I don’t care about Assange other than he is an individual whose rights are being violated. And that means my rights are being violated. The reason we should care about what happens to Assange in the United States is because what happens to him, happens to the First Amendment.”

You can read this whole post on Jonathan Turley’s blog as well.

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