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The Espionage Act removes the possibility of a public interest defense for Julian Assange, and sends a chilling message to journalists and whistleblowers

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

Julian Assange has now been officially indicted for violating the 1917 Espionage Act. The Department of Justice released the indictment on Thursday, listing a total of 18 charges, 17 which fall under the Espionage Act.

Now joining us to talk about the significance of this shift to the charges under the Espionage Act is Eugene Puryear. Eugene is a journalist, author, and activist, and a regular contributor to The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, Eugene.

EUGENE PURYEAR: Thanks for having me.

PAUL JAY: So amongst other things, the significance as I get it of the charges under the Espionage Act is not only are the sentences much longer and more serious, apparently it could be like 10 years per charge, which was like 170, 180 years possible. But I don’t think he’s going to get that kind of time given what Manning got; seven years. I mean, I don’t know how you give him drastically more time than the person that actually got the documents. But an Italian journalist tweeted today, and I thought she made a very important point, which is under the Espionage Act there is no public interest argument possible. Under normal charges you could argue that the public interest trumps even hacking a computer, if it was left it just a hacking charge. But now that they shifted it to the Espionage Act, I don’t think there is an even allowable public interest argument, which means his conviction would be almost certain.

So what what do you make of the whole arrest, and why push it so much now, after he’s been sitting in the embassy so many years and most people have actually even forgotten about it?

EUGENE PURYEAR: I mean, I think just first blush this is completely outrageous. And really, quite frankly, it’s just the criminalization of journalism. When you look at the structure of the indictment, the government claims it’s narrowly tailored. It’s really quite broad, because it’s around processes of how journalists operate. So despite the fact that it’s over a relatively small number of the documents that were released by WikiLeaks, and at least allegedly provided by Chelsea Manning, it really deals with how you obtained the documents. Which means so many other people in non-national security contexts, in fact, could potentially be caught under this. So I think it’s problematic on that end.

I think why now, to me, is the fact that you have people in a position who have the courage of their convictions; their terrible convictions. But we know that the Obama administration, which prosecuted more whistleblowers than any other administration at that time, at least looked at this option and decided, well, that’s too far. I believe they called it the New York Times exception, and they chose not to do it. We know that the next administration, of course, as well also was looking into this around the Pentagon Papers issue. So it’s something that I think many people who are enemies of civil liberties, certainly those who are deeply ensconced in the national security state, have always wanted to do. And of course, the Espionage Act has never been used against a publisher before, but had felt that maybe the ripple effects of it could be too significant, or even if they didn’t care about the ripple effects, just that that opposition would make it impossible for them to really be able to marshal the forces they would need to move forward.

But I think now in Trump you’ve got someone who obviously doesn’t care at all about the rule of law, and certainly seems that sort of a strongman mentality to himself. You have someone in Mike Pompeo who has been aggressively against WikiLeaks since his time in Congress, as well, who is serving as secretary of state. And that’s just a couple of people. And quite frankly, WikiLeaks is one of the number one enemies, as they themselves revealed in 2010. There is conversations in the Pentagon about these people are one of our biggest challenges, and we have to find out ways to discredit WikiLeaks, and so on and so forth. I think you have a combination of a longrunning target that has been elusive, because they are, in fact, journalists, and there is a First Amendment. And then you have a bunch of cowboy actors who are now ready to do this.

And one thing I would just add really quickly, parenthetically, I think we have to put this in the context of the entire post-9/11 erosion of the national security state. It started with our Fourth Amendment constitutional rights, and the erosion of those under NSA spying provisions. And now we’re seeing the First Amendment being attacked. I think this is a major, major issue, and in some ways, you know, maybe even a constitutional crisis I don’t think is too much hyperbole.

PAUL JAY: I think it’s important that the Obama–to say the Obama administration, I think, was somewhat contradictory on all of this. While Obama pardons Manning, it’s under Obama, we think, that this at the time secret grand jury was convened to go after Julian Assange. And so in reality, really the WikiLeaks thing was much more of the threat to them than one individual soldier that allegedly cooperated with Manning. I mean, with Assange. As an institution they do not like that there’s such a thing that can get into the actual heart of national security documents and release them to the public. And clearly there is a public interest, a massive public interest argument to be made. And clearly they went after Assange because of that video we all saw of the murder of the Iraqi civilians in that square. And we’re showing that video now, where the helicopter comes and shoots these people. And you can hear their voices, so excited about getting the kill order. And then later they–after they kill these people, they strafe a van that had I believe had a couple with a kid in it.

And you know, the reality of the brutality that was going on in Iraq that was exposed by these was an invaluable public interest argument. But that being said, we’ve been getting some emails saying, well, how come you’re not talking about the allegations of sexual impropriety by Assange in Sweden? And that you don’t talk about that, and you don’t talk about other issues to do with Assange and his personal behavior. What do you make of that?

EUGENE PURYEAR: Well, I mean, I think first and foremost, irregardless of what happened with the Swedish–in Sweden with the two women, and the one person who ultimately is still holding the complaint, is in many ways not material to this broader issue. I mean, this very specific charge against Julian Assange stands on its own irrespective of anything about him, good, bad, or indifferent, and certainly is deeply, deeply problematic in terms of its implications, where anyone who either wants to produce journalism that is hard hitting and revealing of government malfeasance or crimes, and people who want to consume journalism and understand transparency.

Now, that being said, I think that people don’t understand very well what took place in Sweden. I don’t think we have time to really go through the entire thing right now. But that being said, I think that he has always been willing to go to Sweden, to be questioned. In fact, after the charges were initially made, he stayed around in Sweden for several weeks waiting to be interviewed, and never really was. Now, the specifics of that case, of course, should be adjudicated like any claim of sexual assault and sexual misconduct should be adjudicated and should be followed. But I don’t think we should allow that to detain us from the fact that what Julian Assange is really being attacked for, what he’s going after, or what they’re going after him for, is really the fact that the radical transparency doctrine that he has championed and that WikiLeaks has promoted really does pose a serious challenge to the empire, not only just in what we’ve seen released, but in the fact that you have an entity that isn’t going to look for the approval of the U.S. government, or the UK government, as, say, the New York Times or the Washington Post or the Guardian always does before publishing things of deep public interest. And I think that is a serious threat to the First Amendment, a serious threat to anyone in this country who wants to know what the government is really doing. And I think irrespective of anything else about Julian Assange, it stands on its own.

PAUL JAY: Yeah, I agree with that. I would just add a piece of information, is that when Assange was in the Ecuadorian embassy, his legal team invited the Swedish prosecutors to come and interview Assange, because that was supposed to be the big deal, that they needed to interview him. And they never took him up on it, because they wanted to get him to Sweden. And obviously, look what’s happening. Assange at the time was saying I’m not going to go to Sweden under these conditions, because the Americans just want to get me and charge me under the Espionage Act. And that’s exactly what’s happening. So his fears were clearly on good ground.

We just–you and I just did a segment on what’s coming in Iran. And it seems to me there’s another piece to this timing about going after Assange and WikiLeaks, and sending this message to whistleblowers everywhere. The buildup to Iran looks just like the build up to war in Iraq. And whether the United States plans to actually bomb and attack Iran, or just wage economic, psychological warfare and instigate civil war, one way or the other, the possibilities of all kinds of false flag threat–even what they’re saying now about these oil boats that were bombed off the Saudi coast, there’s no evidence the Iranians had anything to do with it. And this is a kind of time, and there’s a buildup to what could be a much bigger and more dangerous war than Iraq, to want to shut people up. And it seems to me it’s not a total accident that these happened at the same time. What do you think?

EUGENE PURYEAR: No, I agree with you for sure. I mean, let’s just look at the provenance of the Espionage Act in 1917, rapidly designed to strike a death blow to opposition to World War I. The Messenger magazine that was co edited by A. Philip Randolph, for instance, the so-called most dangerous Negro in America, the Wilson administration said, which was attacked under these rules. You see so many activists who were criminalized, who were jailed, who were ultimately deported over these rules. I mean, certainly I think that when we just look at the context of the Espionage Act itself, it’s really undeniable that quite frankly it is only a–it is a tool that is directly used for warlike situations; other, perhaps, emergency-type situations when the government wants to go out of its way to make sure that people are afraid to report the truth about what’s going on, and to report things that could stoke dissent to their policies.

PAUL JAY: Just to end, if you go through the history of American wars, there’s hardly a war that didn’t start with a big lie. And big lies–whistleblowers and big lies don’t go well together. Thanks for joining us, Eugene.

EUGENE PURYEAR: Thanks so much for having me, Paul.

PAUL JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Revolutionary, political commentator, activist, lover of books, author of Shackled and Chained: Mass Incarceration in Capitalist America.