Amid a swirl of reports that U.S. authorities “have prepared charges to seek the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions isn’t ruling out the possibility that cracking down on WikiLeaks could lead to other media outlets being prosecuted for covering leaks.
During a Friday morning CNN appearance, Sessions was asked by anchor Kate Bolduan whether “folks should be concerned that this would also open up news organizations like CNN and the New York Times to prosecution.”
Sessions wouldn’t rule anything out.
“That’s speculative, and I’m not able to comment on that,” he replied.
AG Sessions declines to comment when asked if prosecuting WikiLeaks might mean news orgs could also be prosecuted https://t.co/TYcw0XSKJH
— CNN (@CNN) April 21, 2017
Sessions’ CNN comments come a day after he said the arrest of Assange is a “priority” during a news conference.
“We are going to step up our effort and already are stepping up our efforts on all leaks,” Sessions said. “This is a matter that’s gone beyond anything I’m aware of. We have professionals that have been in the security business of the United States for many years that are shocked by the number of leaks and some of them are quite serious… Whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail.”
In the past, the idea of charging Assange was complicated by the fact that other media outlets reported on leaked documents published by WikiLeaks. But CNN reports U.S. authorities are thinking of bringing charges and seeking Assange’s arrest and extradition from London’s Ecuadorian embassy “after investigators found what they believe was proof that WikiLeaks played an active role in helping Edward Snowden, a former NSA analyst, disclose a massive cache of classified documents.”
Still, going after Assange would represent a major reversal for the Trump and company. On April 13, CIA Director Mike Pompeo signaled the Trump administration was moving in the direction of crackdown by denouncing Wikileaks during a speech. Pompeo said Assange and his organization “walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service.”
But during the presidential campaign, Pompeo — then a Republican U.S. representative from Kansas — tweeted out an article about hacked Democratic National Committee emails in an effort to attack Democrats.
“Need further proof that the fix was in from Pres. Obama on down? BUSTED: 19,252 Emails from DNC Leaked by WikiLeaks,” Pompeo’s since-deleted July 24 tweet read.
During his April 11 speech, Pompeo went on to discuss the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion “that Russian military intelligence — the GRU — had used WikiLeaks to release data of U.S. victims that the GRU had obtained through cyber operations against the Democratic National Committee.” The U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russia used WikiLeaks in an effort to help Trump, which adds a wrinkle to news the Trump administration may try and have Assange arrested.
Trump himself effusively praised WikiLeaks on the campaign trail, infamously proclaiming “I love WikiLeaks!” during an October rally in Pennsylvania.
“It’s amazing how nothing is secret today when you talk about the internet,” Trump added, before reading aloud the contents of emails hacked from the Clinton campaign and leaked to WikiLeaks.
Trump mentioned WikiLeaks 164 times during the last month of the election.
Very little pick-up by the dishonest media of incredible information provided by WikiLeaks. So dishonest! Rigged system!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2016
But since taking power, Trump and his inner circle have repeatedly denounced leakers, in part because they have helped keep alive the story about his campaign’s shady dealings with Russian intelligence officials — a story intelligence officials reportedly fear the Trump administration is trying to suppress, for obvious reasons.
The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 14, 2017
While Trump proclaimed his love for WikiLeaks on the campaign trail, he also didn’t try and hide his belief that the First Amendment provides “too much protection” for free speech. In February 2016, he said he wanted to “open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” Shortly before the election, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a statement unprecedented in the organization’s 35-year history saying that “Trump, through his words and actions as a candidate for president of the United States, has consistently betrayed First Amendment values.”
“Since the beginning of his candidacy, Trump has insulted and vilified the press, and has made his opposition to the media a centerpiece of his campaign,” the statement said. “Trump has routinely labeled the press as ‘dishonest’ and ‘scum’ and singled out individual news organizations and journalists.”
But while Assange and WikiLeaks may have an anti-Clinton agenda, there’s no evidence they published any “false articles.” Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, referenced that fact during an interview with CNN, saying, “Never in the history of this country has a publisher been prosecuted for presenting truthful information to the public.”
And now, America’s attorney general won’t rule out that prosecuting Assange is just the beginning of a broader crackdown.