Julian Assange: Visionary or Villain?

On Wednesday, February 9, 2022, Nabiha Syed, a renowned media and technology lawyer and the President of The Markup, a new investigative journalism startup that explores how powerful actors use technology to reshape society, convened with Dartmouth students and community members for the Rockefeller Center's fifth event of the winter term.

The event was an examination of the legacy of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. The organization came to international prominence in 2010 when it published a trove of classified documents regarding U.S. military conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan provided by Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Assange has been held in Belmarsh Prison in London since 2019 and the U.S. has requested that he be extradited to face charges under the U.S. Espionage Act. Alexis Jetter, a lecturer in Dartmouth's English and Creative Writing department, served as moderator.

First, Ms. Syed outlined her career. As a Muslim American growing up in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Syed recalls that "countless people from my religious community… had the FBI knocking at their door asking them questions. That was just a normal, horrifying part of being Muslim American at that time." She believed that if the American people knew more about the actions of the FBI, they might be more sympathetic to the plight of her community. This led Syed toward a career aimed at answering the question: "what does the public deserve to know?"

Syed first met Assange in 2009 while writing a thesis at Oxford on the differences between the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)— an official channel through which the U.S. government must disclose documents to U.S. citizens—and WikiLeaks, which at that point had released stores of classified documents it had obtained without the consent of the U.S. government. While in London, Assange arranged to meet with Syed face to face to verify her identity before, ironically, communicating exclusively via online channels for security reasons.

In Syed's view, what made WikiLeaks unique in comparison to FOIA was its sense of urgency. FOIA requests can often take years to be completed, either because the information requested is redacted for national security reasons or simply due to intentional sluggishness. When Assange was presented with information on U.S. war conduct by Manning, his thought process was: "I fully believe this information will come to light, but if it arrives in 15 years, what change is possible?" Following the above logic, Assange released the documents, and the U.S. has spent the better part of a decade attempting to apprehend him in response.

Irrespective of the merits of Assange releasing classified U.S. documents, his legacy is complicated. Indeed, in 2010, two women reported to the Swedish police that Assange had engaged in sexual activity with them that violated the scope of their consent, in one case because she was asleep. "Not to belabor the point, but [Assange] seems like a bad guy," Syed says.

Personal critiques of Assange have often been mixed with critiques of his work, which is unfortunate as his case could have serious implications for the future of investigative journalism. Azmat Khan of The New York Times, recently published a 2-part series on U.S.-caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan drawing from classified documents. Indeed, the substance of this and of Assange's release of classified U.S. documents is strikingly similar. Yet, Khan may receive a Pulitzer while Assange languishes in a U.K. prison amidst attempts by the U.S. to extradite him. If Assange is arrested under the Espionage Act in the U.S., what is to prevent other journalists from suffering the same fate?

Syed says that there are some factors at play which may make Assange unique relative to mainstream investigative journalists. One difference has to do with harm. In Assange's 2010 leaks, "Assange revealed many names, which put people in direct danger." Conversely, The New York Times, which also covered this leak, redacted names to ensure the safety of those involved.

In Khan's 2021 investigation, The New York Times sued the U.S. government for information in civilian casualties. This was an expensive and laborious process, but because it was conducted through legal channels—very much unlike Assange—it is far less likely to result in charges being brought against Khan or other journalists involved.

Khan notes there is a line between "newsgathering" and "conspiracy" which could complicate the favorable legal position that mainstream journalists occupy vis-à-vis Assange. Under U.S. law, it is acceptable for journalists to publish information obtained illegally, so long as that information is clearly in the public interest and the journalist had no part in soliciting it. Imagine an audio recording delivered to a journalist without their asking. Even if this audio was recorded illegally, the journalist could not be charged for reporting it because they did not make the recording. This distinction has shielded many journalists from prosecution by the U.S. government—but is contingent on their being no proof that they solicited information.

Of course, valuable information being delivered to the doorstep of a journalist rarely just happens. Syed emphasizes that there is a "dance" that occurs between journalists and sources. Prior to the internet, this dance often occurred in the dark, off the record and beyond scrutiny. However, with internet communications being more easily traceable, Syed worries that it has become easier for the U.S. to prove that journalists took steps to obtain information illegally. Abundant online evidence could lead to more journalists suffering Assange's fate.

Ultimately, Syed finds Assange's treatment to be disturbing. Already, the journalism profession in the United States is on the back foot. Job openings are few and far between, and many bright, able individuals have been turned away from the profession. The Assange case may "add to that the injury that you will be thrown in jail for a job where you barely get health insurance." Balancing national security and First Amendment concerns against once another has never been easy, and the saga of Julian Assange illustrates why.