In their zeal to hold WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange accountable for the role they believe he played in Russiagate, the Democratic National Committee may have paved the way for his acquittal.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election did not confirm, without a doubt, that Russian intelligence agents or individuals tied to Russian intelligence agencies passed on emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign to WikiLeaks.
On April 20, 2018, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) sued President Donald Trump’s campaign, the Russian Federation, Assange, and WikiLeaks on April 20, 2018, alleging the dissemination of materials “furthered the prospects” of the Trump campaign. They argued officials “welcomed” the assistance of agents allegedly working for the Russian Federation.
John Koetl, a federal judge, dismissed the lawsuit in July 2019. Whether or not WikiLeaks knew the materials were obtained illegally, they were protected by the First Amendment.
“The First Amendment prevents such liability in the same way it would preclude liability for press outlets that publish materials of public interest despite defects in the way the materials were obtained so long as the disseminator did not participate in any wrongdoing in obtaining the materials in the first place,” Koeltl asserted.
Koeltl reference the Pentagon Papers case, acknowledging the Supreme Court held there was a “heavy presumption” against the “constitutional validity of prior restraints” (suppressing) the publication of information.
The DNC alleged that WikiLeaks sent Russian intelligence operatives “using the name Guccifer 2.0 a private message, asking the operatives to ‘send any material [stolen from the DNC] here for us to review.’”
“This was not a solicitation to steal documents but a request for material that had been stolen. Journalists are allowed to request documents that have been stolen and to publish those documents,” Koeltl unequivocally stated.
Prosecutors for Donald Trump’s Justice Department intend to argue that Assange has no First Amendment rights. It does not make much sense because he is charged with allegedly violating the Espionage Act, when he published classified information from United States Army whistleblower Chelse Manning in 2010.
As former New York Times general counsel James Goodale said, “How can the government have it one way and not the other way? You can’t have it both ways.”
More significantly, Koeltl’s decision is a precedent in federal court. The Justice Department will have to overrule his decision if they hope to successfully argue that the First Amendment does not apply to Assange.
Goodale further summarized the significance of Koeltl’s decision. “He decided the First Amendment applies to Julian Assange in this country, and that Julian Assange’s activities with respect to the release of information concerning the DNC was protected by the First Amendment.”
“That suit was brought by the DNC, and Judge Koetl went out of his way to say that the activities of Assange in releasing that information were fully protected by the First Amendment.”
Most of the Democratic Party establishment views Assange as a kind of Russian agent, who wittingly or unwittingly helped President Vladimir Putin in his effort to prevent Clinton from winning the 2016 election. That is the mythology that dominates one of the United States’ most prominent political parties.
The Hill reported in 2018 that Assange was willing to “discuss technical evidence” that would help the intelligence committee rule out “certain parties in the controversial leak of Democratic Party emails to WikiLeaks.” He was also willing to share his “technical expertise on the U.S. government to help address what he perceived as clear flaws in security systems that led to the loss of the U.S. cyber weapons program.”
Testimony related to cyber weapons would have involved Assange’s insights on the “Vault 7” materials that WikiLeaks published. The CIA lost control of this information in 2017.
But apparently former FBI director James Comey, through Senator Mark Warner, quashed a potential deal to give testimony in exchange for “limited immunity deal.”
When Assange was expelled from the Ecuador embassy and arrested in April of last year, Democatic Senator Mark Warner, who is part of the Senate intelligence committee, declared, “Julian Assange has long professed high ideals and moral superiority. Unfortunately, whatever his intentions when he started WikiLeaks, what he’s really become is a direct participant in Russian efforts to undermine the West and a dedicated accomplice in efforts to undermine American security.”
“It is my hope that the British courts will quickly transfer him to U.S. custody so he can finally get the justice he deserves,” Warner added.
In 2017, Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Just pushing out information about sources and methods without regard to interests, without regard to the First Amendment values that normally underlie press reporting and simply becomes a conduit for the Russian intelligence services or some other adversary of the United States just to push out information to damage the United States.”
Comey added, “I realize reasonable people struggle to draw a line, but surely there’s conduct that’s so far to the side of the line that we can all agree that there is nothing that even smells journalist about some of this conduct.”
Koeltl did not agree that there was nothing that smelled like journalism. He did not let panic over Russia prevent him from upholding First Amendment rights under the Constitution.
In defying the dominant political discourse, Koeltl issued a decision that could help free Assange. And astoundingly, if it plays a decisive role in the outcome, it will be largely owed to the Democrats’ contempt for freedom of the press, which they share with the Trump administration.