By using an array of rhetorical gymnastics, Mahoney and the CPJ tacitly accepted the Justice Department “logic” for prosecuting Assange, even as the CPJ officially condemned the prosecution itself. The bottom line is that the CPJ legitimized the government’s campaign to put Assange outside the boundaries of legitimate journalism.
Kevin Gosztola, managing editor of Shadowproof.com, aptly pointed out the underlying problem with the CPJ’s tightrope act: “Can a laudable press freedom organization claim Assange is not a journalist without aiding the political case brought by prosecutors in President Donald Trump’s Justice Department?” Gosztola also highlighted a likely reason for the CPJ’s ambivalent (at best) stance: “CPJ’s Board of Directors is composed of many journalists in the U.S. media establishment, an establishment which clings to the notion that Assange is not a journalist in order to maintain a supposed distinction between his work and their work.”
Whatever their motives, journalists who excuse or justify efforts to prosecute Assange are acting as gullible tools in the government’s ongoing campaign to plug leaks and stifle criticism, especially regarding defense and foreign policy issues. The intent is clearly to suppress embarrassing revelations by WikiLeaks and other players.
But the strategy the CPJ and its cohorts have adopted is akin to appeasing a tiger in the hope that it will eat the appeaser last—or, ideally, become sated with its initial victims. This approach is both unprincipled and myopic. The government has already made worrisome forays against troublesome mainstream journalists who have published embarrassing disclosures. Barack Obama’s administration conducted electronic surveillance of both New York Times reporter James Risen and Fox News reporter James Rosen in an effort to identify their sources. The government even named Rosen as an “unindicted co‐conspirator” in an espionage case brought against his source. Similarly, the administration asserted that it had the right to prosecute Risen, even though it chose not to take that step. Those were ominous warning signals.
The New York Times reported that President Trump expressed even greater interest in prosecuting journalists who utilize leaked classified information. In his much‐discussed February 2017 Oval Office session with FBI Director James Comey (during which Trump allegedly asked Comey to end the investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn), the president reportedly backed the Obama approach. “Alone in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump began the discussion by condemning leaks to the news media, saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information.”
Government prosecutors are going after Assange because he is an especially controversial figure and therefore a more vulnerable target. But prosecuting him and WikiLeaks for espionage poses a mortal threat to a free and independent press in the United States. It is extraordinarily dangerous to the health of the First Amendment to allow the government to decide who is or is not a “legitimate” journalist. Only legacy publications friendly to the national security bureaucracy could then count on restraint—and, as the Rosen and Risen cases indicate, even that expectation would be quite fragile. The CPJ and other media institutions that choose to abandon Assange are playing the role of the government’s useful idiots and imperiling their own best interests.