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Barbershop: The Curious Case Of Julian Assange


We're going to begin the program today by taking another look at the arrest of the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange. The details on the optics of the arrest Thursday were certainly dramatic - a bearded Assange dragged from Ecuador's Embassy in London after nearly seven years inside. Demonstrators and op-ed writers rallied to his defense while critics leaked negative details about everything from his hygiene to his cat.

Apart from all of that, though, Assange's actions and his arrest raise serious questions about the seriousness of the accusations against Assange and what the response should be. And these are questions, it has to be said, that divide journalists and national security experts, so we've decided to take this up in our weekly Barbershop because this is where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And for this conversation, we've called upon Margaret Sullivan, media columnist with The Washington Post. She's with us from New York City.

Margaret, thanks so much for joining us once again.

MARGARET SULLIVAN: Thanks, Michel. Nice to be with you again.

MARTIN: And John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He's been kind enough to join us from Virginia.

Mr. McLaughlin, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us as well.


MARTIN: So I think most people know who care about this or the basic facts - the government says that Assange conspired with former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a classified Defense Department password, and he was charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Now, Margaret, you are clear that journalists are divided about this, saying on the one hand, some people think that he engaged in, you know, reckless, thoughtless behavior, but that others say that while he may be a bit radical about his position about government transparency, at his core, he is a publisher who takes a position for the sake of government accountability, and thus he should be afforded protection. Would it be fair to say that that's the direction you lean on this?

SULLIVAN: Well, you know, I guess my stance on this is a little - it's a little bit in between those things. I don't actually see Julian Assange at this point of his career or his life as a journalist. I don't think we can call him a journalist. I think we can say that Wikileaks is a publisher. He may be all of those negative things that you said. He may be reckless. He may have done bad things.

My concern is that in going after him and indicting him and prosecuting him, what happens within that is that regular journalists - you know, legitimate journalists - will also suffer the consequences because many of the sort of methods that have been identified in the indictment are things - are actually best practices for national security journalists and others around the country and around the world.

MARTIN: Well, give an example.


MARTIN: You did write a whole column about this, so I would refer people to it. But just give me an example of what you think he did that legitimate journalists also do besides publish things that other people don't want them to see. Because some of - you know...

SULLIVAN: He protected...

MARTIN: Some journalists say no - say that, you know, hacking into things, inducing somebody else to hack into a classified entity - that is not something other journalists would do.

SULLIVAN: Right. This doesn't - this is not, in my mind, a judgment on whether we like Julian Assange or what he has revealed. It's not at all that. The question is, in pursuing this, are we going to criminalize best practices that journalists use - such as using encryption, such as source protection, such as asking a source for information?

MARTIN: OK. Mr. McLaughlin, what about you? You say - you've written about this as well, and you said that you don't consider Assange's activity journalism for a number of reasons. You say his main target is the United States, not corruption more broadly. Others have written about the fact that he had ample opportunity to publish information about Russia's activities in Ukraine, for example, and didn't do so. So what do you say about all this?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, that's the main point, Michel. The fact that - I don't see him as a legitimate journalist because a couple of reasons. First, it isn't just that he published material that people don't want to see published. That's not really the issue. If he actually conspired to help break into a Pentagon computer, that's not something a legitimate journalist does.

Also, when he gave this material to mainstream journalists, my understanding from what I've heard said by people who worked with him is that many people wanted to take out material that would have endangered the lives of Afghans and Iraqis who had given information to the United States about al-Qaida, for example. And he didn't want to do that, whereas a legitimate journalist will at least listen to that case. And that's basically my objection to him. I don't see him as a legitimate journalist at all.

MARTIN: And what about Margaret's point, though, that by - that arresting him and prosecuting him will have a chilling effect on legitimate journalists who do protect sources and who sometimes do come into possession of materials that governments would not want them to have? What would you say about that?

MARTIN: Well, I don't think journalists should be prosecuted or arrested for those practices, which are all legitimate, freedom of speech practice that we all support. That's not why he will be accused, I think. He not only apparently - we have to find out, give him a fair trial if it gets a trial - might have broken into, helped break into a Pentagon computer. But also, if you look at Robert Mueller's indictments of the 12 Russian GRU officers who were instrumental in interfering in our election, it's quite clear from that and also from what the intelligence community published and declassified in January of 2017 that that dump of documents went to WikiLeaks and - via a couple of online personages that the Russians invented - Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks.

So again, I don't know whether that's going to turn out to be something on which he can be legitimately indicted. I just have no idea. But when Mueller's report is fully revealed, we may discover that there's an angle there that goes beyond what we would normally think of a legitimate journalist as doing.

MARTIN: So, Margaret, what about Mr. McLaughlin's point that journalists would engage in some form of test, best balancing test, within their own organization before choosing to publish something? I mean, he in - Mr. McLaughlin in his writing about this said this is more like an intelligence activity. He just sort of threw this information out there. There doesn't seem to have been any discretion, any thought about sort of balancing the public interest in knowing versus the harm that it could do. What do you say about that?

SULLIVAN: Well, I think that Mr. McLaughlin is 100 percent right about that. There was a time earlier on - you know, it's getting to be 10 years ago - when Julian Assange did more of that kind of thing - redacting things that could be problematic or harmful, even, I think, consulting or allowing the information to be worked over by government sources or seen by government sources.

But I think those issues are - they don't go to the heart of my concern. It may well be that Julian Assange is - as I said, is reckless, is a negative force, has done things that have hurt people. I recognize that. However, I am fearful that in going after him - you know, again, going after him in this particular way and casting his method of protecting his source of - this is all in the indictment.

This is part of - you know, seen as part of the so-called conspiracy, that he conspired to protect his source, that he conspired to encrypt information. And again, if those things are seen to be criminal, we're all in big trouble. And, you know, we've suffered a very difficult blow to the kinds of reporting that, you know, that do serve the public interest.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting because, Mr. McLaughlin, you also expressed ambivalence about prosecuting him. You said that - you know, you were asked if - do you think that the U.S. government could and should charge him for publishing these secrets? And you said, I think it's a close call. You said emotionally, you would say yes, you know. But you also said that you were ambivalent because it's clear that he will seek martyr status. You can already see it. You know, people are going to be...


MARTIN: ...Printing up T-shirts. So tell me more about your feelings about that. Are you saying you really - even though you are a career intelligence officer, you're saying maybe he shouldn't be prosecuted - not because he didn't do wrong in your view but because you think of the effect that it would create among people who support him?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, my heart tells me yes, but my head tells me no. No, because I don't think we want to conspire in an effort for - that he would like to have us conspire in - for him to be a martyr. And I also take Margaret's point that I don't think anyone here wants to do anything that jeopardizes journalists' ability to keep the security of their sources - after all, intelligence officers have that same interest - and - nor interfere with their ability to encrypt things and so forth.

So if that's part of an indictment, I think prosecutors and defenders will have to work through that to sort of segregate what is it that he can be legitimately charged with here without endangering freedom of speech, the First Amendment or the rights of journalists. I'm all for avoiding those dangers.

Again, my objections are if journalists - legitimate ones - do not conspire to break into government computers, if we condone that, then your computer isn't safe, and my computer isn't safe. And also, when I've had journalists call me when I've been in government with a story that conceivably could harm sources, for example, or could bring harm to other Americans, they would give you a chance to make your case. And sometimes, they would hold parts of a story, and sometimes they wouldn't. You would lose your case sometimes, and sometimes you would win it. And I've done that with major newspapers and found them extremely responsible and recognized the dilemma they struggle with. There was none of that with him.


MCLAUGHLIN: It was just all out the door. And I think that's to be condemned.

MARTIN: All right. As this case continues, we'll call you both back and ask you both your opinion of it and what you think should happen next and in the future. That was John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA. He's now teaching at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Margaret Sullivan was with us, media columnist with The Washington Post. She's the former public editor for The New York Times.

I thank you both so much for talking with us today.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thanks, Michel.

SULLIVAN: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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