By William Fisher
As the government investigates the possibility of prosecuting WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, under the Espionage Act for publishing classified government documents The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) voiced skepticism that prosecuting WikiLeaks “would be constitutional, or a good idea.”
Hina Shamsi, Director of the ACLU National Security Project, said in a statement, “The courts have made clear that the First Amendment protects independent third parties who publish classified information. Prosecuting WikiLeaks would be no different from prosecuting the media outlets that also published classified documents. If newspapers could be held criminally liable for publishing leaked information about government practices, we might never have found out about the CIA’s secret prisons or the government spying on innocent Americans.”
She added, “Prosecuting publishers of classified information threatens investigative journalism that is necessary to an informed public debate about government conduct, and that is an unthinkable outcome.”
“The broader lesson of the WikiLeaks phenomenon is that President Obama should recommit to the ideals of transparency he invoked at the beginning of his presidency. The American public should not have to depend on leaks to the news media and on whistleblowers to know what the government is up to,” she said.
She was not alone. Another human rights leader, Chip Pitts, today weighed in on the controversy. Pitts is former board president of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and a former president of Amnesty International USA. He told IPS, “ If the US government goes beyond the current ridiculous rhetoric and actually attempts to prosecute Assange or Wikileaks for violations of the Espionage Act, ‘treason’, ‘material support’, or being a designated ‘terrorist organization’, they would have to take great pains to distinguish the activities of other journalists and news outlets who publish such information on the operations of our government – and it would mean the effective end of American press freedom.”
Meanwhile, something of a conflict is brewing between usually-agreeable members of the human rights community regarding whether Wikileaks disclosures placed human rights defenders in authoritarian countries at risk.
Groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Human Rights First (HRF) believe it was a mistake for Wikileaks to publish the names of foreign human rights activists and organizations that receive support from the U.S. Government.
But Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, has a different view. He told IPS, “This claim by some human rights groups, whomever they are, is not supported by the facts. So far as I know, the names of human rights activists have not been disclosed in any of the documents released by Wikileaks; nor have any such activists been put in danger.”
And Chip Pitts told IPS, “Amnesty and other rights organizations were indisputably correct to express concerns previously that human rights defenders or e.g. Afghans working for the US could be at risk from the disclosures.”
However, he continued, “It is now clear that Wikileaks has learned from the past and is acting more responsibly (and in fact taking its lead from the major news organizations as to information and names redacted).”
He said the US government has confirmed that “even the more casual approach of the past has not resulted in the deaths or harms that alarmists claimed would occur.”
Pitts opined that “On balance, these disclosures -- this new level of global transparency that is here to stay -- are a good thing in foreign relations and authentic national security, just as it has been the main positive driver in the related global governance field of corporate social responsibility.”
He added, “Most of the catastrophic foreign and domestic policies in recent years have resulted from secret and unaccountable decision making – often by public sector governing elites benefiting from unseemly collusion with private elites (e.g. Dick Cheney’s energy task force, the distortion of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war, the distortion of debt ratings in the recent financial crisis). Those secret actions resulted in criminal human rights violations yet still no accountability.”
“I find it more than despicable that the US government is now threatening to prosecute as “spies” or “terrorists” those who’ve revealed this information instead of those who’ve committed, as Assange says, “human rights abuses and other criminal behavior,” Pitts said.
“And I find it more than despicable that the bipartisan establishment is joining in that historically discredited witchhunt chorus of “let’s kill the messenger.”
He continued: “The leaks thus far at least confirm the lamentable double standards of the US administration and the Department of State under Hillary Clinton – publicly claiming to be concerned about human rights but doing so very little behind the scenes to aggressively push these vital issues and, instead, actively seeking to undermine human rights accountability by covering up violations by CIA or other US personnel (as in the German investigations into the El Masri torture case, and the Spanish investigations into rendition, Guantanamo torture, and the killing of a Spanish journalist in Iraq) and foreign allies (as with the hundreds of extrajudicial killings by the Pakistani military in the SWAT valley or similar killings of civilians in Yemen).”