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Assange, Free Speech And The Espionage Act


The Justice Department has indicted Julian Assange under the Espionage Act for passing along secret military and diplomatic documents. The indictment has alarmed many journalists and free speech proponents, but there are many who believe Julian Assange is a case of one in the information you put out put lives at risk. Asha Rangappa is a former FBI special agent and frequent guest on our program. Asha, thanks for being back with us.

ASHA RANGAPPA: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Certainly, a debate over whether Julian Assange is a whistleblower or a journalist or, for that matter, a Russian operative, but he did receive and publish classified information, and that is the backbone of investigative journalism sometimes. Doesn't this indictment endanger that?

RANGAPPA: So I would say that it's the law that endangers that. The Espionage Act is very broadly written. It doesn't make distinguish - or it doesn't make distinctions between categories of people that can receive and publish information and under what circumstances. So it does create this blanket prohibition that would impact journalists. And it's for this reason the First Amendment implications that the government has typically refrained from pursuing it in these kinds of - or similar kinds of cases. But I think that - the fact that it's an overbroad law ought not mean that actual criminals go free. And I think this is where the Justice Department has come down on this, that if you had the Venn diagram, Julian Assange himself is not a journalist. He was not engaged in bona fide newsgathering or publication and put national security at risk intentionally, and so they're going after him. But, you know, it does bring these issues to the fore that have been there the whole time with this law in the books.

SIMON: I mean, you're part of journalism now, in a sense, a commentator on so many platforms. And, you know, stories are reported based on information from sources, and a lot of that stuff is leaked. Doesn't this deter people from furnishing information if they think they might get indicted for it?

RANGAPPA: So I think the issue would be, does it have a chilling effect, is what you're asking, and it might. And I think that the answer is that the law ought to be updated. I think rather than placing the blame on the Justice Department, the question is, why hasn't Congress updated this law, particularly in the information age when incredibly damaging information can be put out there by bad actors like Julian Assange?

One thing I will say is that this indictment goes to some lengths to make clear that Assange was not a passive recipient of classified information the way that a journalist who is receiving, you know, an anonymous leak might be, that he was actively participating in the solicitation encouragement of - in the process of getting this information illegally and also that he disregarded warnings from government officials that not redacting the names of sources, which were not relevant to the newsworthiness of what he was actually reporting about the government, that he disregarded that and exposed those people anyway. So I do think this distinguishes it from most journalists.

SIMON: Former FBI special agent Asha Rangappa, thanks so much for being with us.

RANGAPPA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.