Press advocates find some comfort that the Justice Department refrained from bringing charges under the Espionage Act, a vehicle for punishing leaks that earned favor under the Obama administration. Another plus is that the indictment focuses on the computer-intrusion aspect of the Assange-Manning chats. Journalists working for U.S. news outlets have a pretty clear understanding that they’d be stepping over the line if even they so much as suggested helping in the hacking of a government password. Famed First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams told CNN that the indictment is “based on Assange’s alleged activities in personally participating in accessing the classified information and cracking a classified password. Assange is thus accused of not just receiving classified information and disseminating it but in essence of breaking into the secured computers of the government. That is fortunately not commonplace journalistic conduct.”
So that’s the sunny view.
The shadowy view is the construct that the “curious eyes” line — in a chat between a publisher and a source — could somehow be construed as criminal behavior; that the U.S. government is apparently resting its entire case on these online chat logs; that the indictment reads like an exercise in prosecutorial clickbait — a big headline and then a lot of filler; that the indictment relates to conduct nearly a decade old and in connection with a release that enlightened the world. As CNN’s Jake Tapper said on his Thursday show, “Among the material that WikiLeaks published is this 2007 U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters journalists. We would not know about that if Chelsea Manning hadn’t leaked it and WikiLeaks published it.”