Prosecuting Wikileaks staff would set dangerous precedent

Wikileaks has been attacked by both sides of the political spectrum over the past year. The website’s release of thousands of DNC and CIA documents has led many politicians and pundits on both sides to label the organization as an arm of Russian intelligence. This rhetoric came to a head last week, when CIA director Mike Pompeo revealed plans to prosecute Wikileaks using espionage law. If Wikileaks staff are successfully convicted, it will set a very dangerous precedent that will allow the U.S. government to regulate press freedom however they see fit.

It might be tempting to turn a blind eye to Wikileaks’ prosecution. Even if the hack of the DNC had nothing to do with Russian intelligence, Wikileaks publicly rooted for the election of Trump all election cycle, presumably under the misguided notion that he would see their value and free Julian Assange. When I stopped by the Ecuadorian embassy this winter, I talked to a handful of pro-Wikileaks protesters that held this view, and saw Trump as a net positive for transparency.

But supporting the prosecution of Wikileaks for this reason is an astoundingly short-sighted view. Although Wikileaks has sullied its reputation for its role in this election, it still provides an invaluable service that speaks truth to power when so many media outlets are unwilling to. Their collateral murder video was many people’s first exposure to the idea that the U.S. Military is not a universal force for good, and caused an explosion in anti-war activism. Their exposure of several CIA errors helped make public the fact that several hacking tools had fallen into the hands of malevolent actors. Without these leaks, there is a real possibility that Microsoft still wouldn’t be aware that Windows hacking tools had fallen into the hands of hackers, and billions of systems would be vulnerable.

The key motivation that CIA director Pompeo has for prosecuting the site revolves around its publishing of classified documents, which is something that major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian have done as well. Successful prosecution of Wikileaks means that the government could charge any organizations or people that have published what Pompeo calls “misappropriated secrets.”

Indicative of a larger problem, threats to prosecute reveal that many in the U.S. government feel that they are above the law. When Wikileaks exposed war crimes, or when Edward Snowden uncovered government hacking by the NSA, the reaction by the U.S. government was not to apologize for their illegal actions, but to demonize the people who brought their misdeeds to light — i.e., blaming Wikileaks for putting operatives in danger, or criticizing Snowden as a spy paid off by China or Russia. When the collateral murder video was released, army representatives blamed Wikileaks for putting their operatives in danger, and when the Snowden leaks came to light, the NSA criticized Snowden for exposing their methods, and said that he was a foreign actor paid off by China or Russia.

Prosecution is the logical result of all this rhetoric — these agencies seeing themselves as infallible means that any criticism of them is wrong, and that exposing their illegal acts gets in the way of their ability to be infallible. The press is one of the only obstacles to these agencies having unchecked power, and removing that barrier will give these agencies free reign to kill and spy with zero accountability. Prosecuting Wikileaks is a dangerous move toward a reality in which the government can regulate the press and punish criticism with impunity — a move which must be opposed by all who value freedom of press.

Chastain-Howley is a rhetoric and writing junior from Dallas.