On December 5th, 2022, the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government hosted its first event at the National Press Club in over three years to discuss the case of Julian Assange, the publisher of Wikileaks, now in prison in the United Kingdom awaiting extradition to the United States. The panel featured Holden Triplett, a veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and recent Director for Counterintelligence on the National Security Council; Barry Pollack, a renowned US criminal defense attorney representing Mr. Assange; Gabe Rottman, Director of the Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press; and Mark Zaid, a private US attorney specializing in national security law, freedom of speech constitutional claims, and governmental accountability. Moderating the conversation was Sasha Ingber, a national security correspondent at Newsy, now Scripps News.
The panel opened the discussion by focusing on the polarizing nature of the charges brought against Mr. Assange, including helping Chelsea Manning break a password and other indictments under the Espionage Act. Mr. Pollack detailed the allegations against Mr. Assange and clarified a series of misperceptions regarding Mr. Assange’s actions. He argued that Mr. Assange followed standard editorial processes while publishing classified information and gathered a pool of journalists to assist with this process. He stated that the only unredacted files in the case, the State Department files, were, at least initially, accidentally leaked to the public. Mr. Triplett rebutted Mr. Pollack’s assessment of the charges brought against Mr. Assange and argued that Mr. Assange broke the law by assisting Chelsea Manning and publishing unredacted classified documents after they were accidentally leaked.
The panel then debated whether Mr. Assange was classified as a journalist and, in turn, should be protected from prosecution. Mr. Rottman argued that journalists are not a protected class under the First Amendment. In turn, the status of Mr. Assange as a journalist is not relevant in legal actions against him. Mr. Zaid agreed with Mr. Rottman’s statement and stated the Espionage Act includes provisions that make it illegal to act on behalf of a foreign government regarding classified information. Ms. Ingber then directed a question to Mr. Pollack regarding Mr. Assange’s apparent connection to Russia, including appearing on Russia Today and refusing to publish leaked documents from Russia. Mr. Pollack responded that this statement was not factual and that Mr. Assange did not have any relations with Russia. Mr. Triplett disagreed with this statement and emphasized that Mr. Assange has had some coordination with Russia.
The panel then discussed the broader treatment of journalists by the government when handling classified information. Mr. Rottman argued that, although journalists have historically felt safe from prosecution for publishing classified documents, recent prosecutions under the Espionage Act are beginning to change the protections afforded to journalists. In turn, the legal questions brought forward in the Assange indictment, although divisive among the journalist community, are of concern to how information can be released to the public.
The panel closed by discussing the future of the case against Mr. Assange and the shifts in approaches by each administration. The future of Mr. Assange is still uncertain. Mr. Zaid stated he does not believe the United States will not prosecute Mr. Assange. However, he said he did not believe this case would impact traditional journalists. The indictments against Mr. Assange remain divisive among journalists and the broader public.
The full event can be found at the Hayden Center YouTube channel.