The editors of The Guardian and the New York Times both said they would back WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange if he were ever prosecuted by the U.S. government. They also said they are thinking of launching WikiLeaks-style operations at their own papers.
The comments from Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, and Bill Keller, editor of the Times, came at a panel about WikiLeaks on Thursday night. The panel was held at Columbia University. The two discussed their fractious relationship with Assange and the effect that WikiLeaks has had on journalism. Jack Goldsmith, the former Bush administration official, was also on the panel.
Both papers worked with Assange on a series of explosive scoops throughout 2010–until a series of arguments and decisions by the two news outlets led to the severing of their ties with Assange. But they both said they would firmly side with Assange if he were prosecuted. The Justice Department has acknowledged that it is seeking to charge him with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 for publishing secret documents and soliciting them from Bradley Manning, the alleged leaker who is now in jail.
“If, God forbid, ever this came to court, I’d…stand completely shoulder to shoulder with him,” Rusbridger said. “I have great admiration for him [and] respect for a lot of the stuff that he’s done.”
Keller said that he was “not a lawyer,” but that it would be “hard to conceive of a prosecution of Julian Assange that wouldn’t stretch the law to be applicable to us. Whatever one thinks of Julian Assange…journalists should feel a sense of alarm at any legal action that intends to punish Assange for doing what journalists do.”
Goldsmith said that there were “enormous legal hurdles” to such an attempt. First, he said, it would be difficult to extradite Assange to the U.S. at all. If that succeeded, Goldsmith said, “it’s not at all clear that there could be a successful prosecution.” Any such prosectuion would have “momentous” implications for First Amendment law in the U.S., he said.
However, Goldsmith said that there was “a lot of political pressure from the top” to prosecute Assange, and that, in his view, the Justice Department will give into that pressure and bring charges. “I also don’t think it will succeed,” he added.
Both editors also talked about the possibility that they would create mechanisms similar to WikiLeaks at their own sites, so that potential leakers could pass information directly to them. Keller, who has discussed the issue of a WikiLeaks-style branch of the Times before, said that there have indeed been discussions about having the paper “open a drop box of our own.” He called it a potential “EZ Pass lane for whistleblowers.” He said that, while the technical aspects of such a system would not be too difficult, there would be some legal issues to work out. The biggest roadblock, though, was the question of vetting.
“If something comes in over the transom…how do you vet that the information is legitimate?” Keller said. “That’s why we have not yet decided to go ahead with this project. We may, but that something we have to get past.”
Rusbridger also acknowledged that the Guardian is thinking of doing the same. He said he had been in touch with people at Der Spiegel, another newspaper considering launching a WikiLeaks-style operation, and had been told by them that the technical issues were “harder than you guys think.”