The Julian Assange Indictment and Freedom of the Press

Last month the Justice Department announced a superseding indictment of Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, charging him with multiple violations of the Espionage Act for soliciting and disclosing classified materials. The case has raised concerns over whether the government might apply the same prosecution theories to mainstream journalists who obtain and publish classified information. Although prosecutors are unlikely to go there, the Assange indictment highlights how much we rely on prosecutorial discretion to contain the sweeping and potentially troubling reach of certain criminal statutes. In an age where faith in the sound exercise of that discretion is eroding, prosecutors simply saying “we wouldn’t do that” may cease to be a satisfactory answer.

Julian Assange

Julian Assange

The Assange Indictment

In 2010 Julian Assange received hundreds of thousands of classified documents from Chelsea Manning, then known as Bradley Manning, who worked as an intelligence analyst for the army. Manning unlawfully sent Assange materials related to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, as well as thousands of classified State Department cables. Assange released the documents on Wikileaks during 2010 and 2011. It was one of the largest breaches of classified information in U.S. history.

In 2013 Manning was convicted of multiple felonies, including espionage. It appeared Assange would not be prosecuted. But this past April the Justice Department unveiled a sealed indictment charging Assange based on his dealings with Manning. Initially Assange was charged only with conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, for helping Manning try to crack a computer password in order to hack into additional classified files. That effort was unsuccessful, but Assange was charged with conspiracy for taking part in the attempted hacking with Manning.

That initial indictment of Assange generally met with cautious approval from the media because DOJ had not charged him for obtaining or publishing any of the leaked materials. But on May 23, the Justice Department returned a superseding indictment. The new 18-count indictment includes multiple charges that Assange violated the Espionage Act by encouraging Manning to obtain classified information and leak it to Assange. It also charges Assange with three Espionage Act violations for publishing classified materials that revealed the identities of confidential sources who had helped the United States, including Afghans, Iraqis, journalists, human rights advocates, and religious leaders. The government alleges that by publishing that information, Assange knowingly placed those sources in grave danger.

The superseding indictment has caused great concern in the journalism community. National security reporters routinely receive and publish classified information, and may encourage sources to provide them with that information. What would prevent the Justice Department from applying the same legal theories used in the Assange case to prosecute a more mainstream journalist at the Washington Post or New York Times? The answer may be: legally, not much.

The Espionage Act

The Espionage Act, 18 U.S.C. 793, is a World War I-era law that prohibits obtaining or disclosing national security information with the intent or reason to believe it could be used to harm the United States or benefit a foreign nation. Several sections of the statute apply to those who are authorized to have the information but then improperly disclose it to others. These are the sections that may be used to prosecute those who leak classified information to a reporter. Most of the charges against Assange allege that he violated these sections by aiding and abetting or conspiring with Manning to have her leak the information to Assange.

Section 793(e) of the Act applies to those who are not otherwise authorized to have the information but obtain it and then transmit or communicate it to others also not authorized to have it. This is the section that potentially could apply to a journalist who receives a leak of classified information and then publishes it so others can read it. Assange is charged under this section for publishing only the materials that revealed the identities of confidential intelligence sources. He is not charged for publishing any of the hundreds of thousands of other documents he received from Manning and posted on Wikileaks.

The Espionage Act and the Press

Prior to the Assange case, the government had never prosecuted someone who at least claimed to be a journalist for publishing classified information received from a source. But the possible application of the Espionage Act to such a journalist has always been lurking in the background.

The concerns raised by the Assange indictment should be placed in the historical context of battles between the press and the executive branch that began escalating during the Obama Administration. The Obama Justice Department significantly expanded the use of the Espionage Act to prosecute leakers of national security information. You often hear that the Obama administration pursued more leak prosecutions than every prior administration combined. That’s true, but it was still only eight prosecutions, or about one a year. Even this relatively modest pace of cases resulted in blistering attacks from the media, which claimed the administration was engaging in a “war on the press” by trying to silence leakers.

There was arguably a technological rationale for the Obama administration’s change in policy. There have always been leaks of classified information to the press. But in the Watergate era, for example, if a reporter received classified information he or she generally would do some work to verify it. The reporter would also call government officials about the information and request comment. That at least gave officials the opportunity to try to persuade the reporter not to publish the information or to delay publication because it would jeopardize national security. Historically there have been times when the mainstream press honored such requests.

With the rise of the Internet, those safety valves have been largely obliterated. Now there are many websites and individuals who consider themselves journalists who are happy to take leaked information and just throw it up on their website. That’s what Assange did with the materials he received from Manning, as well as with the stolen Democratic emails and documents he received from Russian hackers during the 2016 presidential election. It made some sense for the Obama administration to try to plug serious leaks by cracking down on leakers themselves. In the age of Wikileaks, the only opportunity to prevent potentially damaging information from being immediately released worldwide, to friends and enemies alike, is to prevent it from ever being leaked in the first place.

Risen? Rosen? The Cases of the Two James

Leak prosecutions in the Obama years were brought only against the leakers, not against journalists. But they still caused considerable tension between the administration and the journalism community. For example, prosecutors had a protracted legal and public relations battle with New York Times reporter James Risen. Former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling was prosecuted under the Espionage Act for leaking information to Risen that showed up in his book, State of War. Prosecutors wanted Risen to testify that Sterling was his source, and Risen refused. After a three-year battle, prosecutors obtained a court order that Risen had no privilege to protect his source and could be compelled to testify. However, faced with the prospect that Risen would refuse and force the government to have him jailed for contempt, the prosecutors blinked. They decided not to call Risen, and convicted Sterling at trial without Risen’s testimony. Risen was never criminally charged or forced to testify, but condemned Obama as the “greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.”

But probably the most notorious incident involving the press during the Obama years was the 2010 prosecution of State Department analyst Stephen Kim. Kim was indicted for leaking information about North Korea’s nuclear program to Fox News reporter James Rosen. Prosecutors later obtained a search warrant for Rosen’s email account to look for communications with Kim. In the search warrant affidavit they characterized Rosen as a criminal co-conspirator or aider and abettor for encouraging Kim to leak the classified information to him. Legally this description was completely accurate, and Rosen was not prosecuted. But characterizing a journalist as a criminal co-conspirator in a search warrant affidavit caused a huge controversy and is still repeatedly cited as evidence that the Obama administration was hostile to the press.

According to news reports, the Obama administration also considered prosecuting Assange for his work with Manning but ultimately declined, believing the case would come too close to treading on freedom of the press. But the Trump administration revisited that decision. The legal theories used to prosecute Assange are largely the same as those contained in the Rosen search warrant: that he aided and abetted or conspired with the leaker who violated the law by disclosing the classified information. But the Assange indictment goes one step further by also charging Assange based on publishing a portion of the information, not just receiving it.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has further accelerated the pursuit of leakers. In 2017, Attorney General Sessions announced the Justice Department had tripled the number of leak investigations.  When announcing the Assange indictment, DOJ officials said they have brought four leak prosecutions in two years, double Obama’s pace.

Is Assange a Journalist? That’s the Wrong Question

When announcing the Assange indictment, DOJ officials said they don’t consider Assange a journalist. Much of the commentary about the case suggests it should not be worrisome because Assange is not a true journalist. But whether or not he’s a journalist is really the wrong question. The First Amendment does not refer to “journalists” in the protections it provides for free speech and a free press. And the Supreme Court has made it clear that the First Amendment applies equally to the New York Times and to a pajama-clad blogger writing in his basement.

Defining who is a “journalist” is a thorny, and perhaps constitutionally insurmountable, problem. For years there have been efforts on Capitol Hill to pass a reporter’s shield law that would protect journalists from being compelled to identify their sources, at least in some cases. But those efforts have always stalled, due at least in part to the difficulty of defining who is a “journalist” entitled to the protection of the law.

Nearly fifty years ago, in the landmark case of Branzburg v. Hayes, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution does not create a reporter’s privilege. At the time, the Court noted that trying to define who is a “newsman” worthy of any such privilege “would present practical and conceptual difficulties of a high order” and would be a “questionable procedure.” That was at a time when the news media consisted largely of local newspapers, radio, and three television networks. In the age of the Internet, social media, and citizen journalism, those difficulties are exponentially greater. A definition necessarily excludes someone and puts the government in the position of deciding who it deems a “real” journalist worthy of a special legal privilege. That process itself raises grave First Amendment concerns.

There are certainly ways in which Assange differs dramatically from a mainstream journalist. He generally just dumps leaked materials on the Internet with no screening, verification, or reporting. He acts more like an agent of a hostile foreign power than a reporter. Most of his activities seem worthy of little sympathy. As the Assistant Attorney General said when announcing the Assange indictment, no responsible person, whether or not a journalist, would disclose the names of confidential intelligence sources in a war zone, knowingly exposing them to grave danger.

But the issue is not whether Assange is a journalist or whether his behavior is reprehensible. It’s whether the legal theories used to prosecute Assange also could be employed to prosecute a mainstream journalist, and thus whether the Assange indictment creates a potentially dangerous precedent. The answer appears to be yes.

The Tension Between the Press and the Government

There has always been a healthy tension between the press and the government. The government tries to keep some secrets. Most would agree that it tries to keep far too many and that it classifies too much information. Sometimes it tries to keep information secret not because its release would really damage national security but simply because it would be embarrassing or politically damaging.

Our robust free press and investigative journalism have always played a vital role in fighting excessive government secrecy and ferreting out important information. Scandals such as Watergate and the government excesses during the Iraq war only came to light through the efforts of dogged journalists. In many such cases that work involves the journalists receiving, and reporting on, leaked classified information.

On the other hand, almost all would agree there are some secrets the government should be able to keep. Leaks of the most sensitive military and intelligence information could genuinely harm our national interests or put those serving our country in harm’s way. And if we agree the government must be able to keep some secrets, then we should be able to agree that in appropriate cases the government may prosecute those who illegally disclose such vital information and try to deter others from doing so.

It’s also clear there can be no absolute immunity for journalists from criminal prosecution related to their work. To take an extreme example, a journalist could not hire a burglar to break into an office to steal confidential files, publish them, and then claim immunity from prosecution based on freedom of the press. If Assange had obtained classified information and hand-delivered to agents of the Taliban, it seems clear that he could be prosecuted for espionage. Why should the result be different because he chose to deliver the materials by posting them on the Internet?

The Role of Prosecutorial Discretion

In the end, these cases are all about line drawing. An investigative journalist at a mainstream newspaper regularly receives classified material. He or she may request such materials from a source, even try to cajole the source into obtaining more such materials, directly or subtly. At some point such encouragement or active participation could cross the line into soliciting criminal activity. What prevents such cases from being charged, at least up to this point, is respect for the role of the press and the sound exercise of prosecutorial discretion.

Government officials went out of their way to emphasize this when announcing the Assange indictment. They noted that prosecutorial decisions in each case have to be evaluated on their specific facts, and that mainstream journalism has nothing to fear from the Assange indictment. But the legal theories are there, and always have been.

This really isn’t that surprising. Many criminal statutes contain sweeping prohibitions that could potentially apply to a given case but prosecutors exercise their discretion not to pursue it. In particular, prosecutors traditionally have respected the role of the Fourth Estate. For example, although (as the Risen and Rosen cases demonstrated) journalists have no legal privilege to refuse to reveal their sources in federal cases or to shield their communications in general, DOJ has voluntary internal guidelines to ensure that seeking information from a reporter will be extremely rare and will require approval at the highest levels. This respect for the role of the press is part of the healthy push and pull between the press and the government that has always existed.

It’s probably true the Trump administration will not seek to expand the theories used against Assange to prosecute traditional journalists. Certainly there would be a huge outcry, even from the president’s friends in the conservative media. And there would be substantial constitutional defenses to any such case. This was not a routine leak, but one of the largest security breaches in U.S. history. And however we define journalism, most of Assange’s actions stray far from that concept.

But reliance on prosecutorial discretion requires trust that discretion will be exercised dispassionately, with some wisdom, humility, and historical perspective. Considering this president routinely refers to the press as the enemy of the American people and accuses the press of treason, you can’t blame journalists for being a little nervous.

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The NCAA Corruption Case and the Limits of Fraud

There’s an unusual criminal case pending in the Southern District of New York. The defendants are charged with a single count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Here are the characteristics of their alleged scheme:

  • The underlying conduct was not illegal
  • The defendants did not intend to harm the “victims” but actually wanted to help them
  • If the scheme had succeeded, the victims would have benefited
  • The defendants did not obtain any money or property from the victims and did not intend to
  • The defendants did not personally lie to or deceive the victims
  • Top-level employees of the victim organizations were encouraging the scheme and working with the defendants to help it succeed

The case is part of the NCAA basketball corruption scandal. The defendants, former Adidas executive James Gatto and two others, were indicted for taking part in a scheme to pay star high school players and their families to induce them to attend Division I universities with basketball programs sponsored by Adidas. The alleged victims of their scheme are the universities themselves — whose coaches actively worked with the defendants to help the scheme succeed.

The defendants have moved to dismiss the indictment. They claim the case improperly seeks to criminalize NCAA rules and that their conduct did not amount to a scheme to defraud. The judge will hear arguments on February 15, but the motion is unlikely to be granted. It would be extraordinary to get the case thrown out at this early stage. The allegations of the indictment are likely sufficient to get to trial.

But this case definitely stretches the limits of criminal fraud. If it goes to trial, I think the government will have a tough time persuading a jury (or a court of appeals) that the defendants had the requisite intent to defraud. And even if the case holds up legally, it raises serious questions about the exercise of prosecutorial discretion and the appropriate use of federal criminal sanctions.

The Defendants and the Schemes

The three defendants – James Gatto, Merl Code, and Christian Dawkins – were part of a group of ten individuals arrested in the NCAA investigation back in September. Gatto is the former global marketing director for basketball at Adidas. Code is a former consultant to Adidas, and Dawkins is a business manager who represents athletes. (I wrote about the charges against all ten after they were arrested, you can find that post here.)

The defendants were originally charged along with two other men, Brad Augustine and Munish Sood, in a criminal complaint containing four felony counts: wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, and two counts of wire fraud. By the time the indictment was handed down in November, the government had dropped two of the defendants and three of the charges. (It’s possible that Sood and Augustine have agreed to plead guilty and cooperate; in the indictment they are now referenced as unindicted co-conspirators CC-1 and CC-2.) The indictment now charges only Gatto, Code and Dawkins with a single count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud against two different universities: the University of Louisville and the University of Miami.

In the Louisville scheme, the defendants allegedly arranged to pay the family of a star high school basketball player $100,000 in exchange for his agreement to attend Louisville and later to sign with Dawkins and Adidas for sponsorships and professional representation. The indictment alleges that one or more coaches at Louisville knew about and encouraged the scheme. The plan was to cause Adidas to make the payment in $25,000 installments by creating phony invoices from a company controlled by Code. Code would then transfer the money to Dawkins, who would give cash to the student’s father. Adidas made two such payments of $25,000 before the scheme was halted by the arrests.

The indictment alleges the defendants were plotting to pay a second student to attend Louisville as well. In a meeting that included one of the Louisville coaches, Code was allegedly given cash to be funneled to that player’s family. That payment apparently had not yet been made when the defendants were arrested.

The Miami scheme involved a similar plot concerning a high school player who would graduate in 2018. The plan was to pay that student’s family $150,000 in exchange for his agreement to attend Miami and to sign up with Adidas and Dawkins. Once again, this plan was carried out with the knowledge and participation of one or more of the basketball coaches at Miami. Preliminary discussions and planning took place but no money actually changed hands before the defendants were arrested.

The planned payments to the students and their families were not illegal. But they would make the students ineligible athletes under the NCAA rules. Those rules require student athletes to be amateurs who do not receive any payments or other benefits for their participation in college sports. A university found to have ineligible players on its team is subject to sanctions including financial penalties, limitations on post-season play, and limitations on financial aid that may be awarded to other athletes. The potential harm that could result from such rules violations is what forms the basis of the government’s fraud allegations.

The Defense Motion to Dismiss

In their motion to dismiss, the defendants claim the indictment does not make out a conspiracy to defraud. Although they rely upon different legal theories, the argument boils down to this: there was no scheme to defraud because the defendants were trying to help the universities, not harm them. The defendants never sought to obtain anything from the universities for themselves, or to deprive the universities of any money or property. Far from deceiving the universities, they were working with the heads of their basketball programs toward a common goal. That work may have violated NCAA rules, but it was not criminal.

The government’s first response is that the defense claims are premature. Prosecutors argue that the indictment makes out a facial case of conspiracy to defraud, and at this stage that is all that is required. Many of the defense arguments, they claim, rely on disputed facts. Those arguments may be considered only after trial, when the evidence is in and all the facts are known.

On the legal merits, the prosecutors argue the indictment properly charges two fraud theories: 1) the defendants conspired to defraud the universities of property by causing them to pay scholarship money to athletes who would be ineligible under NCAA rules; and 2) the defendants conspired to defraud the universities of their right to control their assets by depriving them of information relevant to their decisions about where to spend their limited scholarship funds.

Was it a Fraud?

This is a strange fraud case. The universities arguably would have been deceived had the scheme been successful – although since the heads of their basketball programs were involved in the scheme, even that is debatable. But the law draws a distinction between being deceived and being defrauded.

To defraud typically means to obtain something of value from the victim, to profit at the victim’s expense. In this case the defendants were working with representatives of the victims towards a shared goal. They were not trying to obtain anything from the universities. In fact, the defendants would benefit from the scheme only if the universities also benefited.

The government argues the universities would have been deprived of money in the form of scholarships awarded to ineligible athletes. But in exchange for that money the universities would have received the services of the athlete in question. Usually if you get what you expected to get at the price you expected to pay, you have not been defrauded.

To avoid this problem the government basically analogizes the student athletes to a defective product. The universities didn’t get what they bargained for because they expected to get a NCAA eligible amateur athlete, not one who would potentially subject them to sanctions. In this case, though, the “product” was not inherently defective and would perform exactly as expected. There would only be a problem if the scheme was discovered by a third party – the NCAA. That risk may have been a by-product of the scheme, but inflicting that harm was certainly not the scheme’s goal.

Fraud also usually requires some deceit or deception by the defendant. The defendants point out there is no allegation they personally deceived the universities at all. Indeed, how could they be deceiving the universities when representatives of the universities were actively involved in the scheme?

The prosecutors respond that the defendants knew their scheme would eventually cause the students, parents and coaches to falsely represent to the universities that they were not aware of any NCAA rule violations. They also characterize the coaches as distinct from the universities, arguing they were not acting on behalf of the universities but as part of the plot to deceive them.

Separating the coaches from the universities in this way feels artificial. In this case, unlike in some of the other NCAA prosecutions, the coaches are not named as defendants, or even as unindicted co-conspirators. There is no allegation they were taking bribes or otherwise personally profiting from the scheme. Like the defendants, their only apparent purpose was to help the university’s basketball program obtain top players.

If the coaches had committed another crime in the course of working with the defendants, principles of corporate criminal liability would allow the government to prosecute the universities because the coaches were acting on their behalf. Although the universities would no doubt prefer to be portrayed as innocent victims, it’s more accurate to characterize them as willing participants in the scheme.

Prosecutors also allege that the defendants took steps to conceal the scheme by creating phony invoices and routing the payments to the families through a company owned by defendant Code. However, those steps were designed to conceal what was going on from Adidas, so that the defendants could induce Adidas to pay the money. They don’t demonstrate any effort to deceive the universities.

In sum – the defendants have a point. This case lacks the typical indicia of a criminal fraud case.

A Sound Exercise of Prosecutorial Discretion?

This has the feel of a case where prosecutors stretched to find a criminal theory to cover conduct that really shouldn’t be criminal. Given the breadth of the concept of fraud prosecutors may able to make a legal case, particularly on the “right to control” theory. They may be able to persuade a jury and even convince a court of appeals, although I have my doubts. But that doesn’t mean the case should have been brought.

It’s noteworthy that when the defendants were first arrested prosecutors charged them with four felonies and trumpeted the fact that each defendant faced up to eighty years in prison. Six weeks later when the case was indicted, prosecutors had dropped three of the four charges (including money laundering charges that, as I noted at the time of the arrests, were pretty clearly flawed). Usually it’s the other way around: you file a complaint on a single charge or handful of charges and then add additional charges during the grand jury process. This scaling back of the case suggests prosecutors may have realized that, in their desire to make a splash with the arrests, they overplayed their hand.

Particularly in white collar cases, the sound exercise of prosecutorial discretion requires using good judgment about what kinds of cases deserve criminal sanctions. In recent years there have been signs the Supreme Court is questioning whether it can still rely on prosecutors to exercise their discretion wisely. I fear that cases like this are only going to contribute to that trend.

White collar investigations often involves conduct where remedies other than criminal sanctions may be appropriate. This seems like one of those cases. These defendants deserved to suffer some consequences. They should lose their jobs and face professional disgrace. There’s no question the NCAA needs to clean house. But these defendants shouldn’t be facing a twenty-year felony for conspiring to “defraud” universities whose own coaches were actively working with them towards the same goal.

Update: On February 15, 2018 the judge, as expected, denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss. Trial is currently set for October 1.

Update: On October 24, Gatto, Code, and Dawkins were found guilty after a jury trial. They have vowed to appeal.

Update: On January 15, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the convictions, holding that the facts did establish a scheme to defraud.

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