Trump’s Wrecking Crew Goes After Press Freedom

In dot connecting mode — This week Julian Assange was indicted on violating 17 counts of the Espionage Act for his role in publishing classified State Department and other files sent to him by Chelsea Manning. Whatever one might thing of Assange, this is worrisome because it touches on an important privilege of news media, which is the ability to publish classified informatioin received as a third party that the American people need to know.

Consider, for example, the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg leaked the top-secret study of how the U.S. had gotten itself into the Vietnam War to the New York Times in 1971, and the Times decided to publish it in segments. After the first segment came oout the Nixon Administration sought a court order barring the paper from publishing the rest of it.

According to Wikipedia,

Section 793 of the Espionage Act was cited by Attorney General John N. Mitchell as cause for the United States to bar further publication of stories based upon the Pentagon Papers. The statute was spread over three pages of the United States Code Annotated and the only part that appeared to apply to the Times was 793(e), which made it criminal for:

Whoever having unauthorized possession of, access to, or control over any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, plan, map, model, instrument, appliance, or note relating to the national defense, or information relating to the national defense which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation, willfully communicates, delivers, transmits or causes to be communicated, delivered, or transmitted, or attempts to communicate, deliver, transmit or cause to be communicated, delivered, or transmitted the same to any person not entitled to receive it, or willfully retains the same and fails to deliver it to the officer or employee of the United States entitled to receive it [shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both]. [6]

A second lawsuit was brought against the Washington Post after that paper began publishing portions of the Pentagon Papers also. The Supreme Court heard both cases and decided the newspapers had a right under the First Amendment to publish the study. Very simply, the Court decided that the government did not prove that publication of the Pentagon Papers was actually detrimental to national security.

The precedent here, I believe, is that while a media outlet may not have absolute discretion to publish classified information that falls into its lap — if the information really is critical to national security, and if publishing it could bring harm to someone, that might still be a violation of the Espionage Act. But if the government is just sitting on something because it would be emarassing to elected officials, and this something falls into the hands of news media, its publication is protected speech.

But now the Trump Administration has swooped in to indict Julian Assange — rather ungrateful of it, I think — for publishing the information given him by Chelsea Manning. This all happened in 2010, and while the Obama Administration prosecuted Manning it chose not to bring charges against Assange.

But now the Trump Justice Department does want to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act, saying that Assange is not a journalist. Well, he isn’t, but that shouldn’t matter.

Assange is being charged under the Espionage Act, a law passed during World War I to punish spies and traitors. But in recent years, the law increasingly has been used against government employees who leak classified information to the media. The Obama administration brought eight prosecutions for media leaks — more than all previous administrations combined — and the Trump administration has upped the ante, bringing seven prosecutions in the space of two years. Alarmingly, many of the defendants have been whistleblowers: They disclosed information indicating waste, fraud or abuse on the part of the government. National Security Agency employee Thomas Drake, for instance, was charged with disclosing information about an illegal N.S.A. surveillance program to a Baltimore Sun reporter.

Nonetheless, until now, the Justice Department distinguished between government employees who leak classified information (deemed prosecutable), and outlets that publish it (considered to have First Amendment protection). The Obama administration flirted with erasing that line: In court documents, it described a Fox News chief Washington correspondent, James Rosen, as “an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator” in an Espionage Act case. (Rosen has since left Fox.) And the administration reportedly considered bringing charges against Assange. But ultimately, Obama’s Justice Department decided that prosecuting publishers of leaked information would be a bridge too far.

That was the right decision. Although the Espionage Act does not recognize a line between leaker and publisher, the First Amendment, as interpreted by the courts, does. The Supreme Court has long held that government employees may be required to relinquish some free-speech rights as a condition of their employment. Officials with access to classified information sign nondisclosure agreements in which they agree to be subject to criminal penalties for leaking. Publishers, obviously, sign no such waivers. While the Supreme Court has not directly addressed whether they can be prosecuted for publishing classified information (because no such prosecution has previously occurred), it has held that the government may not enjoin a newspaper from publishing information based solely on government claims of national security harms.

Now, why would the Trump Administration give a hoo haw about the documents published by Assange back in 2010? Here’s some speculation — are they doing this to send a warning to U.S. media outlets about publishing classified documents that might embarrass Donald Trump?

Consider that they pulled this trick just before Trump gave Attorney General/Trump consigliere William Barr carte blanche to comb through and declassify anything he wants to publish to make Trump look good. What would happen if the Washington Post received classfied files pointing to clear Trump corruptions? What would happen if someone slipped a thumb drive to a journalist containing the unredacted Mueller Report with all underlying evidence? And a media outlet chose to publish it?

Under the Pentagon Papers precedent, probably the media outlet that published those files would not face charges, assuming the documents didn’t compromise any ongoing intelligence operations. But the Trump Justice Department seems to be looking to change the precedent. Otherwise, why are they bothering with Assange?

There is also a Russian connection, naturally. Josh Marshall wrote yesterday,

This level of power basically gives Barr a whip hand over the entire Intelligence Community. And he seems to want to get his hands on the Russia desks especially. As the Times notes, “Mr. Barr wanted to know more about what foreign assets the C.I.A. had in Russia in 2016 and what those informants were telling the agency about how President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sought to meddle in the 2016 election.” These are likely among the most closely held secrets the US government has. They will all but certainly be communicated directly to the President.

And from there to Trump’s good buddy Vladimir Putin?

Current and former intgelligence officials are horrified at Barr’s newfound privilege, saying that lives are on the line. It puts Barr in the position of weaponizing the Justice Department against the FBI and other intelligence agencies.

Jamil Smith writes for Rolling Stone,

I listened Thursday to President Trump, after a reporter reminded him that the treason of which he’d been accusing his many adversaries is an actual crime punishable by death, and he merely nodded. When asked who might suffer that penalty, he named the former head of the FBI, his ex-deputy, and “people probably higher than that.” There aren’t too many people higher than that.

Hours later, that dystopian rhetoric began transforming into authoritarian reality. Trump signed a directive allowing attorney general William Barr broad, unprecedented powers to conduct a review of the intelligence community’s investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign, ordering the CIA and the other 15 federal intelligence agencies to essentially to give Barr everything he needs. Whatever Barr wants declassified, he’ll declassify — which we can anticipate, given our experience with the Mueller report, to be a nightmare of misinformation tailored to the president’s narrative.

It is carte blanche for his attack dog to comb through a mountain of intelligence and craft a story to punish whomever Trump wants punished. Without any restraints, we can expect mockeries of justice unlike things we’ve seen since, well, trials of police officers for killing black people. It will almost certainly be disgraceful. Trump lackey Corey Lewandowski already was on the airwaves Friday alleging that former Vice President (and potential general election rival) Joe Biden was behind the Steele dossier and that Comey, McCabe and others would all be on trial by “March or April of the next year.”

I am honestly frightened for this country.

14 thoughts on “Trump’s Wrecking Crew Goes After Press Freedom

  1. The FBI is being slowly morphed into tRUMP's Gestapo.

    As decent agents leave – due to personal morals/ethics, or afraid that any involvement in an investigation touching tRUMP and cronies will result in them being fired, or charged, or both – they'll be replaced by tRUMPies!

    Now we are all at the beginning of "The Rise of the tRUMP Reich!"*

    We are now close to being the good Germans who watched as Hitler rose to power, and who did nothing.

    Man, I wish I could still hit the streets!


    * I want to still be alive when we can add, "And the Fall of the tRUMP Reich!"

  2. I really don't think Barr will find anything.  He'll have to make stuff up to go after anyone.

    They say he wants names of Russian sources in Russia.  Sounds like Putin is asking for classified info from trump.

    • I'm surprised more people aren't thinking this, since it's clear that Trump is compromised. (Wait, what? Isn't there some *debate* on that? Well: what evidence do we have that Trump is working for the best interests of the US, versus those of Russia, in our Russian dealings? None. Every other President has had documentary evidence laying this out. Ergo: he can't be trusted – he is compromised.) 

      I'm also surprised that this isn't a red flag to more people. 

      I won't be a bit surprised if this ends up creating the Constitutional crisis of "the NSA intercepted proof that the Trump administration has shared classified knowledge with Russia." I also feel people should be mentioning *this*, so that the GOP doesn't get to feign surprise that the guy who worked with Russia, trying to score a $300 million payday while running  for President, saw some benefit to doing favors for Russia. 

  3. I like aj's thought on this, it fits with Trumps style.  He probably wants and needs election help from the Russian asymmetrical warfare machine, and needs something to trade with Putin for it.  What better thing to trade than information on American intelligence assets and capabilities.  I wish this idea was not so plausible. I wish I could point to his moral fiber and trust in his commitment to all U.S. citizens.  I wish I could point to the control of a free and un-manipulated press to control such things.  This sort of thing would need to be done on what Dick Cheney use to call the dark side.   The dark side needs the cover of darkness, a lack of visibility, a lack of transparency and a chance to do some cover up work if needed.  Hell a bone saw might come in handy too.   

    So fear and loathing might just be fully justified and warranted.  Honestly. 

  4. The trajectory of what Trump is trying may depend on the perception of intelligence pros whether Trump is likely to win. I think/hope that many senior career people are patriots but let's assume they are stone-cold bureaucrats.  To coddle Trump's demands without objection when it results in a US asset being outed and executed will haunt your career if Trump's administration ends in disgrace. The flip side is that if the career hack objects and Trump wins, they are out with no pension.

    If anyone in the position to do so demands that A/G Barr must show a law-enforcement reason for the info Barr is demanding, and say it publicly, the press will eat it up and the principle that this stuff isn't for political manipulation will be made. If that official is fired for insubordination and they (again publicly) declare that anyone who replaces him in the (CIA?) will be held to account for the loss of foreign assets (spies) who are outed, then the new person is warned that future administrations will hold him/her to account for handing over classified info – even under orders.

    The Saturday night massacre was legendary because the A/G and his 2nd in command resigned rather than obey an illegal order from Nixon. Their principled stand made Nixon's order stand out for the abuse of power behind the instruction. After the two-year purge of Intell, do people exist who will make history?

  5. I wonder if Shinzo A. has any shit on Joe Biden that Trump and his campaigners can use?

  6. For Trump, having his political enemies literally put to death would be an achievement that would put him in the pantheon of the dictators he favors — Kim, Putin, Duterte.

    What frightens me most about all this is the media, which will "normalize" Trump going after his perceived enemies in the IC and help him sell it to the American people as either that or much ado about nothing.  

    These charges of "treason" is kind of a tell though; no one has been as openly "treasonous" as Trump has.

  7. Max Boot: This nation is at the mercy of a criminal administration

    …It is hard to think of any president in the past 230 years, including Nixon, who has ever sabotaged the rule of law so flagrantly or so successfully to protect his own hide. And, sadly, it is hard to imagine that anything can be done about it before Nov. 3, 2020….

    …So for the next 18 months, at a minimum, this nation is at the mercy of a criminal administration. I am in despair as I have never been before about the future of our experiment in self-rule. Before Mueller filed his report, it was possible to imagine the president being brought to justice. That fantasy is no longer tenable….

    It took a couple years, but Trump has installed lackeys at strategic control points in the government – Barr at Justice and Mnuchin at Treasury – who, will do all they can to protect their boss. The next months and years will be about how much rot spreads downward into the rank and file employees of these agencies.

    • I fully understand Max Boot's sentiments, but I refuse to accept the premise that a dirtbag scoundrel like Trump is going to overpower and destroy the common decency and inherent honesty of the American people.

      Trump is a shitbag who history will record as an anomaly on America's path toward a more perfect union or that shinning city upon a hill. I'm reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King's declaration where he says…."The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice." And I believe that.

       As bad as it looks at times Trump won't succeed in altering the basic decency of the America people or humanity as a whole.

       Trump is just a loud mouth, self absorbed bag of shit whose position on the American scene will only serve as a reflection point for America to recalibrate it's values. Sometimes we need to look squarely at immorality and corruption to understand how wrong it is and that we want no part of it.

      I think we're finding out already as a nation that character really does matter.


  8. Has the shitbag pardoned the war criminals yet? Trump certainly has a knack for getting under my skin. I could puke when I think about the disgraceful treatment he gave Khizar Khan and his wife in disrespecting the honor and sacrifice of their son. What a way to treat a gold star mother, huh?

     But I think he's topped his previous low with his idea of pardoning psychopaths who managed to wear the uniform. Just as a layman without formal training in psychology I think it's fairly obvious that anybody who get off on urinating on the corpse is somebody who society need to keep a close eye on. I wouldn't be dismissing that kind of behavior as something to overlook as boys will be boys. Trump might find himself in a Willy Horton type situation if he continues on with a cavalier attitude that these behaviors are no big deal.

  9. Speaking of pressers, you notice trump always goes off rails on foreign trips ? Notice it is when he and other leaders are facing real press questions and having to give answers.

    Notice Sarah Sanders only does does "yard" question or two and increasingly delivers her lies and accusations much the same as kelleyanne Conway? Questions not answered but unpacked up accusations smears and threats.

    No press conferences because that is when he shows his mental disconnect his narcissism his self delusion. They know he's nuts .

    This administration can't really defend what it is doing. Therefore it doesn't try. Propaganda misinformation and in your face obstruction and stonewalling.

  10. Going OT – Trump minimized Kim shooting off a missile (or more than one) while Trump was in nearby Japan. Trump wasn't worried. He liked that Kim called Biden low-IQ – asking if Kim was sending Trump a message. There were two messages – Kim is with Trump and Kim is still developing WMD that can reach US allies. Japan and S.Korea got the message – Trump might stand by and let Kim start a war with either of his enemies. As Trump says, "We'll have to see."

    The incident has been widely reported but no one is asking WTF is going on.  You have to think like Trump. If Trump does not win in 2020, his next battles will all be criminal legal battles. Even if he gets a full pardon, Nixon-style, there's NY state. So Trump has to win in 2020.

    Trump is all about illusion. For the 41% of cultists Trump wants to say N. Korea has been an international triumph. Trump 'solved' N. Korea where Obama/Biden failed. Trump will nominate himself for a Nobel Prize for his leadership. Kim is still building nukes – ha's still firing off rockets. The rhetoric has toned down but nothing Trump did has slowed down Kim's plans. 

    The dynamic is obvious. Kim will side with Trump in the election. (This would be the kiss of death in any normal election.) Trump will embrace the endorsement as if it's proof that Trump can control the actions of Kim – or Kim will fall out of favor with his best buddy Trump, oh horror of horrors. 

    Trump tried to make a deal with Kim – dangling the idea of developing N. Korea coastal real estate. (Oh, honey – we can vacation in N. Korea where they imprison Americans for trivia and beat them to death!) Trump actually thinks he has magic negotiating skills. Trump got NOTHING but love letters from Kim. If Trump gets tough, it's an admission negotiations failed. 

    So in the next election, Trump will claim triumph – Kim actually signed something which has produced nothing. Biden will call it what it is. Claiming success w. N. Korea is like claiming a hamster is a pony. The bizarre truth is that 41% will see a pony. 

    That margin – 41% – won't be enough to get Trump elected. But it's a distressing number.

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