As US officials investigated whether they can charge WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under the 1917 US Espionage Act, a voice of remarkable experience with the controversial law spoke out in defense of the secrets proprietor, suggesting his indictment under the act would yet again transform “dissent into treason.”
Robert Meeropol’s parents were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two communists who became the first Americans to be executed under the Espionage Act, amid the country’s descent into McCarthyism. Their sentences were carried out in 1953, after they were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage by passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.
The case remains a highly controversial moment in US history.
“The 1917 Act has a notorious history,” Meeropol write in a post to a blog run by the Rosenberg Fund for Children, a group founded to support the children of progressive activists targeted by the government for their dissent. “It originally served to squelch opposition to World War I. It criminalized criticism of the war effort, and sent hundreds of dissenters to jail just for voicing their opinions. It transformed dissent into treason.”
Under the act, anyone “having unauthorized possession of” information relating to the national defense or information that could be “used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation” may be prosecuted if he or she publishes it or “willfully retains” it.
“To this day, with a few notable exceptions that include my parents’ case, it has been a dormant sword of Damocles, awaiting the right political moment and an authoritarian Supreme Court to spring to life and slash at dissenters,” Meeropol wrote.
“Viewing the Wikileaks situation through this lens, it becomes apparent why the government would seek to charge Assange with conspiracy,” he continued. “Not only Assange, but anyone involved in the Wikileaks community could be swept up in a dragnet. Just as in my parents’ case, the prosecutors could seek to bully some involved into ratting out others, in return for more favorable treatment. This divide and conquer approach would turn individuals against each other, sow the seeds of distrust within the broader community, and intimidate others into quiescence.
“This kind of attack threatens every left wing activist. I urge all progressives to come to the defense of Julian Assange should he be indicted for violating the Espionage Act of 1917.”
He’s not alone in pushing back against the potential prosecution of Julian Assange for espionage or conspiracy. Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, also said that WikiLeaks had not committed a crime in releasing leaked diplomatic cables to media outlets.
“As an initial matter, there is no doubt that WikiLeaks is very unpopular right now. Many feel that the WikiLeaks publication was offensive,” Conyers said. “But being unpopular is not a crime, and publishing offensive information is not either. And the repeated calls from politicians, journalists, and other so-called experts crying out for criminal prosecutions or other extreme measures make me very uncomfortable.”
He concluded: “And so whatever you think about this controversy, it is clear that prosecuting Wikileaks would raise the most fundamental questions about freedom of speech, about who is a journalist, and about what the public can know about the actions of its own government.”
Similarly, Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution, balked at many conservatives’ suggestion that Assange be prosecuted in the US.
“By its terms, it criminalizes not merely the disclosure of national defense information by organizations such as Wikileaks, but also the reporting on that information by countless news organizations,” he wrote on his blog. “It also criminalizes all casual discussions of such disclosures by persons not authorized to receive them to other persons not authorized to receive them–in other words, all tweets sending around those countless news stories, all blogging on them, and all dinner party conversations about their contents.”
Wittes noted that the legislation probably would not “cover the overwhelming bulk of the material that Wikileaks disclosed.”
“Taken at its word, the Espionage Act makes felons of us all,” he concluded.
The American Civil Liberties Union has also lined up against the prosecution of Assange for espionage, suggesting the law endangers Americans’ inalienable right to freedom of speech.
“In the current environment, it would be all too easy for inflamed public passions to serve as the basis for arguments to justify broadening even further the proscriptions of the law,” the group recently said. “Instead, Congress should stand clear-eyed and firm against arguments based on passion, not reason – and narrow the Espionage Act to those who leak properly classified information.”