We have no sympathy for Julian Assange, who released emails hacked by Russian intelligence to disrupt the 2016 election. We hope he is punished for crimes he is accused of committing in 2010, when the government says he worked with Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning to hack the Defense Department's computer network.
Those who steal sensitive documents must feel the consequences.
But in its superseding indictment against Assange filed Thursday, the Department of Justice went further than accusing the WikiLeaks founder of participating in the theft of government secrets. Other felony counts would throw him in jail under the Espionage Act of 1917 for inviting, then posting, classified documents illegally obtained by someone else.
This unpredecented interpretation of the overbroad law could make suspects out of all manner of reporters and editors working closely with sources to encourage them to get, and then making public, classified materials.
That's not going to happen, promises the government, because, as Assistant Attorney General John Demers put it, "Julian Assange is no journalist." Under this theory, "the totality of his conduct" reveals that he was motivated by the desire to expose and hurt Americans, therefore all his disclosures — of State Department cables, of rules of engagement in Iraq, of assessment briefs of Guantanamo Bay detainees — become criminal. Voilà!
But as the First Amendment and case law establish, the government does not have the authority to determine who deserves constitutional protections. Moreover, any attempt to define who qualifies as a journalist is folly in a world where activists regularly look to acquire and expose information from whistleblowers, and where billions publish on Twitter and Facebook.
Punch line: There's only one American politician in memory to ever actually encourage a criminal hack. That's the man who, in 2016, said "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," who then repeatedly said he loved WikiLeaks, whose campaign promoted its data dumps, whose Justice Department now calls inviting and disclosing hacked materials a federal crime.