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Other view: The government wants Assange in jail, but that's bad for the rest of us

Lady Gaga—all in black and wearing a witch’s hat—is interviewing Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he’s been holed up for years.

As the pop star, in a bizarre scene from a new documentary, quizzes the WikiLeaks founder about everything from his legal problems to his favorite food, Assange interrupts: “Let’s not pretend for a moment I’m a normal person.”

Indeed, in Laura Poitras’s film about Assange, “Risk,” he comes across as neither normal nor particularly sympathetic.

Consider: He has been charged with rape in Sweden (he says he was entrapped and had to seek asylum from extradition); he has published leaked information that has intruded into private lives; and he may have helped Russian agents try to get Donald Trump elected president.

But everyone who cares about the free press in America needs to understand something else, too.

Prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act for publishing leaked information—which Attorney General Jeff Sessions calls “a priority”—is dangerous. It could turn out to be a major move toward what Trump has long been threatening to do: punish the independent media in America.

“I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” Trump said during the presidential campaign.

That’s not so easy to do. But punishing Assange may begin to accomplish similar goals. And because Assange’s methods are questionable, such prosecution may not seem like much of a threat.

“When governments are trying to restrict press rights of any kind, the inclination is not to go after the most popular kid in the room—it’s to go after the least popular,” Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, told me.

What WikiLeaks has consistently done, Timm said, “is publish information that is true and that the government considers secret. That’s the same thing that the New York Times or The Washington Post does all the time.” (Sessions’ threatened prosecution reportedly would not focus on the Russian hacks of Democratic officials’ emails, which during the campaign prompted Trump to proclaim: “I love WikiLeaks!”)

FBI Director James B. Comey seemed to join Sessions in laying the groundwork when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, describing WikiLeaks’ publication of classified documents as “intelligence porn.”

Asked to lay out the difference between that and what he considers legitimate journalism that’s protected by the First Amendment, Comey said: “It crosses a line when it moves from being about trying to educate a public [to] just pushing out information about sources and methods without regard to interests.”

That raises troubling questions about what happens when the government decides that some news isn’t sufficiently educational.

Comey made another distinction: Legitimate journalists who obtain sensitive leaked information usually get in touch with government officials to hear their objections. But WikiLeaks doesn’t, he complained. (Assange quickly responded on Twitter, citing one specific example in which he did.)

Think about that. What if contacting the government becomes a legal prerequisite for publication? It would take away some of the media’s independence. It might even lead to a next level in which news organizations must get government approval before publishing. Now we’re into authoritarian territory.

To be sure, many in the government—and citizens, too—argue that journalists shouldn’t get to decide what classified information the public sees. Publishing may harm national security; classified information is secret for a reason.

Decades ago, one journalist made a powerful counterargument. As the New York Times was fighting to publish the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War, Washington bureau chief Max Frankel wrote an affidavit describing how government officials “routinely misuse and abuse” classification.

They do it “to hide mistakes of judgment, to protect reputations of individuals, to cover up the loss and waste of funds,” Frankel wrote. “Almost everything in government is kept secret for a time and, in the foreign policy field, classified as ‘secret’ and ‘sensitive’ beyond any rule of law or reason.”

Given that, it falls to the news media to ferret out information about government activities that citizens ought to know. For example, in 2005, Dana Priest of The Washington Post brought to light the CIA’s “black sites,” where terrorism suspects were secretly imprisoned and tortured; her investigation won a Pulitzer Prize.

Priest sees the hazards of going after Assange.

“Assange is obnoxious, and probably reckless sometimes,” she told me, “but it would set such a bad precedent to prosecute a publisher” of classified information.

The legal lines between WikiLeaks and traditional news organizations aren’t clear.

“If Assange becomes the first successful prosecution of a third party under the Espionage Act, then that gives the government a whole lot of leverage it might previously have not thought it possessed to be much more aggressive in investigating the media’s role in national security leaks,” Stephen I. Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor, said recently.

Jail Assange and we could be on the road to government control of the news media.

Can we trust Trump not to rush down that road as fast as he can? Remember: He called to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose accumulation of authoritarian powers includes jailing nearly 150 journalists. And recall that Trump seldom stops ranting about America’s “out-of-control” media.

Clearly, this president wants to get the press under control. And whatever you think about Julian Assange, that way lies tyranny.


Mailbag
Letter: Too many taters?

The Times-News reports in the May 4 edition about the economic impact of McCain Foods processing expansion.

True – processor management and employees will prosper, but what about the potato farmer?

Will the potato farmer receive a price for the potatoes greater than his cost to make them?

Hopefully, the potato farmer will heed the warning of Mark Klompien, CEO and president of United Potato Growers of America, that "oversupplying the market kills price." Mr. Klompien has stated "The value of correctly supplying the market cannot be overstated."

Product supply determines the product price and farmer profit or loss.

Hopefully, potato farmers are smarter than dairy farmers who send a maximum milk supply to the market and receive an unprofitable price for their milk.

All farmers should send the correct product supply to the market — a supply matching profitable demand such that the resulting product price is consistently positive for the farmer.

Dairy farmers have failed to learn this economic lesson. Hopefully, potato farmers will do better.

Bob Krucker

Jerome


Twn-column
Stapilus: Trumpcare, Idaho and beyond

The political effect of Thursday’s U.S. House vote on health policy—Trumpcare, as we hear—may be enormous, even in Idaho.

Both Idaho representatives, Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson, voted in favor of the Republican bill.

Writing about the raw ammunition this gives Democrats, the liberal site Daily Kos cobbled a quick generic attack ad: “Rep. X voted for tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires while gutting health care for everyone else. Twenty-four million people thrown off Medicaid. Protections for people with pre-existing conditions destroyed. A bill so bad, Republicans wouldn’t even let Americans see it before they voted.”

Actually, the 24 million refers to to the total number who would lose insurance, Medicaid or otherwise, based on earlier versions of the legislation. (Disclosure: I may be one of the 24 or so million.) But that number may rise when the Congressional Budget Office and other organizations have time to carefully review the bill. Not in a very long time has a chamber of Congress voted for such a large bill without any solid research on what its cost or effects will be, and even without any hearings. It was jammed together in rapid-fire closed-door meetings, and even most House members were left in the dark on specifics.

The followup to 20 million people losing health insurance as a result of this legislation, recent academic studies estimated, is that somewhere between 24,000 and 44,000 Americans would die annually as a result. (A side rhetorical question: When Al-Qaeda attacked us in 2001 and killed more than 3,000 Americans, we accurately labelled them terrorists; if members of Congress vote to pass a bill they have been told will cost more than 20,000 Americans their lives, every year, what should we call them? We may get that debate in the months ahead.) It also may weaken health insurance provided by employers, so if you’re insured through your job, don’t think you have no skin in this.

The effect in Idaho would be large. The new bill may destroy many state health insurance exchanges, which more than 100,000 Idahoans rely on for health care. As a starter.

True, the bill as written is unlikely to get far in the Senate. But House members, even if they were acting with that in mind, voted on the bill as written. It’s on their records, and they’re stuck with it.

But surely that doesn’t have anything to do with Idaho? Idaho is, as they say, ruby red. Labrdor and Simpson win in landslides every other years. Does it matter what they do?

Don’t be so certain: People could be hurt, frightened, or both, by what may come next. Politics evolves, even in Idaho. The Senate will not act on it swiftly. (Actual hearings are likely there.) The legislation, at least some of the Senate options, will likely not wear well as people figure out their increased risk.

Don’t be surprised if the unruly town hall Labrador held a couple of weeks ago becomes a portent of larger things to come.

Now, a followup note on last week’s column about Raul Labrador’s political future.

It included a passing reference to Senator Jim Risch, who is up for election in 2020, for what would be a third term. Owing maybe in part to considerations of age, there’s been some chatter (including in Republican circles) that Risch may not run again.

That drew a quick phone call from Risch personally. He was unequivocal: Any such contention was wrong; he and his backers already are at work raising money and organizing (even this early in the cycle); he plans and expects to be on the ballot seeking another term.

I heard nothing evasive or cautionary; he made his intentions as clear as he could short of a formal campaign announcement (which understandably would not come until much further along in the cycle).

Noted. Another factor for Labrador to consider, presumably, in evaluating his future.