Assange supporters see U.S. journalists' ambivalence as inviting other government efforts that could lead one day to the prosecution of journalists for doing something that happens fairly routinely now — writing news stories based on leaked government documents.
"Bob Woodward has probably become one of the richest journalists in history by publishing classified documents in book after book. And yet no one would suggest that Bob Woodward be prosecuted because Woodward is accepted in the halls of Washington," said Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer and media critic who writes for the online journal Salon.com. "There is no way of prosecuting Julian Assange without harming investigative journalism."
Woodward, who rose to fame by exposing the Watergate conspiracy that forced President Richard Nixon from office, told a Yale University law school audience in November that WikiLeaks' "willy-nilly" release of documents was "madness" and would be "fuel for those who oppose disclosure." But that appearance came before U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder launched a criminal probe against Assange. Woodward didn't respond to e-mails seeking comment.
Woodward's newspaper, The Washington Post, however, is one of the few that's editorialized against prosecuting Assange. "The government has no business indicting someone who is not a spy and who is not legally bound to keep its secrets," the Post said.
Assange increasingly has presented himself as a journalist in the weeks since Holder's threat to bring charges. He's the website's editor, and WikiLeaks publishes editorials.
Few could argue that WikiLeaks didn't perform journalistic functions in April when it released video taken from an Army helicopter of a 2007 incident where Army pilots fired on civilians in Baghdad, killing 17 Iraqis, including two employees of the Reuters news agency, and wounding two children. In addition to editing and captioning the video, WikiLeaks interviewed the Iraqi families about the incident. The release of the video, which Reuters had sought for years but had been denied, was widely covered by U.S. news organizations.
U.S. journalists have been far less zealous about WikiLeaks, however, in the ensuing months, as the Obama administration has mounted increasingly vocal attacks on the organization over three batches of leaked U.S. documents — military logs of events from the war in Afghanistan, including the names of Afghans who'd cooperated with the U.S.; initial incident reports from throughout the Iraq War; and most recently, thousands of diplomatic cables.
The problem with speaking up for WikiLeaks now, said Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, one of the country's most prominent defenders of press freedom and one of the groups that backed WikiLeaks in its 2008 court case, is that she doesn't consider Assange to be a journalist.
Assange, she said, "has done some things that journalists do, but I would argue that what the New York Times does is more journalism. They vet the information. . . . They consider outside sources. They take responsibility. They publicly identify themselves. . . .They do some value added. They do something original to it," Dalglish said.
She added that part of her hesitation to back Assange is that the public knows so little about him and how he acquires information.