Wikileaks Investigation: DOJ's Extreme Backlash Against Whistleblowers is Threatening Our Liberties


With the United States government's hunt for PRISM leaker Edward Snowden continuing, attention has returned to the most notable document leaker of recent years: Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. The unsurprising knowledge that the U.S. Justice Department is continuing to investigate Wikileaks and consider criminal charges against the organization brings yet more evidence of a Justice Department hell-bent on controlling any and all information released about the Obama administration and going after anyone that crosses it.

On Tuesday, June 24, David Carr and Ravi Somaiya reported for the New York Times further details of the Justice Department's investigation of Assange and Wikileaks, including an F.B.I. operation in Iceland performed at first under the guise of looking into an "imminent attack on Icelandic government databases," but ultimately for the purpose of gathering information on Wikileaks. The New York Times story comes after independent journalist Alexa O'Brien reported in March that the Justice Department confirmed its "ongoing" investigation.

While the court-martial trial of Bradley Manning highlights the concrete action taken by the Justice Department against Wikileaks, it appears the U.S. government is gearing up for more. Sam Knight, for the Nation, revealed court documents used to gather information from Smari McCarthy and Herbert Snorrason, freedom of information activists with ties to Wikileaks. The Justice Department used the documents, which include subpoenas and disclosure orders, to gain access to the Google accounts of McCarthy and Snorrason. In response to the release of the documents, Snorrason commented, "Because I talked to Julian Assange, all information held by Google relating to my user account with them can be handed over to U.S. prosecutors … How is this reasonable?"

Because it is an international organization, prosecution of Wikileaks will be difficult, but as First Amendment lawyer James C. Goodale notes to the New York Times, the Obama administration's recent actions are evidence of a government "moving toward criminalizing the reporting process." The government has begun to see journalists as enemies, and its combative approach to those releasing information about the administration reveals its intent on regulating what's released; those leaking information outside the usual channels, like Snowden and Wikileaks, face criminal investigations.

And all too soon, the government's tactics against fringe reporters will have spillover effects on mainstream media outlets. If the Obama administration continues its stranglehold on reporting, paranoia will breed among journalists across the spectrum on what they should, and shouldn't, report. Journalists are going to assume the government is tracking their every move and subpoenaing their online and phone records to make sure they are reporting only the stories the administration wants published. Journalists will begin censoring themselves, for fear of government retribution.

Yes, there's a long way to go before censorship, and any slippery slope argument is fallible. But the Obama administration's recent actions against Snowden and Wikileaks point to a government willing to take extreme measures to police journalists and reporters. What happens when the government puts in greater effort investigating journalists than journalists put in investigating the government? The media best serves as the government's watchdog, not the other way around.