During an interview with the Associated Press on April 23, President Donald Trump was asked about Wikileaks and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent announcement that the United States will seek charges against Wikileaks.
“When Wikileaks came out … never heard of Wikileaks, never heard of it. When Wikileakscame out, all I was just saying is, ‘Well, look at all this information here, this is pretty good stuff,'” Trump said, but refusing to suggest he supports the organization. “No, I don’t support or unsupport. It was just information. They shouldn’t have allowed it to get out.”
Though he acknowledged the importance of the information Wikileaks released, he distanced himself from casting judgment on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement the Department of Justice will seek to prosecute Wikileaks. “I am not involved in that decision, but if Jeff Sessions wants to do it, it’s OK with me. I didn’t know about that decision, but if they want to do it, it’s OK with me,” Trump said. This rhetoric is a stark contrast from his comments about Wikileaks during an October 2016 campaign rally. “I love Wikileaks,” Trump said. “It’s amazing how nothing is secret today when you talk about the Internet.”
The announcement from Sessions has sparked controversy both from Wikileaks supporters and supporters of the free press, because these kinds of charges are a dangerous precipice to the government prosecuting media publishers for publishing information the government doesn’t like and eliminating the freedom of the press.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo alleged in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that Wikileaks “directed Chelsea Manning to intercept specific secret information, and it overwhelmingly focuses on the United States.” Pompeo also asserted that Wikileaks is “often abetted by state actors like Russia,” though he cited or provided no evidence for either accusations. These have been cited as the likely avenues in which Attorney General Sessions will seek charges against Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange, under Section 793(e) of the Espionage Act, which broadly could be used against first amendment rights without having to offer an proof Wikileaks was involved at all in obtaining the documents its leaked.
In Obama’s last press conference as President he said, “I haven’t commented on WikiLeaks generally. The conclusions of the intelligence community with respect to the Russian hacking were not conclusive as to whether WikiLeaks was witting or not in being the conduit through which we heard about the DNC e-mails that were leaked.”
Sessions affirmed one of his top priorities is prosecuting Wikileaks. “We are going to step up our effort and already are stepping up our efforts on all leaks,” he said on April 20. “This is a matter that’s gone beyond anything I’m aware of. We have professionals that have been in the security business of the United States for many years that are shocked by the number of leaks and some of them are quite serious. So yes, it is a priority. We’ve already begun to step up our efforts and whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail.” In a following interview with CNN, Sessions refused to respond to a question as to whetherWikileaks’ charges would open the door to prosecute other media outlets that have published leaked information. “That’s speculative, and I’m not able to comment on that,” Sessions said.
Wikileaks has been under U.S. investigation since 2010, when it released with cooperation from several large media outlets, thousands of classified cables from US embassies leaked by Chelsea Manning, whose sentence was commuted by Obama before he left office. Though public opinion on Wikileaks has waned given the release of emails from the DNC and ClintonCampaign Manager John Podesta that embarrassed the Democratic Party, prosecutingWikileaks for publishing leaked information sets a dangerous precedent for other media outlets who have done the same.