Chelsea Manning

For years, Julian Assange’s opponents argued that the rationale for his remaining in the Ecuadorean embassy in London — that the United States would seek to extradite him in relation to the Chelsea Manning material the moment he left the building — was false. Assange just wanted to avoid facing allegations of sexual assault in Sweden, they insisted — however inconsistent, strange and politicised the process around those allegations actually was — and the possibility of extradition to the US was a fiction, a distraction. Some, like Bob Carr when he was foreign minister, rejected the idea there was any US investigation at all into Assange.

This required some rapid shifting of position when, the moment Assange was removed from the Ecuadorean embassy, the US indeed revealed its desire to extradite him. You might have thought there would be some mea culpas. Instead, the argument from Assange’s critics, ranging from national security commentators to lawyers to journalists, became that his extradition case wasn’t a threat to a free press (never mind that Donald Trump has repeatedly labelled the media “enemies of the people”) because it related to Assange’s actions as a “hacker”, not a journalist. The aptly named Robert Hackett summed up the “Assange is no journalist” case succinctly for the multinational-owned business magazine Fortune:

What separates Assange from a journalist or publisher is specific. Assange allegedly attempted to crack a ‘hashed’ password which protected a classified Defense Department network. According to the court filing, Assange encouraged his source, Chelsea Manning, then an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Army, to steal classified information, and then he actively participated in attempts to hack deeper into U.S. systems. That is not journalism; it is, by law, criminality.

The only small problem is, according to the actual indictment, the phrase “actively participated in attempts to hack deeper into U.S. systems” is wrong. The indictment says something quite different:

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On or about March 8, 2010, Assange agreed to assist Manning in cracking a password stored on United States Department of Defense computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network, a United States government network used for classified documents and communications…

The portion of the password Manning gave to Assange to crack was stored as a ‘hash value’ in a computer file that was accessible only by users with administrative-level privileges. Manning did not having administrative-level privileges, and used special software, namely a Linux operating system, to access the computer file and obtain the portion of the password provided to Assange.

Cracking the password would have allowed Manning to log onto the computers under a username that did not belong to her. Such a measure would have made it more difficult for investigators to identify Manning as the sources of disclosures of classified information.

So, based on the indictment itself, the “hacking” allegedly perpetrated by Assange — in fact there is no evidence he succeeded in cracking the password — was to protect the identity of the whistleblower, not to “hack deeper into US systems”. And just to make it double clear, in the faintly ridiculous section of the indictment where the details of the Assange-Manning “conspiracy” are outlined (like using an encrypted communication platform, which journalists, politicians and intelligence officials also do all the time), the indictment states “it was part of the conspiracy that Assange and Manning took measures to conceal Manning as the source of the disclosure of classified records to Wikileaks.”

So the US government itself acknowledges that, to the extent that Assange participated in any “hacking”, it was in relation to protecting the identity of his source, not obtaining further information. In fact, Assange did what any good journalist should do: minimise his source’s chances of being found out. But that is now conspiracy to commit a crime in the eyes of the US government.

One suspects this crucial nuance will be one of the many facts conveniently omitted in the coverage of Assange — like the fact that he was never charged with sexual assault, or that one prosecutor had already dropped the case, or that the US government could produce no evidence of harm from the WikiLeaks cables at the trial of Chelsea Manning, who is now back behind bars indefinitely for refusing to give evidence about WikiLeaks. But Assange’s critics can’t wish away his journalistic credentials on the basis of half-arsed claims of “hacking”.