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What Julian Assange's plea deal means for journalists who expose government secrets

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange accepted a plea deal on espionage charges, it meant he would not serve time in a U.S. prison. That abrupt end to a yearslong saga leaves a big question unresolved. What does this mean for journalists who expose government secrets? NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has followed Assange over the years, hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You know, what he disclosed was breathtaking at the time, and we've talked a lot in the last few days about the details of what he revealed. What was significant about it from the perspective of the media and the First Amendment?

FOLKENFLIK: So, I mean, I think it was a milestone in terms of taking advantage of the technology of the time, that is that, you know, Private Chelsea Manning was able to swiftly transfer what turned out to be hundreds of thousands of documents and that Assange was able to post some of those cables nearly immediately. And it led to incredible amount of important revelations about U.S. acts, diplomatic stuff, as you've talked about, in Iraq, Afghanistan, but also led to reports in The Guardian, the New York Times and El Pais.

And so, you know, when ultimately, you know, speed - go - move forward almost a decade, in 2019, when Assange is charged during the Trump years under the Espionage Act, it cast a pall over journalistic outlets, which had both drawn upon what he had done but also felt that some of the wording and phrasing meant maybe they could be charged under that, too.

SHAPIRO: And so to that question of journalism - Assange called himself editor in chief of WikiLeaks. In your view, was he a journalist?

FOLKENFLIK: I don't think so, but I think that he often served journalistic purposes, and he served - there was a public service to be deriven from what he did. You know, I talked to Bill Keller, who was running the New York Times at the time that they collaborated with WikiLeaks and Assange and some of this material, and he was very uneasy in characterizing that relationship. It kind of seemed like it was a gray zone between source, activist and partner, even though Keller always talked about him as a source.

But, you know, Assange was frustrated by the journalistic care and discretion that some of his partners showed and that journalists tend to more broadly. You know, they would tend to try to verify and confirm things. They would ask government officials, could somebody be physically harmed if we revealed an identity? They would take out, you know, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, addresses, things like that that could identify people. Assange didn't care about that.

And let me give you a different example. In 2016, WikiLeaks ended up posting all kinds of material from the Democratic Party, and he implied that it was, in fact, gotten to him by a slain - a murdered Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich. That wasn't true.

It turned out, according to the international intelligence community - excuse me - the national intelligence agencies as well as bipartisan Senate committee investigating and others, this was done at the behest of the Russians by a Russian agent. Fox News had to pay Seth Rich's family millions of dollars in a settlement over this stuff. And you know, Assange, on live TV, implied very much he had gotten it from this murdered young man in service of - what? - in service of sort of convulsing democratic elections in the 2016 race. So he's more of an anarchist than a journalist in terms of some of those impulses.

SHAPIRO: So to return to the question we raised at the top, now that this case is resolved, where does it leave journalists who rely on government whistleblowers and classified documents?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, the government alleged but didn't prove that he had taken actions to hack into government servers or government documents. That count was dropped. He did plead to and he confessed to conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified information relating to, you know, national security documents. Well, you could apply that to journalists. They do that, too. The question is, do they direct the - what the government feels is the theft of those things?

So journalists are, at once, cheering the fact that, you know, that matter wasn't fully adjudicated in court. That is, no judge said this definitely applies to journalists. But they are, you know, doing so while holding their noses because this clearly is an episode in which somebody who obtained information from a whistleblower within the government for national security documents was prosecuted and now is deemed officially a felon for having disseminated that publicly.

SHAPIRO: NPR's David Folkenflik. Thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAE STEPHENS SONG, "IF WE EVER BROKE UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.