Mike Pompeo, in his first speech as director of the CIA, chose to declare war on free speech rather than on the United States’ actual adversaries. He went after WikiLeaks, where I serve as editor, as a “non-state hostile intelligence service.” In Pompeo’s worldview, telling the truth about the administration can be a crime — as Attorney General Jeff Sessions quickly underscored when he described my arrest as a “priority.” News organizations reported that federal prosecutors are weighing whether to bring charges against members of WikiLeaks, possibly including conspiracy, theft of government property and violating the Espionage Act.
All this speech to stifle speech comes in reaction to the first publication in the start of WikiLeaks’ “Vault 7” series. Vault 7 has begun publishing evidence of remarkable CIA incompetence and other shortcomings. This includes the agency’s creation, at a cost of billions of taxpayer dollars, of an entire arsenal of cyber viruses and hacking programs — over which it promptly lost control and then tried to cover up the loss. These publications also revealed the CIA’s efforts to infect the public’s ubiquitous consumer products and automobiles with computer viruses.
When the director of the CIA, an unelected public servant, publicly demonizes a publisher such as WikiLeaks as a “fraud,” “coward” and “enemy,” it puts all journalists on notice, or should. Pompeo’s next talking point, unsupported by fact, that WikiLeaks is a “non-state hostile intelligence service,” is a dagger aimed at Americans’ constitutional right to receive honest information about their government. This accusation mirrors attempts throughout history by bureaucrats seeking, and failing, to criminalize speech that reveals their own failings.
Words matter, and I assume that Pompeo meant his when he said, “Julian Assange has no First Amendment freedoms. He’s sitting in an embassy in London. He’s not a U.S. citizen.” As a legal matter, this statement is simply false. It underscores just how dangerous it is for an unelected official whose agency’s work is rooted in lying and misdirection to be the sole arbiter of the truth and the interpreter of the Constitution.
Pompeo demonstrated a remarkable lack of irony when he suggested that WikiLeaks “focus instead on the autocratic regimes in this world that actually suppress free speech and dissent” — even as he called for a crackdown of such speech. In fact, Pompeo finds himself in the unsavory company of Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey (257,934 documents published by WikiLeaks); Bashar al-Assad of Syria (2.3 million documents); and the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia (122,609 documents), to name just a few who have tried and failed to censor WikiLeaks.
Pompeo was once a WikiLeaks fan. On July 24, then partisan politician Pompeo gloatingly tweeted: “Need further proof that the fix was in from Pres. Obama on down? BUSTED: 19,252 Emails from DNC Leaked by WikiLeaks.” Pompeo liked WikiLeaks when he perceived it was publishing material revealing the shortcomings of his political rivals. It was only when our publications touched Pompeo’s rice bowl that WikiLeaks became his target. Pompeo subsequently deleted the tweet, but he is learning that in the digital age, the truth is hard to hide. You don’t get to love the truth one day and seek its suppression and the incarceration of its publisher the next.
As a candidate, Trump tweeted: “Very little pick-up by dishonest media of incredible information provided by WikiLeaks.” The president mentioned WikiLeaks 164 times during the last month of the election and gushed: “I love WikiLeaks.”
All democratic governments are managed by imperfect human beings. And autocracies are much worse — the “benign dictator” is a myth. These human beings, democratic and autocratic alike, make mistakes and commit crimes, and often serve themselves rather than their countries. They are the focus of WikiLeaks’ publications.
The “Pompeo doctrine” articulated in his speech ensnares all serious news and investigative human rights organizations, from ProPublica to Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch. The logic that WikiLeaks, or these organizations, are somehow “intelligence agencies” would be as absurd as the suggestion that the CIA is a media outlet. Both journalists and intelligence agencies cultivate and protect sources, collect information and write reports, but the similarities end there. The world cannot afford, and the Constitution does not permit, a muzzle placed on the work that transparency organizations do to inform the American and global public.
Fundamental issues of free speech and freedom of the press, and of the interplay between liberty and security, date to the Republic’s founding. Those who believe in persecution and suppression of the truth to achieve their parochial ends are inevitably forgotten by history. In a fair fight, as John Milton observed, the truth always wins.