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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A lot of journalists fear that putting Wikileaks honcho Julian Assange on trial — a prospect that looked more likely last week thanks to an inadvertent legal revelation —could be very bad for the free press.

But, but, but: There's a good chance charges against Assange will have little to do with press freedom. Here's why saying otherwise might be jumping the gun.

The background: An errant line in a recent legal filing appears to have confirmed that sealed charges against Assange do exist, although the Department of Justice is still fighting releasing any details.

And they could be an issue for any journalists who have handled leaks — including me. In my reporting in 2016, I received and published a bunch of leaked documents from Russia. If Assange is in trouble for doing that, I logically might be as well.

  • This is sometimes called "the New York Times problem." it's hard to punish WikiLeaks without punishing every news outlet that reported on the documents it released.

The intrigue: The DOJ almost certainly has facts not available to the public. And there's no good reason to assume that charges against Assange would just be about on the publishing documents.

Leaked documents show WikiLeaks may have taken several actions that moved it far afield from the realm of journalism. The organization:

  • Hacked a website of an anti-Trump PAC and shared the ill-gotten password with the Trump campaign.
  • Directed hackers to attack a specific target. While the request was brought to those hackers by someone other than Assange, they believed the messenger was an intermediary sent by Assange.
  • Provided hackers with external support in the form of a search algorithm to sift through hacked documents.

Each of those instances could be viewed as either an outright violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act or conspiracy to do so.

  • Hacking the anti-Trump PAC website may actually be two crimes: Trespassing into a computer and trafficking in the password.

Reporters don't get to break the law to create or investigate a story. "If you speed on the way to a story, you're still speeding," said Paul Rosenzweig, who teaches cybersecurity law at George Washington University. "You don't get a pass to rob a bank if you're going to write about robbing a bank."

The FBI has never contacted me about my role in the 2016 leaks. I assume that's at least in part because receiving leaked documents is not by itself a problem.

The bottom line: We don't know that the leaked documents paint an accurate picture of WikiLeaks' involvement in crimes. They do, however, at least suggest it may be worth waiting to see what the DOJ has before declaring a press emergency.

Go deeper

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
3 mins ago - Economy & Business

Merger Monday has been overrun by SPACs

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Five companies this morning announced plans to go public via reverse mergers with SPACs, at an aggregate market value of more than $15 billion. And there might be even more by the time you read this.

The bottom line: SPAC merger activity hasn't peaked. If anything, it's just getting started.

Moderna says vaccine appears to protect against new COVID-19 variants

Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine is effective against new variants of the virus that first appeared in the U.K. and in South Africa, the company announced on Monday.

Yes, but: The vaccine was as effective against the strain from U.K., but saw a six-fold reduction in antibodies against the South Africa variant. Even still, the neutralizing antibodies generated by the vaccine "remain above levels that are expected to be protective," according to the company.

Dave Lawler, author of World
Updated 1 hour ago - World

Xi Jinping warns against "new cold war" in Davos speech

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Wang Zhao - Pool/Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping warned that a "new cold war" could turn hot, and must be avoided, in a speech on Monday at World Economic Forum’s virtual “Davos Agenda” conference.

Why it matters: Xi didn't refer directly to U.S.-China tensions, but the subtext was clear. These were his first remarks to an international audience since the inauguration of President Biden, whose administration has already concurred with Donald Trump's determination that China is committing "genocide" against Uyghur Muslims, and issued a warning about China's aggression toward Taiwan.