Does Assange merit First Amendment protection?
Because Assange hasn't shown "calibrated judgment" about what information to share with readers, he isn't acting as a journalist, Kendall told me. As for the prosecutors' allegation that Assange facilitated Manning's hacking of classified information, Kendall added: "People in the press typically are not burglars."
Lincoln Caplan, a Yale Law scholar who has written widely about journalism, said in an interview that there's an important distinction between "curating" information, as reporters do, and "dumping" it, as has often been WikiLeaks' practice.
An intriguing footnote to the Assange case is that as part of a failed plea-bargain negotiation with the Justice Department in 2017, he offered to help vet some highly classified CIA files that WikiLeaks was publishing in a document dump known as "Vault 7." As I wrote last September, this "risk mitigation" discussion collapsed after WikiLeaks revealed some especially sensitive CIA hacking techniques.
Assange could argue that the 2017 offer showed that he was sensitive to national-security concerns. Similarly, he could point to his cooperation with The New York Times and other news organizations that edited and vetted WikiLeaks files before publication.
Complicating this case is WikiLeaks' role in disseminating documents hacked by Russian intelligence from Democrats during the 2016 presidential campaign, where Assange appeared to be a tool of Russian meddling to support Donald Trump.
Assange wants to fight his case under the banner of press freedom. His problem is that the Justice Department has drawn its indictment carefully enough that the issue is theft of secrets, rather than their publication. That's why so many press advocates seemed to be distancing themselves from Assange after the news broke Thursday.
Follow David Ignatius on Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.
(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group