President Donald Trump’s interest in picking former senator and Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Joe Lieberman to head the FBI is bad news for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Lieberman has been a harsh critic of Assange, publicly calling for him to face criminal charges for his role in publishing more than 200,000 State Department cables—many of them classified.
“I think we ought to be doing everything we can with our allies around the world to arrest this guy,” Lieberman said in a Fox News interview shortly after the cable release in 2010. “He’s a menace. I mean, in my opinion, he’s risked lives.”
Swedish authorities announced Friday that they were dropping their investigation of Assange on rape allegations dating to 2010. Their efforts to obtain Assange’s extradition from Britain led the transparency activist to take refuge in 2012 in Ecuador’s embassy, where he’s been holed up ever since.
Trump signaled to TV anchors Thursday that Lieberman is the front-runner for the FBI director vacancy, created last week when the president abruptly fired James Comey, who had served in the position since 2013.
In addition to calling for Assange’s prosecution over WikiLeaks releases, Lieberman also urged international action to shutter the site and he proposed legislation that would make it a crime to publish the names of U.S. intelligence sources or “human intelligence” activities carried out by the U.S. or other governments.
Lieberman, who came to the Senate as a Democrat in 1989, but ran successfully for re-election in Connecticut as an independent after losing the Democratic primary in 2006, also publicly mulled the possibility of charges against the New York Times for printing portions of the same cables.
“To me, the New York Times has committed at least an act of bad citizenship, and whether they have committed a crime, I think that bears a very intensive inquiry by the Justice Department,” he said on Fox.
Lieberman’s stances on WikiLeaks, surveillance and government transparency have left many civil libertarians wary of the possibility he might take over leadership of the FBI.
“I don’t think of him as a friend of the First Amendment,” said Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “If his record is any guide, he’ll be notably unsympathetic to whistleblowers and he seems to have a very narrow view of the First Amendment.”
Jaffer said Lieberman’s bill to criminalize publishing of human intelligence details was particularly worrisome.
“This is legislation aimed at publishers,” the former American Civil Liberties Union attorney said. ” Whatever one may think of WikiLeaks, legislation that imposes criminal penalties on publishers for publishing raises the gravest First Amendment concerns.”
The Trump administration appears to be actively debating or pursuing charges against Assange. CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in a speech last month that he doesn’t consider WikiLeaks to be a journalistic enterprise but “a hostile intelligence service.”
“These are not reporters doing good work,” Pompeo said. “These are people who are actively recruiting agents.”
Comey took a similar tack at a Senate hearing shortly before his firing, calling WikiLeaks “intelligence porn.” However, he praised American journalists and said the government shouldn’t be targeting them for prosecution.
“Our focus is and should be on the leakers, not those that are obtaining it as part of legitimate newsgathering,” he said.
Fueling the worries about Lieberman in some circles is the sense that he would not resist and might facilitate government action addressing Trump’s public obsession with leaks. A report in the New York Times this week said Trump also suggested to Comey earlier this year that journalists should be prosecuted for their reports related to the probe of alleged Russian influence in the 2016 election.
“I was disappointed by the Obama administration’s leak investigations and prosecutions and I think that Lieberman would not oppose efforts to expand that if the Trump administration wants to go that route—and they seem to,” said Katherine Hawkins of the Constitution Project. “I don’t think he would be a restraint.”
Civil liberties advocates noted that when many Democrats and some Republicans called for changes to the Patriot Act in 2011, Lieberman proposed a wholesale reauthorization of the controversial legislation without any changes.
“He was not ally on Patriot Act reform, even after the warrantless wiretapping program was widely known,” said Mark Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “He voted for straight-up renewal.”
While Trump and some Senate Republicans appear to consider Lieberman’s history of bipartisan work as a selling point for the FBI job, liberal activists don’t agree.
Howie Klein, a record producer and Democratic Party organizer who clashed with Lieberman over Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” song in the 1990s, said the pick is a good way for Trump to further enrage the left—if that’s his goal.
Lieberman “is so hated and detested by the Democratic activist base, that it’s really kind of a smart move for Trump,” Klein said. “If Trump wants to stick his finger in the eye of Democrats who are causing trouble for him, what better thing to do than pick Joe Lieberman….As much as I hate someone like Trey Gowdy, that would not cause me as much pain as Joe Lieberman.”
Muslim activists also expressed concern, noting that Lieberman repeatedly urged the Obama administration to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” rather than more generic formulations that target extremism more broadly. Many in the Trump administration share that view, but National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster disagrees and has managed to keep such language out of White House pronouncements in recent months.
Lieberman “is kind of one of the people that coined or helped cement this phrase,” noted Ahmed Bedier of the Florida-based United Voices for America. “He would be a very controversial pick, especially in the Muslim community.”
Activists also noted that Lieberman proposed and passed legislation in 2009 to block the release of photos of prisoners abused in U.S. military custody. A year earlier, Lieberman voted against a ban on waterboarding, which Lieberman’s friend Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has branded as torture.
“It is not like putting burning coals on people’s bodies. The person is in no real danger. The impact is psychological,” Lieberman said at the time.
Still, some advocates said they were not flatly opposed to Lieberman because he could be better than others Trump might consider for the FBI job.
“It’s all relative….I don’t think things would get worse under Mr. Lieberman,” said Salam al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “Lieberman’s track record dealing with singling out Islam for surveillance and the Patriot Act obviously are very troubling for us and that would be the first thing we would raise….If he is confirmed,we are going to have to engage him.”