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December 2, 2010 4:29 PM

As Congress Passes Whistle-Blower Bill, Julian Assange Gets A Lawyer

Posted by Brian Baxter

Well before WikiLeaks began releasing 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables this week, the whistle-blowing Web site caught our attention by unleashing a more modest cache of classified military records related to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars over the summer.

First Amendment lawyers we spoke with at the time were divided on whether WikiLeaks, which a federal judge temporarily shut down in 2008, would be hauled into court over those releases. As it turned out, those behind the site did not face prosecution in connection with the war-related leaks.

The latest WikiLeaks document dump, however, has led to speculation that WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange could be hit with federal espionage charges this time around. The reason: The federal government claims that Assange has endangered diplomatic relations and national security protocols by making public the trove of classified cables.

It's probably not surprising then that Assange has lawyered up, hiring Mark Stephens, a name partner at London firm Finers Stephens Innocent. In a 2008 snapshot on Stephens, the Times of London reports that the man to whom it refers as "Mr. Media Lawyer"  has a practice that covers media law and regulation, such as libel and copyright work. (Some of Stephens's more high-profile clients include author Salman Rushdie; click here for a copy of Stephens's detailed 18-page resume.)

We reached out to Stephens on Thursday to discuss how he came to represent the reclusive Assange--now thought to be somewhere in England, despite a shaky offer from Ecuador--but didn't hear back immediately.

Assange is facing rape charges in Sweden, the details of which Stephens told British newspapers he has yet to receive from local prosecutors. Stephens has criticized the charges as being nothing but a "post-facto dispute over consensual, but unprotected sex," according to The Washington Post. Swedish officials said on Thursday that a fresh arrest warrant would be issued for Assange, who is already dealing with a global arrest alert issued by Interpol earlier this week.

Meanwhile, coping with the fallout from WikiLeaks's latest provocation, Congress on Wednesday moved to pass a new whistle-blower law. In response, some Am Law 100 firms like Hogan Lovells have begun forming corporate whistle-blower task forces. (Next week ALM will host a conference in New York on ethical issues for corporate whistle-blowers.)

The Associated Press reports that the new legislation, which is expected to be signed into law by President Barack Obama, would give potential government whistle-blowers greater protection when raising concerns within their respective agencies, presumably making them less inclined to turn over classified materials to groups such as WikiLeaks.

Earlier this month Stephens spoke on a WikiLeaks panel about efforts to obtain a federal "shield law" for journalists in the U.S. See below of video of Stephens discussing the issue:

 

RELATED STORIES

Federal Charges for WikiLeaks Founder?
November 30, 2010

Lawyers Emerge from WikiLeaks Shadows
July 26, 2010

Who are the Lawyers Representing WikiLeaks?
June 22, 2010


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