The Work

November 30, 2010 4:45 PM

Federal Charges for WikiLeaks Founder?

Posted by Tom Huddleston Jr.

The Washington Post on Tuesday considers whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could be criminally charged by the U.S. government following the latest release of more than 250,000 documents related to various national security matters and diplomatic relations.

Several news organizations began publishing reports on the leaked cables on Sunday after being given advance access. The documents in question reveal classified conversations between government officials and U.S. diplomats, including sensitive diplomacy issues about U.S. relations with Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea. Some of the cables also include potentially embarrassing personal references to various world leaders made by U.S. diplomats.

The website has come under fire in the past for releasing classified documents, but government officials say this time the damage is worse. They are citing both the volume and nature of this week's leak, expressing concerns that U.S. relations with foreign governments could be compromised.

Now, the website's founder might face criminal charges stemming from the Espionage Act of 1917. The U.S. Justice Department and the Pentagon are conducting an investigation into whether Assange violated any laws by posting the classified documents on his website, Attorney General Eric Holder told the Washington Post. The article also notes the involvement of the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria, Va. In 2005, that office charged two former pro-Israel lobbyists--Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman--with violations of the Espionage Act, but those were ultimately dropped. 

While government officials may attempt to bring charges under the 83-year-old act, the article said, First Amendment protections that have been in place since its passage could complicate such efforts. And, according to previous reports from The National Law Journal, a sibling publication, the act does not apply to private citizens. Additionally, Assange, who is an Australian citizen, would have to be extradited to the U.S. 

According to Baruch Weiss, a former federal prosecutor and current partner at Arnold & Porter, seeking a prosecution under the Espionage Act would be difficult. "How do you prove that a particular cable about secret negotiations with Russia was dangerous to national security?" Baruch said to the Post. "You have to disclose more classified information to explain to the jury the damage brought about by the disclosure."

Still, within two days, the reaction from the U.S. and several governments remains heated. And Attorney General Eric Holder insisted to the Post that the U.S. government's investigations are not mere "saber rattling." (Holder did not mention the Espionage Act.) Another interesting point from the Post--it cited sources who said the probe extends to anyone who came into contact with the leaked files, and not just WikiLeaks itself.



Lawyers Emerge from WikiLeaks Shadows
July 26, 2010

Who are the Lawyers Representing WikiLeaks?
June 22, 2010

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