US prosecutors plan to file spying charges against Julian Assange soon in connection with the publishing of secret diplomatic memos on the WikiLeaks website.
Assange attorney Jennifer Robinson told ABC News that charges would be brought “soon” under the US Espionage Act. The law makes it a felony to receive national defense material if it's known to be obtained illegally and could be used to harm United States interests.
If brought, charges against Assange would reflect a watershed event in the US, which has never successfully prosecuted a news organization for publishing classified information. Indeed, a report released this week by the Congressional Research Service, and published here (PDF) by Secrecy News, acknowledged that federal prosecutors would have a hard time making charges stick against the whistle-blower website, which operates almost entirely abroad.
“There may be First Amendment implications that would make such a prosecution difficult, not to mention political ramifications based on concerns about government censorship,” the report states. “To the extent that the investigation implicates any foreign nationals whose conduct occurred entirely overseas, any resulting prosecution may carry foreign policy implications related to the exercise of extraterritorial jurisdiction and whether suspected persons may be extradited to the United States under applicable treaty provisions.”
Justice Department officials have declined to comment on their plans, but Attorney General Eric Holder said earlier this week that his agency is doing everything it can to take Assange down.
“We have a very serious, active, ongoing investigation that is criminal in nature,” ABC News quoted him as saying. “I authorized just last week a number of things to be done so that we can hopefully get to the bottom of this and hold people accountable, as they should be.”
Robinson maintains that any attempt to prosecute Assange will fail.
“Our position of course is that we don't believe it applies to Mr. Assange and that in any event he's entitled to First Amendment protection as publisher of WikiLeaks and any prosecution under the Espionage Act would in my view be unconstitutional and puts at risk all media organizations in the US,” she said.
As big a stretch as it sounds to prosecute news agencies for publishing classified documents, US Senator Joe Lieberman has proposed doing just that.
“To me, The New York Times has committed at least an act of bad citizenship,” he said on the right-leaning Fox News network. “And whether they've committed a crime, I think that bears very intensive inquiry by the Justice Department.”
Assange remains in custody in London on sexual assault charges filed by prosecutors in Sweden. The WikiLeaks founder has maintained his innocence, and has said the charges are part of a smear campaign. A lawyer representing the two women Assange is accused of assaulting has insisted his clients are being truthful.
Assange is being held in solitary confinement with restricted access to a phone and lawyers. ®