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Julian Assange lashes out at 'neo-McCarthyist fervor' in U.S.

Embassy-bound activist blames U.S. government for ongoing "persecution" of WikiLeaks, saying he's hopeful that President Obama will curb an ongoing criminal investigation.

Wikileaks' Julian Assange speaks to an event today held to coincide with a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly
Wikileaks' Julian Assange speaks to an event today held to coincide with a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly

WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange lashed out at the U.S. government today, saying it took "arbitrary and excessive action" against the document-leaking Web site and a U.S. soldier suspected of being its source of classified files.

"It is time for the U.S. to cease its persecution of WikiLeaks, to cease its persecution of our people, and to cease its persecution of our alleged sources," Assange said during an event convened by Ecuador to coincide with a a United Nations diplomatic summit this week.

Assange, who remains holed up in Ecuador's London embassy in an effort to avoid an extradition order, denounced the U.S. military's pre-trial treatment of suspected Wiki-leaker Bradley Manning. The Army wants, Assange said, "to break him, to force him to testify against WikiLeaks and me" before Manning's court martial, which is set to begin in February 2013.

The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported today that declassified Air Force counter-intelligence documents (PDF) indicate that military personnel in contact with WikiLeaks supporters could be charged with "communicating with the enemy," which carries the death penalty.

Assange told an audience of about 70 people that the report was an example of the "absurdist neo-McCarthyist fervor that exists within some of these government departments in the U.S. I am hopeful that the White House over time is starting to shed that."

Ecuador's government has seized on Assange's asylum as a convenient way to portray the United States as not living up to its stated commitment to free expression -- especially in the wake of U.S. State Department reports that have characterized the small South American country as suffering from "human rights problems" including "verbal and legal attacks" by the government against the news media.

Assange has been camped out in Ecuador's embassy in London since June, with asylum formally granted in August, hoping to avoid extradition to Sweden. He says he's worried that he'd then be shipped to the U.S. for criminal prosecution, saying today Sweden "refused to give any guarantee in any measure at all."

The U.K. government has said it has "an obligation to extradite Mr. Assange," and police have shown up outside the embassy, but have not actually entered the portion that represents Ecuador's sovereign territory. (Article 22 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations says embassies "shall be immune from search" and are "inviolable.")

Meanwhile, the U.S. government is piecing together a case against Assange, and possibly other people affiliated with WikiLeaks, for publishing classified Army and State Department files allegedly provided by Manning. One element of the probe became public when Twitter unsuccessfully fought efforts by the Justice Department to gain access to WikiLeaks-related accounts.

A CNET analysis in December 2010 showed that Assange could be criminally charged under the Espionage Act, but that the 1917-era law itself could violate the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press. Justice Department prosecutors appear to be attempting to build a conspiracy charge against Assange, perhaps alleging he worked with Manning to extract the classified documents, in hopes of avoiding the free speech problems that would arise from an Espionage Act charge.

A background document that Assange released today aims to show he could not receive a fair trial in the U.S. It lists hostile statements from U.S. politicians -- such as House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) suggesting that Wikileaks be "designated a foreign terrorist organization" like al-Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult that released deadly sarin gas on the Tokyo subway.

The British courts have ordered that Assange be extradited to Sweden to face questioning relating to "overraskningssex," which his lawyers have translated as "sex by surprise." One Swedish woman has claimed Assange had sex with her after a condom broke, and another has accused him of having sex without one in the first place.