WikiLeaks faces more U.S. demands for prosecution

WikiLeaks encounters another round of criticism as heads of Senate Intelligence Committee call for espionage prosecution of Julian Assange and "possible accomplices."

Declan McCullagh
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
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WikiLeaks encountered another round of criticism in Washington political circles today as the two senators who head the Senate Intelligence Committee called for the espionage prosecution of editor Julian Assange.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Kit Bond (R-Miss.) said that Assange--and, in wording that was likely designed to intimidate programmers and other volunteers aiding WikiLeaks--any of "his possible accomplices" should be charged with federal crimes.

"We believe that Mr. Assange's conduct is espionage and that his actions fall under the elements of this section of law," the senators told Attorney General Eric Holder in a letter today. "Therefore, we urge that he be prosecuted under the Espionage Act."

This follows increasingly loud criticism from other U.S. politicians as WikiLeaks continues to dribble out confidential State Department cables, a few dozen at a time on its "cablegate" Web site, in a manner that seems optimized to provoke Washington officialdom the most. Earlier this week, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the incoming head of the House Intelligence Committee, also called for criminal charges under the Espionage Act as well as putting WikiLeaks on the list of "terrorist" organizations that includes Al Qaeda.

Also today:
• Seattle-based Tableau Software bowed to pressure from Sen. Joseph Lieberman (an independent who caucuses with Democrats) and removed a visualization of the State Department cables that did not include the actual text. A U.K.-based WikiLeaks volunteer said they "contained no sensitive info."

• The ACLU warned that prosecuting Assange would be little different from prosecuting news organizations and raise substantial First Amendment problems: "If newspapers could be held criminally liable for publishing leaked information about government practices, we might never have found out about the CIA's secret prisons or the government spying on innocent Americans."

• Some of the cables are starting to leak to additional news organizations in advance of their publication on WikiLeaks' Web site. Here's one that appeared in an Egyptian paper about the creation of a steel wall along the country's border with Gaza.

• Lieberman's staff--which managed to persuade Amazon.com to remove WikiLeaks from its hosting service yesterday--hasn't contacted other sites such as Twitter.com, according to one report.

Pfc. Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks' alleged source for the Iraq and Afghanistan war files, was charged in July with a series of crimes including violations of the Espionage Act. If Assange or other WikiLeaks editors worked with Manning to convince him to (allegedly) release the documents, that would implicate 18 USC 793(g), which punishes conspiracies to transmit national defense information.

The Espionage Act also makes it illegal to disclose "information relating to the national defense," if that information could be used "to the injury of the United States." (See previous CNET article.)

On the other hand, indictments and arrest warrants aren't very helpful unless police can track someone down. Not only is Assange not exactly eager to visit the United States, but he's now giving interviews from what is being referred to as an "undisclosed location," which some reports have put as outside of London.