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Espionage Act Presents Challenges for WikiLeaks Indictment

Released on 2012-02-29 03:00 GMT

Email-ID 1084229
Date 2010-12-15 17:40:26
Comments from the experts. As I said before, I still don't think the
Supreme Court has set a clear line on this issue. Note Holder's statement
too--suggests Fred's info is true that they may try to prosecute Assange
under other laws.
Espionage Act Presents Challenges for WikiLeaks Indictment
Sweeping Anti-Spying Law 'Makes Felons of Us All,' Legal Expert Says
Dec. 13, 2010

As the U.S. Justice Department crafts a legal case against WikiLeaks'
Julian Assange for the publication of thousands of secret government
cables, legal experts are warning that any indictment under the Espionage
Act may also implicate the news media -- and Americans who've read the
cables or shared them with their friends.

The World War I-era law is broadly written and criminalizes anyone who
possesses or transmits any "information relating to the national defense"
which an individual has "reason to believe could be used to the injury of
the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation."

If WikiLeaks, which allegedly did not steal the documents, is guilty of
espionage for printing them, so too might be the New York Times, U.K.'s
The Guardian, and Germany's Der Spiegel, which have replicated and
disseminated the materials worldwide, some experts say.

Individual users of Twitter and Facebook and other social media who spread
links to the documents far and wide, or even discussed the contents in
public, could also technically be liable.

"One of the flaws in the Espionage Act is that it draws no distinction
between the leaker or the spy and the recipient of the information, no
matter how far downstream the recipient is," said American University law
professor Stephen Vladeck, an expert in national security law.

"There's no difference in the statute between Assange and someone at home
who opens up something that Assange has posted on his website knowing that
it's classified," he said.

The sweeping and vague nature of the law may explain why the federal
government recently warned all employees not to read WikiLeaks' cables or
any news reports pertaining to them because the information is still

Several universities around the country have also warned students who
might seek careers with the federal government not to post links to
WikiLeaks content or discuss the cables publicly through social media.

" [The Espionage Act] criminalizes all casual discussions of such
disclosures by persons not authorized to receive them to other persons not
authorized to receive them... in other words, all tweets sending around
those countless news stories, all blogging on them, and all dinner party
conversations about their contents," wrote Benjamin Wittes, a legal
analyst with the Brookings Institution, on the blog LawFare.

"Taken at its word, the Espionage Act makes felons of us all," he said.

Feds Weigh Approaches to Charging Assange

Vladeck said the complexity of the situation may explain why the U.S.
government and Attorney General Eric Holder have not yet charged Assange
with a crime.

Still, Jennifer Robinson, one of Assange's attorneys, told ABC News last
week that she's hearing an indictment under the Espionage Act could be

"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 U.S.," Robinson said.

Only once in the history of the Espionage Act has the U.S. government
brought a case against someone other than the thief of secret information.
That prosecution failed, Vladeck said.

But Holder cautioned reporters last week that the Espionage Act isn't the
only law under which the Justice Department might charge Assange.

"I don't want to get into specifics here, but people would have a
misimpression if the only statute you think that we are looking at is the
Espionage Act," he said. "That is certainly something that might play a
role, but there are other statutes, other tools that we have at our

Experts say Assange could also be charged with trafficking in stolen
government property or conspiracy, if investigators can demonstrate a link
between Assange and the alleged source of the leak, Army Private Bradley

Manning, who is believed to have stolen the documents in his role as a
military intelligence analyst, is being held in a U.S. military prison in
Quantico, Va. He likely faces charges for espionage.

As for liability of the news media, a recent report from the Congressional
Research Service suggests there may be sufficient legal precedent to keep
them off the hook.

"Leaks of classified information to the press have only rarely been
punished as crimes, and we are aware of no case in which a publisher of
information obtained through unauthorized disclosure by a government
employee has been prosecuted for publishing it," the report reads.

"There may be First Amendment implications that would make such a
prosecution difficult, not to mention political ramifications based on
concerns about government censorship."


Sean Noonan

Tactical Analyst

Office: +1 512-279-9479

Mobile: +1 512-758-5967

Strategic Forecasting, Inc.