warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

WikiLeaks Founder Assange Could Face Espionage Charges

Helen Tobin |
November 30, 2010 | 10:48 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter


Federal authorities are investigating bringing criminal charges against Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks and the man responsible for the release of a quarter-million government documents.  U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks embarrassed the United States and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said the administration was taking “aggressive steps to hold responsible those who stole this information.’’ 

The Pentagon and Attorney General Eric Holder are conducting an “active, ongoing criminal investigation,” and the FBI is examining everyone who came into contact with the leaked documents.  While no charges are imminent, authorities are taking a close look at potential charges under the Espionage Act of 1917, a law was passed during World War I and the first Red Scare.  

Prosecutors warn that it will be difficult to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act because the 1917 statute preceded Supreme Court cases that expanded the first amendment.  Assange, an Australian citizen, is also currently outside the United States so the government would have to persuade another country to turn him over.  

Still, Jeffrey H. Smith, a former CIA general counsel, said, "I'm confident that the Justice Department is figuring out how to prosecute him."

Smith said that the State Department general counsel Harold H. Koh had sent a letter to Assange on Saturday that urged him not to release the cables, to return the classified documents, and to destroy all classified records from the WikiLeaks database.  Smith noted that under the Espionage Act, anyone who has "unauthorized possession to information relating to the national defense" and has reason to believe it could harm the United States may be prosecuted if he publishes it or "willfully" retains it when the government has demanded its return. 

In Congress, Rep. Peter King, ranking Republican on the Homeland Security panel, has called for the Obama administration to aggressively pursue Assange.  King told a New York radio station that the latest document dump has put “American lives at risk all over the world,” calling the leaks, “worse even than a physical attack on Americans; it’s worse than a military attack.” 

The latest release contains mostly State Department cables sent by American diplomats from 1966 to 2010. They include private conversations, gossipy memos, and requests from Clinton for diplomats to obtain the personal information of other United Nations officials.  While the administration insists the documents do not represent their official views, Clinton has been forced to call foreign capitals and make amends. 

The administration is also instituting new measures to prevent future leaks. Government departments and agencies have been instructed to ensure that users of classified information networks do not have broader access than is necessary to do their jobs, and to restrict the use of CDs or flash drives on such networks.  

It remains unclear whether any additional charges will be brought against WikiLeaks executives in the military or civilian justice systems. Pfc. Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst suspected of being the source of the WikiLeaks documents, was arrested by the military this year.

Assange is wanted in Sweden on suspicion of rape and sexual harassment, and the International Criminal Police Organization issued an arrest warrant for him this month.  Assange has defended himself, saying the charges are part of a smear campaign to undermine the prestige of WikiLeaks. 



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.