US tries to build a case against Julian Assange
Reportedly, a grand jury has been secretly empanelled in northern Virginia to consider indicting the WikiLeaks chief. US Federal prosecutors, seeking to build a case against the WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange for his role in a huge dissemination of classified government documents, are looking for evidence of any collusion in his early contacts with an Army intelligence analyst suspected of leaking the information.
Justice Department officials are trying to find out whether Assange encouraged or even helped the analyst, Pfc. Bradley Manning, to extract classified military and State Department files from a government computer system. If he did so, they believe they could charge him as a conspirator in the leak, not just as a passive recipient of the documents who then published them.
Among materials prosecutors are studying is an online chat log in which Private Manning is said to claim that he had been directly communicating with Mr. Assange using an encrypted Internet conferencing service as the soldier was downloading government files. Private Manning is also said to have claimed that Mr. Assange gave him access to a dedicated server for uploading some of them to WikiLeaks.
Adrian Lamo, an ex-hacker in whom Private Manning confided and who eventually turned him in, said Private Manning detailed those interactions in instant-message conversations with him. Wired magazine has published excerpts from logs of online chats between Mr. Lamo and Private Manning. But the sections in which Private Manning is said to detail contacts with Mr. Assange are not among them.
And while prosecutors have tried to use such laws as the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 to go after leakers and hackers, they have never successfully prosecuted recipients of leaked information for passing it on to others — an activity that can fall under the First Amendment’s strong protections of speech and press freedoms.
By bringing a case against Mr. Assange as a conspirator to Private Manning’s leak, the government would not have to confront awkward questions about why it is not also prosecuting traditional news organizations or investigative journalists who also disclose information the government says should be kept secret.
“I suspect there is a real desire on the part of the government to avoid pursuing the publication aspect if it can pursue the leak aspect,” said Daniel C. Richman, a Columbia law professor and former federal prosecutor. “It would be so much neater and raise fewer constitutional issues.”
[New York Times]