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WikiLeaks' Julian Assange: How much trouble is he in?

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act, but the US has historically avoided pursuing leak recipients. His primary concern is a 'red alert' issued by Interpol for alleged sex crimes in Sweden.

By Staff writer / December 1, 2010

Julian Assange, founder of whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, holds a news conference Nov. 4 in Geneva.

Valentin Flauraud/Reuters

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Washington

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has grabbed the world’s attention by publicizing a vast trove of secret US diplomatic documents. But his actions have also enraged top government officials around the world. How much trouble is he in, legally speaking?

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Perhaps more than he has bargained for. Mr. Assange could be sent to prison for a very long time if the US is able to successfully prosecute him under the Espionage Act. The statute is a broad law that provides for harsh penalties, notes Stephen Vladeck, an expert in national security law at American University in Washington.

The real question may be whether the US Department of Justice wants to pursue the matter. Historically, the US has not prosecuted leak recipients. The US might not be eager to provide Assange a courtroom forum in which he can bring further attention to the contents of his trove of classified cables.

“Legally he is in quite a bit of trouble,” says Mr. Vladeck. “It remains to be seen if that is true in a practical sense.”

At the moment, Assange’s primary legal trouble is in Sweden, not the US. The international police organization Interpol has issued a “red notice” on Assange in conjunction with an arrest warrant for sex crimes filed in November by Sweden’s International Public Prosecution Office.

The “red notice” is not an international arrest warrant, however. It simply is a notice that a valid arrest warrant exists in a participating Interpol country. It does not compel a nation to hold Assange or extradite him to Sweden.

Assange’s lawyer has been scathing in his denunciation of the Swedish allegations, and says he will investigate whether they are linked to the US promise to pursue him for the leaks. (Editor's note: An earlier version of this story referred to "charges" against Assange. He has not been charged.)

Swedish officials have turned down offers to speak to Assange, and have yet to forward him a formal notice of the allegations he faces, said attorney Mark Stephens.

“Given that Sweden is a civilized country, I am reluctantly forced to conclude that this is a persecution and not a prosecution,” wrote Mr. Stephens in an e-mail to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Wednesday took a tough line in response to inquiries about whether the US wishes to arrest Assange, either due to the Interpol “red notice” or for prosecution under US law.

“Obviously, there is a series of criminal activities that have happened that are being looked into, and our government has not ruled any options out,” said Mr. Gibbs in an ABC broadcast interview.

Some legal experts believe it would be difficult for the Justice Department to take Assange on. Prosecution of leak cases is notoriously tricky, in part because it is often difficult to establish the chain of leaking from the original source of the material to the recipient.

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