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Julian Assange in the crosshairs: Is he being unfairly vilified?

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange seems to be on just about everyone's hit list in Washington. But there are some who call for restraint, saying the legal issues are murky at best.

By Staff writer / December 17, 2010

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks to the media outside the home of his friend, journalist Vaughan Smith, in Norfolk, England Friday. Assange said on Friday that he was the target of an aggressive U.S. investigation and feared extradition to the United States was 'increasingly likely.'

Paul Hackett/Reuters

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Washington

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is pretty unpopular in the United States at the moment. The Justice Department likely has a secret grand jury considering whether to indict him. Some members of Congress have called for the US to neutralize Mr. Assange – implying that the CIA should snatch him off the street, or worse.

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Assange himself isn’t trying to smooth things over. On Friday he darkly implied that all his legal troubles are the result of an international conspiracy and said that the US investigation of his actions is “illegal.”

But even paranoids have real enemies. Is Assange in fact being unduly vilified in Washington?

House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers of Michigan, for one, thinks he is. Representative Conyers used that phrase – “unduly vilified” – in regards to Assange on Thursday when he called to order a hearing on the constitutional and legal ramifications of WikiLeaks’ recent actions.

“When everyone in this town is joined together calling for someone’s head, it’s a pretty sure sign that we might want to slow down and take a closer look,” said Conyers.

Conyers, a liberal Democrat who will lose his chairmanship when Republicans assume control of the House in January, said it remains unclear exactly what laws Assange and WikiLeaks may have violated, for one thing.

All the discussions over whether the 1917 Espionage Act applies to this case, or whether Assange can be charged with conspiracy for helping alleged leaker Pfc. Bradley Manning, shows that the legal context here is in fact very confusing, said the Judiciary panel chairman.

For another thing, it’s unclear what the distinction is between WikiLeaks and traditional media, said Conyers. And Assange’s actions take place in the context of a system of US government secrecy that’s out of control.

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