WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claimed Friday that the United States is pursuing him in secret, legally speaking. In broadcast interviews conducted following his release on bail from a British jail, he complained that US prosecutors are carrying out a secretive grand-jury probe into WikiLeaks activities – and that they may already have obtained a sealed indictment against him.
Is he right? Is the Justice Department secretly beginning a case against him?
Yes, he’s almost certainly correct. But he’s not being treated unusually.
That’s because the impaneling of a grand jury would be the first step the feds would take in a legal pursuit of Assange. And in the US, federal grand-jury proceedings are secret. No defense attorneys or defense witnesses are involved. Perhaps Assange does not understand this.
Then again, perhaps he is simply trying to frame events he expects to occur in a manner that could gain him more sympathy. Assange and his attorneys have long said that they expect the US to press charges over WikiLeaks’s release of hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables – an action that has embarrassed the US and angered government officials from Washington to Beijing.
Assange does appear to have a grasp on some subtleties of US legal maneuvering. In his interviews, he has adamantly denied cooperating in any manner with Bradley Manning, the Army private charged with providing to WikiLeaks a vast trove of US secrets.
According to news reports, the US is considering whether to charge Assange with conspiring with Mr. Manning to leak this classified material. That is because the alternative – pursuing Assange for alleged violations of the 1917 Espionage Act – is fraught with uncertainty and could raise First Amendment concerns.
Assange on Friday told a series of interviewers that he had never heard of Manning’s name before it was published in the world press and that he did not provide Manning with any kind of software that would have allowed him special privileges in terms of access to WikiLeaks’s electronic mailboxes.
If there was any complicity between Manning and WikiLeaks, “that would be an easier case to make,” said Kenneth Wainstein, a security law expert and former US assistant attorney general, in testimony Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee.
The stakes for the US government are high, as they are for Assange, Mr. Wainstein told the Judiciary Committee, which held a hearing on WikiLeaks and legal issues.
“If WikiLeaks and Assange end up facing no charges for their mass document releases, which are about as audacious as I’ve ever heard of, they will conclude that they’re legally invulnerable, they’ll redouble their efforts to match or exceed their recent exploits, and copycat operations will sprout up around the Internet,” Wainstein said.
Other witnesses at the House hearing held that overblown press coverage has made the WikiLeaks releases seem much more damaging to US national security than they actually have been.