“It’s great to smell the fresh air of London again” announced infamous WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange after he was released on bail this evening in London. While Assange enjoys his limited freedom until his hearing—he’ll be under “mansion arrest” as well as wearing a tracking bracelet—a host of other issues regarding his continuous dump of classified documents on the Internet awaits him.
First and foremost of these issues is what action (if any) the U.S. intends to take against Assange for the disclosure of classified U.S. national security information. This afternoon, The Heritage Foundation hosted a public event where Senior Legal Fellow Cully Stimson addressed the issues surrounding a possible prosecution of Assange.
While it is easy to prosecute Private Bradley Manning, the soldier who allegedly provided Assange with confidential documents in July, dealing with Assange is more tricky. Manning took an oath that he would not transfer any classified information for which he is not authorized; Assange is free from such commitments. Stimson assessed that the prosecution of Assange presents a more difficult questions and can be assessed only after a thorough investigation.
Assange claims that a he is “a publisher and editor-in-chief who organises and directs other journalists.” Defining what is and is not a media source surrounds much of this scenario. In a recent paper co-authored with Visiting Heritage Fellow Paul Rosenzweig, Stimson explains that one of the main issues is the “distinction between the protections afforded by traditional media organizations that are commenting on the WikiLeaks affair and Assange’s more direct involvement in the initial disclosures.”
While Assange attempts to seek refuge in a veil of professional journalism, the U.S. State Department doesn’t see it this way. According to State Department Spokesman P. J. Crowley, Assange “could be considered a political actor. I think he’s an anarchist, but he’s not a journalist. … He has an agenda. He’s trying to pursue that agenda, and I don’t think he can … qualify as either a journalist on the one hand or a whistleblower on the other.” Do we consider him a journalist? The answer is no.
Perhaps the U.S. government’s best chance of seeking retribution lies in updating American laws that apply to the changing world of intelligence. As Stimson and Rosenzweig mention, these laws are vague, and in many cases it is difficult to apply current situations to the ones that the laws were originally intended to address. Indeed, the Internet has created a realm where the lines determining what is legal and illegal are far more difficult to specify, and as a result laws addressing espionage, treason, and the like must be modified to protect national security against evolving threats.