News / USA

WikiLeaks Poses Legal Challenges for US Prosecutors

A man views a news stand displaying newspapers, some carrying the story on WikiLeaks' release of classified US State Department documents, in London.
A man views a news stand displaying newspapers, some carrying the story on WikiLeaks' release of classified US State Department documents, in London.

The U.S. Justice Department is reportedly considering whether to file espionage charges against the WikiLeaks Web site and its founder Julian Assange. The case has raised broad legal questions about how the government will protect the freedom of information and an open Internet, while also protecting privacy and national security.

It has been a big year for Internet freedom in the United States. In January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made freedom of expression on the Web a top foreign policy concern.

"This freedom is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution," Clinton said. "Blogs, emails, social networks, and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas, and created new targets for censorship."

Pushing free speech to the legal edge

Nearly a year later, that freedom is being tested in the United States by WikiLeaks. After the group posted private U.S. diplomatic documents on its Web site, U.S. government lawyers banned civil servants from viewing the cables. They say federal workers must protect classified information, even if it is publicly available on the Internet. Legally, classified information remains classified until the government says otherwise.  

Abbe David Lowell, a prominent Washington lawyer who has worked on high-profile espionage cases, says the whole Wikileaks leak presents a real conundrum.

"Of course the problem with the government's position is that while they may take it, it is still classified, [but] it is classified in name only because like the toothpaste, says Lowell. "It's out of the tube and it's hard to put back in."

Lowell says it is not technically a crime for federal workers to access the WikiLeaks Web site, but adds they could face trouble if they break their employment contract by viewing classified material without permission.   

"The crime, for example under the Espionage Act, is for somebody without authorization to disclose that information forward, were somebody with authorization to disclose it forward to somebody without authorization, says Lowell. "So it's not just the reading, it's the disclosure and the dissemination."

Published classified material vexes U.S. government

The ban on viewing what is now public information is complicating the work of some federal agencies, such as the Congressional Research Service, which is considered the "brain" of the U.S. Congress for the policy and legal analysis it provides lawmakers.

Without access to the leaked diplomatic cables, Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists says those researchers, and everyone they inform, will be at a disadvantage to their foreign counterparts who have read the cables.

"I think basically what the government is doing is saying that security policy comes first, and doing your mission, whether your mission is foreign policy or policy analysis or whatever it might be, that comes second," says Aftergood. "And to me, that's got it backwards. It's always got to be to do the mission first. To do the best job that you can possibly do. And security should support that goal," he says.

National security concerns

But some members of Congress say national security is the top priority. Senator Joe Lieberman has introduced legislation to make it illegal to publish the names of U.S. intelligence sources. That could put scores of newspapers and Web sites in legal jeopardy, and the proposal alone has already made an impact in the private sector.

The Internet company Amazon dumped the WikiLeaks Web site from its servers after being contacted by Lieberman's office. And Visa, MasterCard and PayPal later cut their ties with WikiLeaks. The companies all said WikiLeaks violated corporate policies.

Rebecca MacKinnon, a senior fellow at Washington's public policy group the New America Foundation, says such behavior resembles the protective self-censorship that companies practice in China. She says preemptively deleting information or dropping customers that upset the government erodes democratic discourse.

"If the companies just kind of by default assuming guilt and not wanting to stand by the rights of the speech to exist, then basically it becomes much harder for dissenting and popular speech to gain a broad audience," says MacKinnon. "And that is a concern."

MacKinnon says even the threat of government prosecution is a powerful motivator.

"So you end up having companies overcompensating and actually deleting content that if challenged in court might even be deemed legal. But they just don't want to go there. So then the range of speech taking place in these spaces ends up being more narrow than what the law would actually allow,"  she says.

Spying versus mishandling secret documents

Lowell, espionage expert at the law firm McDermott Will & Emery, says the offense of espionage should be separated from the offense of mishandling classified information, or even talking about it.

"There is true spying, and then there is true leaking or mishandling," he says. "And I think the problem with the Espionage Act is that it combines both."

The Espionage Act was written in 1917, before the existence of commercial radio or television let alone the Internet. Lowell says the legal uncertainty with WikiLeaks shows that the government is navigating a new reality with old tools.

You May Like

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

Physically and culturally close to Western Europe, Lviv feels solidarity with compatriots in country’s east but says they need to decide own future More

West African Women Disproportionately Affected by Ebola

Women's roles in families and the community put them at greater risk for contracting the disease, officials say More

Video NASA's MAVEN Spacecraft Arrives at Mars

Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution craft will measure rates at which gases escape Martian atmosphere into space More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbiti
X
September 22, 2014 9:20 PM
NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbit

NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

The western Ukrainian city of Lviv prides itself on being both physically and culturally close to Western Europe. The Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country are 1,200 kilometers away, and seemingly even farther away in their world view. Still, as VOA’s Al Pessin reports, the war is having an impact in Lviv.
Video

Video Saving Global Fish Stocks Starts in the Kitchen

With an estimated 90 percent of the world’s larger fish populations having already vanished, a growing number of people in the seafood industry are embracing the concept of sustainable fishing and farming practices. One American marine biologist turned restaurateur in Thailand is spreading the word among fellow chefs and customers. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Chinese Admiral Key in China’s Promotion of Sea Links

China’s President last week wrapped up landmark visits to India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, part of a broader campaign to promote a new “Maritime Silk Road” in Asia. The Chinese government’s promotion efforts rely heavily on the country’s best-known sailor, a 15th century eunuch named Zheng He. VOA's Bill Ide reports from the sailor’s hometown in Yunnan on the effort to promote China’s future by recalling its past.
Video

Video Experts Fear Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid