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

China’s Influence Grows With New Infrastructure Bank

Multibillion-dollar China-backed and BRICS-supported Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank seen as possible challenger to such lenders as IMF, World Bank More

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

Rabbi Michel Serfaty makes the rounds in his friendship bus to encourage dialogue and break down barriers between the two groups More

Post-deal Iran Leaders Need 'Economic Momentum' to Solidify

Economists say deal could inject more than $100 billion into coffers - not enough to entirely rescue ailing economy - but maybe adequate to create 'economic momentum' 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.
US Gay Marriage Ruling Yields Real-life Impacti
X
Michael Bowman
June 28, 2015 10:05 PM
Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States is an outcome few thought possible just years ago, and shows a nation that increasingly tolerates and even celebrates the hopes and aspirations of gay people. VOA’s Michael Bowman spoke to a same-sex couple that will benefit from the high court ruling, and to a Christian scholar who is apprehensive about its potential consequences for America’s faith community.
Video

Video US Gay Marriage Ruling Yields Real-life Impact

Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States is an outcome few thought possible just years ago, and shows a nation that increasingly tolerates and even celebrates the hopes and aspirations of gay people. VOA’s Michael Bowman spoke to a same-sex couple that will benefit from the high court ruling, and to a Christian scholar who is apprehensive about its potential consequences for America’s faith community.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Syrian Refugees Return to Tal Abyad

Syrian refugees in Turkey confirm they left their hometown of Tal Abyad because of intense fighting and coalition airstrikes, not because Kurdish fighters were engaged in ethnic cleansing, as some Turkish officials charged. VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer, in Tal Abyad, finds that civilians coming back to the town agree, as we hear in this report narrated by Roger Wilkison.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Chemical-Sniffing Technology Fights Australia's Graffiti Vandals

Cities and towns all over the world spend huge amounts of resources battling graffiti writers who deface buildings, public transport vehicles and even monuments. Authorities in Sydney, Australia, hope a new chemical-sniffing technology finally will stop vandals from scribbling on walls in the passenger areas of commuter trains. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Cambodia Struggling to Curb Child Labor

Earlier this year a United Nations report found 10 percent of Cambodian children aged 7-14 are working – one of the highest rates in the region – and said one in four children in that age bracket are forced to quit school to help their families. Although the child labor rate has dropped over the past decade, Cambodia has a lot more to do – including keeping more children in school. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.

VOA Blogs