Congressional Research Service Notes That There Are Serious Challenges To Charging Assange
from the ain't-so-easy dept
While a lot of the rhetoric from the US government — concerning Wikileaks and Julian Assange and whether or not any law was violated — has been overwrought and full of hyperbole, it appears that the Congressional Research Service (which tends to do a damn good job most of the time) has put out a nice simple report detailing the specific legal issues and laws that might apply here (pdf), and more or less summarizes that the US government would be breaking new ground in charging Assange, and may have difficulties in succeeding. While the report notes you could probably stretch the law to cover what Wikileaks did, it warns:
[The] statutes described in the previous section have been used almost exclusively to prosecute individuals with access to classified information (and a corresponding obligation to protect it) who make it available to foreign agents, or to foreign agents who obtain classified information unlawfully while present in the United States. Leaks of classified information to the press have only rarely been punished as crimes, and we are aware of no case in which a publisher of information obtained through unauthorized disclosure by a government employee has been prosecuted for publishing it. There may be First Amendment implications that would make such a prosecution difficult, not to mention political ramifications based on concerns about government censorship. To the extent that the investigation implicates any foreign nationals whose conduct occurred entirely overseas, any resulting prosecution may carry foreign policy implications…..
The report does note that there has been at least one case it’s aware of where a foreign national was charged under the Espionage Act for activities done outside of the US. But, it is quite rare, and beyond a single district court ruling saying this okay, the history and language of the Espionage Act suggest it was not designed for this purpose.
The report also delves into the hurdles to having Assange extradited to the US (something the US is apparently already discussing with the Swedish government), pointing out that no current US treaty “lists espionage as an extraditable offense.”
But the biggest hurdle is noted towards the end of the report, in highlighting the rather serious Constitutional issues associated with attempting to try Assange for anything in the US, with a lot of focus on the ruling in the Pentagon Papers case:
Where First Amendment rights are implicated, it is the government’s burden to show that its interest is sufficiently compelling to justify enforcement. Whether the government has a compelling need to punish disclosures of classified information turns on whether the disclosure has the potential of causing damage to the national defense or foreign relations of the United States. Actual damage need not be proved, but potential damage must be more than merely speculative and incidental. On the other hand, the Court has stated that “state action to punish the publication of truthful information seldom can satisfy constitutional standards.” And it has described the constitutional purpose behind the guarantee of press freedom as the protection of “the free discussion of governmental affairs.”
[If] national security interests were not sufficient to outweigh the First Amendment principles implicated in the prior restraint of pure speech related to the public interest, as in the Pentagon Papers case, it is difficult to discern an obvious rationale for finding that punishing that same speech after it has already been disseminated nevertheless tilts the balance in favor of the government’s interest in protecting sensitive information.
The publication of truthful information that is lawfully acquired enjoys considerable First Amendment protection. The Court has not resolved the question “whether, in cases where information has been acquired unlawfully by a newspaper or by a source, government may ever punish not only the unlawful acquisition, but the ensuing publication as well.” (The Pentagon Papers Court did not consider whether the newspapers’ receipt of the classified document was in itself unlawful, although it appeared to accept that the documents had been unlawfully taken from the government by their source).
The Court has established that “routine newsgathering” is presumptively lawful acquisition, the fruits of which may be published without fear of government retribution.
There are definitely plenty of loopholes whereby the government can try to file charges against Assange, but in reading through the document it would likely be a pretty tough sell. You can read through the entire document after the jump.