GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Law enforcement around the world is turning up the heat on the website WikiLeaks and on its founder, Julian Assange. Interpol has put him on a wanted list in connection with rape allegations in Sweden. And here in the U.S., he and his organization are at the center of a large espionage investigation.

NPR's Carrie Johnson has the story.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Attorney General Eric Holder says there's a real basis to believe crimes have been committed with the unauthorized release of secret diplomatic cables.

Mr. ERIC HOLDER (Attorney General): To the extent that we can find anybody who was involved in the breaking of American law, and who has put at risk the assets and the people that I have described, they will be held responsible. They will be held accountable.

JOHNSON: That law would be the Espionage Act. Just who can be prosecuted under that World War I-era law is the subject of intense debate. Military prosecutors have already locked up Private Bradley Manning. He's accused of passing information to WikiLeaks. But making a case against a government employee who promised to keep the nation's secrets is pretty easy from a legal standpoint. By contrast, prosecuting the website WikiLeaks is no slam-dunk.

Mr. ABBE LOWELL (Attorney): The biggest taboo that has been out there, sort of the dirty little secret in the Espionage Act for a long time, has been whether it would ever be used to prosecute somebody in the media, as opposed to the government employee leaking the information.

CARRIE JOHNSON: That's attorney Abbe Lowell. He's defended two people accused of violating the Espionage Act. The dilemma, Lowell says, is how to treat WikiLeaks. Is it a member of the media that deserves special free speech protections, or is it more like a rogue operation that wants to hurt U.S. interests?

Mr. LOWELL: What I worry about and what many worry about is that WikiLeaks makes it easy for the law enforcement community to apply this law for the first time in a precedent-setting way that can be used against other people in the media.

JOHNSON: So, if charging WikiLeaks is a challenge, what about the group's controversial founder, Julian Assange? Scott Silliman is a law professor at Duke University. He's following the investigation and the mysterious whereabouts of the WikiLeaks leader.

Professor SCOTT SILLIMAN (Law, Duke University): Assange, we don't know where he is. He probably is somewhere in Europe. He is subject to a red notice by Interpol, which means that people who see him are supposed to notify the Swedish authorities so that they could pick him up on the rape allegations against him.

JOHNSON: But whether Assange will ever be indicted in the U.S. and brought to justice here is a real problem.

Prof. SILLIMAN: They have got to actually show that he came within the context of the Espionage Act. And in my judgment, that's not an easy case to prove.

JOHNSON: That's because Assange could argue that he made the diplomatic cables public for a legitimate reason - to influence foreign policy. That would force prosecutors to show he acted instead to help America's enemies.

The Justice Department recently dropped an espionage case against two lobbyists because of that high legal bar, which makes focusing on the people who passed the information to WikiLeaks a simpler legal call.

Again, here's Silliman.

Prof. SILLIMAN: I think the Justice Department and the Department of Defense are looking for anyone who was in control of the classification process or the maintenance of classified information. If anyone was grossly negligent and allowed or helped to allow this information to be released, I think that will all be part of this probe.

JOHNSON: The attorney general says people shouldn't expect any criminal charges soon - a reflection of the difficult legal challenges that this case presents.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.