Wikileaks: Espionage or First Amendment 101?

By Emily Williams
The Lynchburg Times

The Wikileaks fiasco has politicians, journalists and academics across the nation reexamining how they define espionage and First Amendment rights. The Lynchburg Times is on a quest to bring you as many sides of the story as possible, with special attention to local voices.

On Tuesday, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was arrested in London in relation to sex crime allegations in Sweden. He is currently being held in Wadsworth Prison without bail until December 14.

Now that Assange is in custody, there is a possibility that he could be extradited to the United States, should the Justice Department find enough grounds to convince Sweden that his actions were criminal.

“As distasteful as the release of this information is, Assange is not criminally liable,” said Mathew Staver, dean of the Liberty University School of Law and founder of the Liberty Council in a phone interview Wednesday.

Staver emphasized that the First Amendment covers Assange’s actions, and that no legal distinction can be made between traditional journalists and new media when it comes to the First Amendment.

“Wikileaks is no different than the New York Times releasing the Pentagon Documents,” said Staver.

Dianne Feinstein, Democratic senator from California and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, argued in an opinion piece published Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal that Assange should not be considered a journalist and is therefore not protected by the First Amendment.

“He is no journalist: He is an agitator intent on damaging our government, whose policies he happens to disagree with, regardless of who gets hurt,” wrote Feinstein.

In a Tweet posted November 29th, Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, voiced his worries about the Wikileaks issue effecting world opinion of the nation.

“From economy to Wikileaks to deficit to China, Korea & beyond, USA starting to appear again like “a pitiful helpless giant.” Danger 4 POTUS,” wrote Sabato.

Wikileaks may be one of the only issues Sabato nears an agreement upon with his polar-opposite, political blogger Ben Tribbett, author of the “Not Larry Sabato” blog. He wrote Tuesday in support of Donald S. Beyer, US Ambassador to Switzerland and former Lieutenant Governor of Virginia. Beyer warned that Switzerland “should very carefully consider whether to provide shelter to someone who is on the run from the law,” reported NZZ am Sonntag, a weekly Swiss magazine.

“Wikileaks is F-ing with the wrong ambassador,” wrote Tribbett.

Neither Tribbett nor Sabato could be reached for comment late Wednesday.

Politicians in Washington also seem to be agreeing on the Wikileaks issue in a bi-partisan manner rarely seen in this political climate. In an interview on Meet the Press this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitchell McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, emphasized that Assange needs to held on criminal charges.

“He’s done an enormous damage to our country, and I think he needs to be prosecuted to the, the fullest extent of the law; and if that becomes a problem, we need to change the law,” said Senator McConnell.

Later in the show, Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, likened the release to voyeurism and stated he believes Wikileaks has “no relationship” to the Pentagon Papers.

“This is sort of a anarchical kind of act by someone who wants attention that is not revealing some truth about a government lying or a policy that’s been misled,” said Senator Kerry.

In a press conference last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accused the Wikileaks release of “sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations.” She went on to allude to the inappropriateness of likening Wikileaks to the Pentagon Papers. Secretary Clinton argued that while there have been “examples in history in which official conduct has been made public in the name of exposing wrongdoings or misdeeds… this is not one of those cases.”

Opposing Secretary Clinton and Senator Kerry’s views, Daniel Ellsberg, a former government analyst who leaked the famous Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, rejected the opinion that Wikileaks and the Pentagon papers are incomparable in a press release that is also signed by other ex-intelligence officers.

“That’s just a cover for people who don’t want to admit that they oppose any and all exposure of even the most misguided, secretive foreign policy,” said Ellsberg.

An Editor’s note published November 29, explained The New York Times’ reasoning for using the sensitive cables. The letter explains that while the Times did redact some information contained in the documents deemed comprises to national security, the paper believed that much of the documents “serve an important public information.”

“For The Times to ignore this material would be to deny its own readers the careful reporting and thoughtful analysis they expect when this kind of information becomes public,” wrote The Times.

Independent Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman is unforgiving of The New York Times for publishing stories referencing the Wikileaks documents.

“To me the New York Times has committed at least an act of, at best, bad citizenship, but whether they have committed a crime is a matter of discussion for the justice department,” Lieberman said in an interview with Fox News.

He went on to say that he believes the justice department should indict Assange for violation of the espionage act.

“I think this is the most serious violation of the Espionage Act in our history,” said Lieberman.

Dean Staver disagreed either the New York Times or Assange were in violation of the Espionage Act.

“We have to take one step back before we get to Wikileaks,” said Staver.

He argued that instead, an investigation should pursue the actions of Private First Class Bradley Manning, who initially leaked the documents to Wikileaks, and his superiors who allowed the security breach.

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Published in: on December 9, 2010 at 12:25 am  Comments (2)  

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