Two weeks ago, I wrote a column, criticizing WikiLeaks for its mistakes and commending it for its accomplishments. Since then, much has changed.
Starting on Nov. 28, the whistle-blowing organization began releasing cables written by U.S. diplomats overseas.
The cables contain material that reveals political, economic and security-related developments in every corner of the globe.
Imaginably, the response to the release of the cables has been explosive. From a Canadian official calling for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s assassination, to Sarah Palin calling Assange an “anti-American operative with blood on his hands,” to the most pervasive call of all — for Assange to be tried under the Espionage Act of 1917 — WikiLeaks faces a firestorm of political pressure.
As I mentioned in my first column, I believe WikiLeaks’ release of any information that has reasonably foreseeable potential to harm human lives or endanger national security would be irresponsible, and indeed worthy of condemnation.
But so far, WikiLeaks has shown a remarkable amount of responsibility and discretion.
It has released only 1,000 of the more than 250,000 cables it possesses, and has worked with various other media outlets to redact names and decide which information not to release for reasons of national security.
In addition, WikiLeaks actually appealed to the U.S. government in an effort to help decide which cables to release, but the United States refused.
But even without the government’s help, WikiLeaks has demonstrated such a high level of responsibility in selecting which cables to release that a Pentagon official said, “We have yet to see any harm … that we can directly tie to exposure in the WikiLeaks documents.”
In short, every action WikiLeaks has taken in relation to the cables has been indicative of a responsible organization dedicated not to anarchy and the overthrow of government, but to responsibility and transparency.
But despite these facts, calls continue to come from every level of the U.S. government to prosecute Assange and his organization, and to do everything possible to make WikiLeaks disappear.
Frankly, these calls have been the scariest part of this entire episode.
Pretty much any politician or pundit who opposes WikiLeaks will cite its “illegality.” But not one — literally, not even one — could cite what law WikiLeaks has broken.
Despite the Justice Department’s furious efforts to find a statute under which to prosecute WikiLeaks, no law exists.
But, in the typical “rules-be-damned” attitude American politicians adapt when foreigners don’t blindly obey what they decree, cries of WikiLeaks’ illegality continue to resound.
One law, though, that apparently illiterate critics have cited, is the Espionage Act of 1917. It essentially states that if certain classified U.S. information is released under certain circumstances, the person who releases that information can be charged with espionage and/or treason.
So, on the surface, that seems to make a pretty convincing case for prosecution, right?
Well no, not if you can read.
The Espionage Act has a few seemingly applicable sections, but these are actually moot on the issue of WikiLeaks itself. Section 793(e), for instance, states that “Whoever having unauthorized possession of, access to, or control over any document … relating to the national defense … willfully communicates … the same and fails to deliver it to the officer or employee of the United States entitled to receive it … Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.”
But the word “communicate” is key. When Congress wrote the law, it explicitly meant to exclude publishing from this section — so as to not impinge on freedom of speech or press.
As Justice William O. Douglas wrote, “It is apparent that Congress was capable of, and did, distinguish between publishing and communication in the various sections of the Espionage Act.”
Yet despite all this, the U.S. government has mounted a series of attacks that seriously call into question how free freedom of speech is and what kind of a country we live in.
Various Americans companies like PayPal and Amazon have pulled their support of WikiLeaks — despite the fact that they have done nothing wrong.
And scarier still, the federal government is actively working to restrict the public’s ability to view the organization’s website. Clearly, it admires authoritarian regimes like Iran and North Korea.
Goodbye healthy expression of a range of views, hello HUAC.