First session of process of deciding whether to prosecute website and founder Julian Assange for espionage
The Guardian | May 11, 2011
The US government has opened a grand jury hearing into the passing of hundreds of thousands of state secrets to WikiLeaks – the start of the process of deciding whether to prosecute the website and its founder, Julian Assange, for espionage.
The first session of the grand jury is understood to have begun in Alexandria, Virginia, with the forced testimony of a man from Boston, Massachusetts. The unidentified man was subpoenad to appear before the panel. The terms of the subpoena – first revealed by the Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald – gave a clear indication that the jury has been convened specifically to consider whether to approve the prosecution of Assange and Wikileaks.
It said the hearing was investigating "possible violations of federal criminal law involving, but not necessarily limited to, conspiracy to communicate or transmit national defence information in violation of" the Espionage Act. The Act, which was introduced in 1917 just after the US entered the first world war, was modelled on Britain's Official Secrets Act.
It was most famously applied, unsuccessfully, in 1971 against Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon papers on the Vietnam war.
The subpoena also reveals that the grand jury is considering approving a prosecution on grounds of "knowingly accessing a computer without authorisation or exceeding authorized access" and "knowingly stealing or converting any record or thing of value of the United States or any department or agency thereof". That would appear to point more in the direction of Bradley Manning, the US military intelligence specialist currently facing court martial as the suspected source of the WikiLeaks documents. The US has had a hard time so far trying to make charges, other than against Manning, stick in the WikiLeaks saga.
The Espionage Act has never been applied successfully against a non-government party, and to have a reasonable chance of prosecuting Assange or WikiLeaks as an organisation, the authorities would need to be able to prove to the satisfaction of a jury that they had actively encouraged or assisted the source of the leaks to transmit unauthorised material.
The FBI has been focusing its investigations aggressively on the hacker community of Boston, around the technology university MIT, in the hope of gaining information on how Assange made contact with his source. Wednesday's hearing is likely to be part of that effort.
The public radio network NPR pointed out that the WikiLeaks grand jury is just one of a spate of federal investigations into leaking that constitutes a major crack down by the Obama administration. There are currently five separate criminal prosecutions relating to official leaks under way, a surge in activity that national security experts say is a worrying attack on the rights of whistle blowers.
The WikiLeaks grand jury, comprising between 16 and 24 jurors, will sit in secret. It will act as a kind of pre-trial, considering the prosecution evidence and calling witnesses, before finally deciding on whether or not to advance a prosecution.