First session of process of deciding whether to prosecute website and founder Julian Assange for espionage
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange listens during a news conference at the Frontline Club in London. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
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
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
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.