On the day a London judge released WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on bail in his extradition battle, a top U.S. lawmaker warned against hasty moves to prosecute those who leak and publish classified documents in the wake of the group's mass release of sensitive U.S. government files.
"Many feel that the WikiLeaks publication was offensive," House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, said Thursday. "But being unpopular is not a crime, and publishing offensive information is not either."
The House hearing was the first time Congress has weighed in officially on WikiLeaks' latest release of tens of thousands of classified documents relating to U.S. diplomatic and security policy. Lawmakers were considering changes to federal espionage laws while wrestling with whether moves to curb WikiLeaks would harm traditional press freedoms.
Mr. Assange, a 39-year-old Australian, was released Thursday on bail after surrendering to British authorities Dec. 7 in connection with a case in Sweden in which two women have accused Mr. Assange of rape and other sexual crimes. Mr. Assange's attorneys have challenged the charges, and his supporters contend the investigation is politically motivated and designed to destroy the WikiLeaks organization.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has said a criminal investigation of WikiLeaks is continuing.
One witness, former federal Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein, said the Justice Department should be able to make a legal distinction between WikiLeaks and traditional media outlets in pursuing Mr. Assange under federal espionage statutes.
"By clearly showing how WikiLeaks is fundamentally different, the government should be able to demonstrate that any prosecution here is the exception and is not the sign of a more aggressive prosecution effort against the press," Mr. Wainstein said.
Mr. Conyers was skeptical.
"The repeated calls ... for criminal prosecutions or other extreme measures make me very uncomfortable," Mr. Conyers said. "When everyone in this town is joined together calling for someone's head, that is it a pretty strong sign we need to slow down and take a closer look."
Mr. Conyers was seconded by populist and former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, a member of a panel called before the committee.
"We have to be very careful," Mr. Nader said. "I urge Congress not to overreact."
Several panelists told the committee that one major problem is that the government has classified too many documents.
"Congress needs to take into consideration the [issue of] overclassification," said attorney Abbe Lowell. Some lawmakers said they agreed.
Rep. Bill Delahunt, Massachusetts Democrat, said there is "overwhelming classification."
"There's far too much secrecy in the executive branch," he said. "It puts democracy at risk."
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a scholar at the conservative-leaning Hudson Institute, also urged Congress to move slowly. However, he called the leaks "massive" and a threat to U.S. security, saying that some were "downplaying" the impact.
Mr. Schoenfeld also said he anticipates "a much greater concern for diplomatic secrecy" when the 112th Congress convenes next month. Republicans will control the House, and Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, will take over as Judiciary Committee chairman.
Also Thursday, Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press during the Vietnam War, defended Mr. Assange and Pvt. Bradley Manning, the U.S. serviceman widely suspected of having supplied WikiLeaks with the vast bulk of the sensitive U.S. documents and records it has leaked.
"I think they provided a very valuable service," Mr. Ellsberg said. "To call them terrorists is not only mistaken, it's absurd."
c This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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