- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Web-based anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks was reeling Tuesday from a series of blows: Its founder was jailed in London, his Swiss bank account was closed and its Internet payment services were cut off.

But WikiLeaks, which has released classified U.S. diplomatic messages since late last month, could face an even heavier blow: There were fresh calls Tuesday for U.S. authorities to indict founder Julian P. Assange and seek his extradition while he is in British custody.

“I don’t understand why that hasn’t happened yet,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “He ought to be indicted, and then we can request the British authorities to extradite him.”

WikiLeaks organizers have vowed that their current woes, which they paint as part of a global campaign against the group, will not stop their airing of State Department cables — more than 1,000 so far from a trove of more than 250,000 the group is posting in coordination with news organizations worldwide.

“Let down by the U.K. justice system’s bizarre decision to refuse bail to Julian Assange,” the group said Tuesday in a statement on the social-networking website Twitter. “But Cablegate releases continue as planned.”

Mr. Assange, 39, appeared Tuesday in a London court on a European Union warrant, issued by Swedish authorities who want him for questioning about sexual assault allegations. He said he would fight extradition and was denied bail. The judge determined he was a flight risk and ordered him held until a full hearing next week.

An attorney for the Swedish prosecutor’s office told the court that Mr. Assange is wanted for questioning about four charges stemming from accusations from two women. The women were identified only as Miss A. and Miss W., and the lawyer said the charges relate to sexual encounters Mr. Assange had with them between Aug. 14 and Aug. 18 during a visit as a guest of Sweden’s libertarian Pirate Party.

Mr. Assange has declined to comment on the charges, but has said any sexual encounters he had in Sweden were consensual. He and his supporters have painted the case as part of an elaborate conspiracy to undermine WikiLeaks.

“Many people believe that this prosecution is politically motivated,” his British attorney, Mark Stephens, said outside the court Tuesday.

But the Swedish prosecutor told reporters her case is unconnected to WikiLeaks. “We have nothing which indicates that this is a plot” against the group, prosecutor Marianne Ny was quoted by Swedish media as saying.

Mr. Assange’s jailing was the latest in a series of setbacks for the group, which has angered governments and corporations worldwide by “data dumps” in which it posted secret government or commercial documents on the Web.

Last week, WikiLeaks was forced to move its data to servers in Sweden and change its Web address after U.S. Internet companies Amazon Inc. and EveryDNS cut off services, citing violations of company policies.

This week, credit card giants Visa Europe and Mastercard, and Internet payment service PayPal Inc., also all cut services to the group, which relies on donations to fund its activities.

“Visa Europe has taken action to temporarily suspend Visa payment acceptance on WikiLeaks’ website pending investigation into whether it contravenes Visa operating rules, including compliance with local laws in the markets where we operate,” Visa Europe spokesman Simon Kleine told The Washington Times in an e-mailed statement.

A MasterCard spokesman told The Times on the condition of anonymity that the company also had suspended service to the group’s website.

“MasterCard is currently in the process of working to suspend the acceptance of MasterCard cards on WikiLeaks until the situation is resolved,” he said in e-mail. He did not respond to requests for clarification.

PayPal said it had “permanently” closed the group’s account because of a violation of its “Acceptable Use Policy, which states that our payment service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity.”

On Monday, PostFinance, the banking arm of the Swiss post office, announced that it had closed an account set up by Mr. Assange to collect donations for his legal defense. The bank said he had given “false information regarding his place of residence during the account-opening process.”

Nonetheless, the group’s operations appeared unhindered. WikiLeaks on Tuesday posted another batch of cables on its new, Swiss-based website (wikileaks.ch), and said that it was accepting donations through a German charity, an Icelandic bank account and a Swiss credit card payments processor.

But Mr. Assange and his group face the possibility of a much more severe blow — indictment by the U.S. Justice Department.

Speaking to Fox News on Tuesday, Mr. Lieberman called the group’s release of three large databases of classified government documents “the most serious violation of the Espionage Act in our history.”

Responding to questions about the news organizations, including the New York Times, that collaborated with WikiLeaks on the releases, Mr. Lieberman acknowledged that such prosecutions could be “sensitive stuff, because it gets into the First Amendment,” but added that the New York Times “had committed at least an act of bad citizenship,” if not an actual crime.

Prosecutors will face significant obstacles to a prosecution, said lawyers and legal scholars.

“They have unknown and rocky terrain to cross,” said Gilead Light, a criminal defense lawyer with Venable LLP who recently defended espionage prosecution.

He noted that, while prosecutions of leakers are relatively common, U.S. authorities have, at least since the Pentagon Papers case, “rarely, if ever, tried to prosecute the recipients of leaks.”

Part of the reason, he said, is that “our espionage laws are outdated and inconsistent.”

One question prosecutors will have to address is whether WikiLeaks can be considered a news organization as it claims, which would entitle it to First Amendment protections.

Nonetheless, Mr. Light said, prosecutors could proceed on the theory that WikiLeaks was not the passive recipient of the leaked material, but “an active leak facilitator, saying in effect, ‘Hey, if you want to break the law, we’re here to help,’” which could open it to charges that it conspired with the leaker.

“I think it’s going to be difficult” to prosecute the organization, he said.

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