The roiling crapstorm over the release by Wikileaks.org of classified State Department cables ratchets up another notch this week with the House Judiciary Committee convening to discuss legal strategies against the website and its founder, Julian Assange.
Already jailed in the U.K. while fighting extradition to Sweden on sex-abuse charges, Assange also stands accused in Congress by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and others for alleged violations of the 1917 Espionage Act—a crime with a possible death sentence.
Wikileaks has so far released 1,463 of more than 250,000 cables allegedly obtained from Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army private. Manning is charged with unauthorized disclosure of classified information—leaks so far that include U.S. officials calling Russian President Dimitry Medvedev “Robin to Putin’s Batman” and Chinese officials cited as supporting a unified Korea.
Supporters worldwide have leaped to Assange’s defense, and the imbroglio has proven red meat for Washington’s incoming Republican majority. In advance of the House Judiciary Committee’s meeting Dec. 16, U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) has already called on Wikileaks to be declared a terrorist group.
With Congress set to consider action during the final month the Capitol remains under Democrats’ control, we surveyed both senators and all five congressmen from Oregon about the possibility of criminal prosecutions of Manning and Assange. Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Republican Rep. Greg Walden, as well as Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. We also spoke with retired Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak of Lake Oswego, Lewis & Clark international relations professor Cyrus Partovi and University of Oregon journalism professor Tom Bivins.
—News intern Stacy Brownhill contributed to this story.
Rep. David Wu (D)
Why he matters: A native of Taiwan, Wu has special interest in East Asia and human rights in China.
What he says: “The source[s] of the leaks—including the current prime suspect [Manning]—should be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted for violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice and other applicable federal laws.” But he adds publishing the cables did not overstep freedom of the press.
Rep. Kurt Schrader (D)
Why he matters: Hailing from the state’s rural-suburban 5th District, Schrader presents himself as a practical moderate rather than a woolly-haired Oregon liberal.
What he says: “Individuals found guilty of leaking classified documents should be prosecuted,” Schrader said. But, like Wu, he adds publishing the cables did not overstep freedom of the press.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D)
Why he matters: DeFazio sits on the Committee on Homeland Security. He’s also the only Oregon congressman mentioned in the cables so far—for a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
What he says: “The government might have grounds to prosecute the leaker...for dereliction of duty. I am not a lawyer but do not believe they have grounds to prosecute media who publish the leaks.... These cables were sometimes candid and embarrassing but, from what I have seen so far, do not substantially threaten our national security. One has to wonder how incompetent our State Department and [Department of Defense] are to allow a [private in the Army] access to all this data.”
Gen. Merrill McPeak
Why he matters: A former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, McPeak helped plan the first Gulf War and was a close advisor to Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign.
What he says: “In general I favor openness in government, so I would have to support this, but this is a particularly troublesome case. I don’t know how you conduct business in government if you can’t have confidential communication at the top. So if the idea is that nobody in government will ever be able to be frank with each other, then I think it’s a very bad thing.... We have to be able to have confidential communication inside our government. We just have to figure that out.”
Why he matters: A former high-ranking official for the Shah of Iran, Partovi is a senior lecturer at Lewis & Clark College specializing in diplomacy and foreign policy.
What he says: “Wikileaks have jeopardized our conversations with other diplomats. Sure, 85 percent of the information published in the cable is already [general knowledge]. But it’s the other 15 percent that you keep for trust and rapport. It takes years to establish that kind of trust and confidence.... Someone dropped the ball. The bottom line is that this has not helped U.S. national interests.”
Why he matters: A specialist in mass media ethics, Bivins is the head of the journalism department at the University of Oregon.
What he says: “I don’t call what Wikileaks is doing journalism. They’re mass-dumping thousands of pages of information. It’s kind of indiscriminate to just mass-release information without any thought to the harm that could be done.” But Bivins says prosecuting Assange would appear vindictive. “The government needs to put its own safeguards in place to prevent this kind of things from happening again.”