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Don't charge Wikileaks

Saturday, December 11, 2010; 6:16 PM

WIKILEAKS FOUNDER Julian Assange has irresponsibly released thousands of sensitive national security documents, including some that Pentagon officials say could put in harm's way Afghans who have cooperated with U.S. efforts. But that does not mean he has committed a crime.

Mr. Assange, an Australian, is in a British jail awaiting possible extradition to Sweden on sexual assault allegations. Many Americans would like to see him spend a good, long time behind bars - for different reasons. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, argues that Mr. Assange's actions violate the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law crafted to punish individuals who spy on the country during wartime. The Justice Department is reportedly assessing that possibility as well as other prosecutorial vehicles.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) goes further and has urged the administration to consider charges against media outlets that produced news articles based on the leaked documents. These organizations, Mr. Lieberman said in an interview with Fox News last week , have "committed at least an act of bad citizenship, but whether they have committed a crime - I think that bears a very intense inquiry by the Justice Department."

Such prosecutions are a bad idea. The government has no business indicting someone who is not a spy and who is not legally bound to keep its secrets. Doing so would criminalize the exchange of information and put at risk responsible media organizations that vet and verify material and take seriously the protection of sources and methods when lives or national security are endangered. The Espionage Act is easily abused, as shown by a criminal case that dragged on for years, before being closed last year, of two lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who did nothing more than pass along to colleagues and a reporter information they gleaned from conversations with U.S. officials. The act should be scrapped or tightened, not given new and dangerous life.

So is the administration helpless? No; it has every right to demand strict confidentiality from its employees and others who swear to protect its secrets. It has rightly filed charges against an Army intelligence specialist who it believes was the source of the leaked documents. And the government should repair its own house, by investigating its carelessness in allowing these documents to leak and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.

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