By Meredith Chaiken
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 7:00 AM
The American public is highly critical of the recent release of confidential U.S. diplomatic cables on the WikiLeaks Web site and would support the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange by U.S. authorities, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds.
Most of those polled - 68 percent - say the WikiLeaks' exposure of government documents about the State Department and U.S. diplomacy harms the public interest. Nearly as many - 59 percent - say the U.S. government should arrest Assange and charge him with a crime for releasing the diplomatic cables.
Assange was scheduled to appear in a London courtroom Tuesday to formally contest an extradition order on sexual assault charges in Sweden. U.S. federal authorities are reportedly investigating whether Assange could be charged with violating the Espionage Act by releasing the documents, but his potential extradition to Sweden could significantly complicate any U.S. attempt to quickly try him.
A generational gap was evident among those polled, with younger Americans raised in the Internet age expressing distinct views on the matter. Nearly a third of those ages 18 to 29 say the release of the U.S. diplomatic cables serves the public interest, double the proportion of those older than 50 saying so. When it comes to Assange, these younger adults are evenly split: Forty-five percent say he should be arrested by the United States; 46 percent say it is not a criminal matter. By contrast, those age 30 and older say he should be arrested by a whopping 37-point margin.
Though Americans are divided by age, the public response to the leaks represents a rare moment of shared perspective across partisan lines. Large majorities of Democrats, Republican and independents alike see the massive document release as harmful to the public interest. Fully three-quarters of Republicans say it harms the public interest, and nearly the same proportion believes he should be arrested by the United States. Among Democrats and independents, slim majorities say the government should pursue criminal charges against Assange.
These opinions reflect a possible shift in public opinion since August, when about three-quarters of Americans told Pew pollsters that they had heard about a previous WikiLeaks release of classified documents about the war in Afghanistan. At that time, those who had heard about those cables were more evenly split on how the leaks affected the public interest: Forty-two percent said they served the public; 47 percent said they harmed the public.
The poll was conducted Dec. 9 to 12 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults. Results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.