zaterdag, december 04, 2010

Wikileaks voor de rechter ?

In een opiniestuk in de Washington Post legt de Amerikaanse advocaat Baruch Weiss uit waarom het niet eenvoudig is om Julian Assange in de VS te veroordelen voor het verspreiden van geheim te houden en geklasseerde documenten die de nationale veiligheid raken. Het legaliteitsbeginsel steekt stokken in de wielen (hoewel ik dacht dat dit sterk te relativeren valt in de VS): gebrek aan algemene incriminatiebepaling, dus gedraging per gedraging nagaan waar er een tekst zou kunnen gevonden worden die men heeft overtreden.

What law did Assange violate? It will surprise many that there is no statute making it illegal to reveal classified information. There are statutes that criminalize the disclosure of very specific types of classified information, such as the identity of a covert operative (think Valerie Plame) or "codes, ciphers or cryptographic systems." But there is no catch-all law that simply says, "Thou shalt not disclose classified information."

Indeed, when Congress tried to enact such a statute, President Bill Clinton sensibly vetoed it. His reason: The government suffers from such an overclassification problem - some intelligence agencies classify even newspaper articles - that a law of this sort would end up criminalizing the disclosure of innocuous information. And even that vetoed statute would have applied only to government officials, not to private individuals or journalists.

Instead, prosecutors in the Assange case, like the prosecutors in the AIPAC case I handled, would resort to the Espionage Act of 1917, an archaic, World War I-era statute that prohibits "willfully" disclosing "information relating to the national defense." According to Judge T.S. Ellis in the AIPAC case, this means that the prosecution must prove, among other things, that a defendant knew that the information he was disclosing was potentially damaging to national security and that he was violating the law.

Here, Assange can make the department's case especially difficult. Well before publishing the cables, he wrote a letter to the U.S. government, delivered to our ambassador in London, inviting suggestions for redactions. The State Department refused. Assange then wrote another letter to State, reiterating that "WikiLeaks has absolutely no desire to put individual persons at significant risk of harm, nor do we wish to harm the national security of the United States."

In that second letter, Assange stated that the department's refusal to discuss redactions "leads me to conclude that the supposed risks are entirely fanciful." He then indicated that WikiLeaks was undertaking redactions on its own.

Voor de rest is het natuurlijk allemaal (zoals steeds) een kwestie van interpretatie.

In the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the prosecution would have to demonstrate that what the defendant did was as immediate and as dangerous as "falsely shouting fire in a theater." That is a heavy burden to meet.

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