Britain has one of the most far-reaching laws against the release
of state secrets. With the official US outcry over the latest
WikiLeaks document dump, will Congress borrow from the Brits?
In the aftermath of another massive document dump by WikiLeaks
founder Julian Assange, could the United States adopt a tougher
British standard for dealing with the unauthorized release of state
While the Pentagon says it's weighing criminal charges against
Mr. Assange, who last week released 400,000 pages of US documents
about Iraq, had he dropped documents about British military
operations, Assange and his source could be jailed under the
Britain's Official Secrets Act.
Daniel Ellsberg, the former military contractor who leaked the
1971 Pentagon Papers, a top secret study of US government decision-
making during the Vietnam War, suspects the latest WikiLeaks release
will encourage new legislation to keep US secrets under wraps.
IN PICTURES: Wikileaks and the war in Iraq
Mr. Ellsberg, now an activist who joined Mr. Assange in London
for a press conference to announce the WikiLeaks Iraq war logs, says
President Obama is already wielding the US espionage act "as if it
were a kind of Official Secrets Act."
After Assange released a cache of secret documents about
Afghanistan, the Obama administration reportedly asked its Western
allies to consider opening criminal investigations against the
WikiLeaks founder. US Army PFC Bradley Manning, the alleged leaker
accused of providing WikiLeaks with thousands of pages of secret
Afghan war documents that were leaked earlier this year, has been
charged under the US Espionage Act.
But whether Assange could be charged or convicted in the US under
its espionage laws remains an open question. Media outlets that
publish secret documents generally enjoy First Amendment protections
that the leakers themselves do not.
As Gilead Light, a member of the white collar criminal defense
group with law firm Venable LLP in Washington, said in a piece for
Reuters following the Afghanistan document dump, "Precedent, most
notably the Pentagon Papers case, would seem to indicate that
WikiLeaks is protected from publishing leaked documents by the First
Amendment. The government rarely attempts to prosecute a member of
the media for publishing the fruits of someone else's leaks."
But, Mr. Light, raises an important question about WikiLeaks
place in today's media: "Can a website that devotes itself
exclusively to leaking documents compare itself to the New York
Times? Clearly the Justice Department is reexamining whether or not
Assange and his website can face criminal prosecution under US law."
According to Ellsberg, Congress attempted to pass a tougher
secrets act in 2000 but President Clinton vetoed the bill. But he
suspects a similar bill could reemerge depending on gains by
Republicans at the polls in the US next week.
A move to enact legislation that would criminalize publishing
secret documents, which have been leaked by others, would also meet
fierce opposition in Congress and elsewhere.
Britain's secrets act
In Britain, the secrets act has faced sustained criticism by
journalists and others who have lambasted it as antiquated and
riddled with holes. …