Published Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010 | 5:52 p.m.
Updated Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010 | 10:43 p.m.
A day after the Justice Department dropped its ethics investigation of Sen. John Ensign, he’s capping that political reprieve by urging the department to pick up a different, high-profile case: going after Wikileaks.
Ensign is the driving force behind a new piece of legislation aimed at expanding the section of the Espionage Act that addresses criminal responsibility for willfully communicating, furnishing, transmitting, publishing or otherwise making available classified information concerning diplomatic activities of the U.S.
The bill would extend the list of prosecutable activities under the statute to include publishing the names of informants who transmit reports to the United States’ military and intelligence operations — and, sponsors say, make it easier to go after the intelligence threat posed by operations like Wikileaks.
Although none of the 250,000 diplomatic dispatches Wikileaks released last weekend were “top secret” status, lawmakers are still calling the release the “single greatest act of espionage against the United States in our history” -- those being the words of independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a co-sponsor of Ensign’s bill.
Last weekend’s release was the third high-profile Wikileaks release of the last few months. The first two revealed much larger caches of documents concerning the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Justice Department is investigating what legal action, if any, can be taken against Wikileaks and its director, Julian Assange — whom Ensign referred to Thursday on the Senate floor as a “a computer hacker” and “an anarchist.”
Even though he’s seeking to expand the statute, Ensign said he thinks the Wikileaks case is egregious enough to merit prosecution.
“It’s my opinion that we could go after Julian Assange under current statute,” Ensign said. “What our legislation does is update this decades-old statute to address this evolving threat prospectively. I have no doubt that Julian Assange is going to put another document dump out on his website and another one again after that.”
Members of the Judiciary Committee, of which Ensign is not a member, are also pressing the government to act.
“We believe it qualifies as espionage ... this is far beyond free speech,” Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said Thursday. “This is an attack of the operating capability of the United States government.”
A reading of the relevant statute seems clearly to state that the intelligence analyst who downloaded and transmitted the documents, Pvt. 1st Class Bradley Manning, can be charged as a spy.
But if Assange can be prosecuted, that leaves open the question of who else could be held responsible for disseminating the information — and whether the outlets that published the Wikileaks documents also could be called to account, in the style of the Valerie Plame affair.
Sponsors of the bill did not go that far in assigning blame as they introduced the bill Thursday.
“I would say the New York Times committed an act of bad citizenship at least,” Lieberman said.
Ensign was a little more emphatic about his intent.
“Let me be clear: this bill does not target journalists ... no one should do Julian Assange any credit by referring to him as a journalist, or as part of the news media,” Ensign said. “Instead, it provides the attorney general with a targeted solution and increased flexibility to deal with Wikileaks.”