10:44am

Wed December 1, 2010
Law

Interpol Puts WikiLeaks Founder On Wanted List

A European arrest warrant was issued Wednesday against the founder of WikiLeaks in connection with a sexual assault investigation in Sweden, days after the whistle-blower website released classified documents that have White House officials eyeing possible espionage charges against him.

The arrest warrant comes on the same day that Interpol issued a "red notice" for 39-year-old Julian Assange, whose whereabouts were unknown. The notice asks people to contact the police if they have any information about a person's whereabouts.

Assange is wanted by Sweden on suspicion of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion stemming from encounters with two women during a trip there this summer. He and his lawyers have strongly asserted his innocence.

The legal push comes days after the WikiLeaks site leaked some 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. The wires contained frank and often unflattering assessments of world leaders, including American allies, and has caused the U.S. much embarrassment.

A senior U.S. defense official said lawyers from across the U.S. government were investigating whether it could prosecute him for espionage. The official, not authorized to comment publicly, spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has accused WikiLeaks of acting illegally and vowed "aggressive steps to hold responsible those who stole this information." Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters Tuesday that the Justice Department had "an active, ongoing criminal investigation with regard to this matter."

Without mentioning Assange by name, Holder said "to the extent that we can find anybody who was involved in the breaking of American law ... they will be held responsible. They will be held accountable."

Also being investigated is U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, an intelligence analyst who allegedly was the source of the documents published by WikiLeaks. Making a case against Manning might be relatively easy, said Abbe Lowell, an attorney who has defended two people accused of violating the espionage act. That's because Manning is a government employee who promised to keep the nation's secrets, Lowell said.

Experts disagree over whether Assange would be prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917 -- a World War I-era law that has never been used against a media figure.

"The biggest taboo that has been out there, sort of the dirty little secret in the Espionage Act for a long time, has been whether it would ever be used to prosecute somebody in the media as opposed to the government employee leaking the information," Lowell told NPR.

He said he is worried that WikiLeaks could make it easy to "apply this law for the first time, in a precedent-setting way that can be used against other people in the media."

Duke law professor Scott Sillman said in his judgment, it's "not an easy case to prove" that Assange falls within the context of the Espionage Act.

"We don't know where his is," Sillman said of Assange. "He probably is somewhere in Europe ... which means if people see him, [they] are supposed to notify Swedish authorities."

If Assange is nabbed on the Swedish arrest warrant, it could be months or years before the U.S. prosecutors could get a crack at him, if he is charged here.

He first would need to be extradited, says Madeline Morris, an expert in international criminal law also at Duke Law School.

It's normally a "lengthy process" that would be complicated if both Washington and Stockholm wanted him.

"The extraditing country would have a lot of leeway on where to extradite him to," Morris said.

Assange has denied any wrongdoing in the Swedish case, calling the allegations baseless and describing the case as "a legal circus." He left Sweden last month after authorities said they wanted to interrogate him in connection with the case.

Mark Stephens, an attorney for the WikiLeaks founder, has said his client has repeatedly sought meetings with Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny since authorities there first issued an arrest warrant in August.

But that warrant was quickly withdrawn after the chief prosecutor in Stockholm said there was no reason to suspect Assange had committed a crime. Ny reopened the case last month.

The exact nature of the allegations facing Assange aren't completely clear, although Stephens has in the past described them as a part of "a post facto dispute over consensual, but unprotected sex" and Swedish prosecutors have disagreed about whether to label the most serious charge as rape.

Formal charges have not been filed, but a detention order issued at Ny's request on Nov. 18 remains in force pending an appeal by Assange. The case is now before Sweden's Supreme Court, which will make a decision Wednesday or Thursday.

In other developments:

-- WikiLeaks said Amazon.com kicked its website from its servers, forcing the site to move back to a Swedish provider. The site took up residence on Amazon's self-service Web servers after a rash of Internet-based attacks started Sunday against its Swedish host, Bahnhof.

-- The White House announced that National Security Adviser Tom Donilon has appointed a senior adviser to lead a comprehensive effort to identify and develop changes needed in light of the incident. An independent board that advises President Obama on intelligence matters also will examine how the executive branch shares and protects classified information.

NPR's Carrie Johnson in Washington and NPR's Eleanor Beardsley and Anita Elash reported from Paris for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.