During a packed WikiLeaks panel Thursday night at Columbia University, Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor and former assistant attorney general in the second Bush administration, said he believes the United States will prosecute WikiLeaks founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange on charges related to his disclosure of clandestine diplomatic cables.
"I think the political pressure to bring [criminal charges] is enormous," said Goldsmith.
If that happens, will Assange have the support of Alan Rusbridger and Bill Keller, the editors--of the Guardian and New York Times respectively--with whom he cooperated to make explosive international headlines out of thousands of classified government documents? It's a delicate question, in part because Assange's relationship with the two editors has gone south lately.
"If, God forbid, ever this came to court, I would be completely side-by-side with him in terms of defending him with respect to what he did," said Rusbridger, one of the panelists, acknowledging that Assange and WikiLeaks should be afforded the same protections as journalists when it comes to the publication of government secrets. "Completely shoulder to shoulder," Rusbridger continued. "I've got great admiration for him in a lot of stuff he's done."
"In terms of his right to be protected for publishing secrets, I think we do stand by him," said the Times chief, though he was a bit less unequivocal in his response. "I think the Times' lawyers would prefer I not declare what I'd do in a court of law. Outside a court of law, I agree it would be very difficult to come up with a prosecution of Assange in a way that wouldn't be applicable to us. Whatever one thinks of Assange," who faces rape charges in Sweden unrelated to his work with WikiLeaks, they "should feel a sense of alarm at any legal action that attempts to punish him for doing what journalists do."
Keller also elaborated on his recent comments to The Cutline that the Times might create an "EZ Pass lane for leakers"--in other words, an in-house submission system that would make it easier for would-be whistleblowers to provide large files to the paper, and preserve their anonymity while doing so.
"Technically, it's not that hard," said Keller. "But the biggest question is, if something comes in over the transom, and it's anonymous, how do you vet it? That's why we have not yet decided to go ahead with this project. We may, but that's a question we have to get past."
Rusbridger, meanwhile, confirmed that the Guardian is also considering such a mechanism, as is another high-profile paper involved in the coordinated release of several WikiLeaks' document dumps last year.
Germany's "Der Spiegel wants to build its own drop box system," Rusbridger said. "I think the ripples for this will continue in ways that are unpredictable."
(Kirsty Wigglesworth: AP Photo)