US inching closer to conspiracy or espionage indictment

Julian Assange, founder of secrets outlet WikiLeaks, insisted during a Friday morning interview that he's never met or even spoken to Pvt. Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of sending his site troves of secret files.

This comes as lawyers presented the House Judiciary Committee with evidence Thursday that could lead to charges against Assange.

Paul Rosenzweig, a former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, told the British newspaper Guardian that there was an 80 percent chance that Assange would be indicted.

Constitutional law expert Floyd Abrams put those chances at better than 50 percent. Abrams is known for defending The New York Times before the Supreme Court after the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s.

According to Assange attorney Mark Stephens, a secret grand jury is already meeting in Alexandria, Virginia to consider criminal charges.

"We have heard from Swedish authorities there has been a secretly empaneled grand jury in Alexandria," Stephens told Al-Jazeera Sunday. "They are currently investigating this."

A spokesman for the Justice Department decline comment to Guardian.

Abrams noted that the Obama administration, like the Bush administration, may prefer impaneling a grand jury in Alexandria for hard cases like this one against Assange. "DC is the most natural place, but is likely to be more pro-defendant; Virginia courts are more amenable to the prosecution," Abrams said.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that US prosecutors are trying to determine if Assange conspired with Manning by giving him the software necessary to steal documents.

Manning is accused of providing WikiLeaks with thousands of war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as 250,000 secret State Department cables.

"There would certainly be an indictment if Assange had encouraged [Bradley Manning] to provide the information and a mechanism to do so. That would make it easier for the Justice Department to bring a conspiracy charge. I would not have given the chances as 80 percent. I do think it is better than even they will proceed," Abrams added.

Former hacker Adrian Lamo provided prosecutors with chat logs where Manning allegedly boasted of direct contact with Assange. Wired magazine published some of the logs but they do not include evidence that Manning spoke with Assange directly.

Speaking to ABC News Friday, Assange said that WikiLeaks never knows the identities of its sources.

"I had never heard of the name Bradley Manning before it was published in the press," Assange told ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "Wikileaks' technology [was] designed from the very beginning to make sure that we never know the identities or names of people submitting us material. That is, in the end, the only way the sources can be guaranteed that they remain anonymous, as far as we are concerned."

Duke University professor Scott Silliman agrees that the US may be seeking conspiracy charges. "That would be a very 'fact dependent' case, however, because it would require the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt Assange solicited the files from Manning," Silliman observed.

Jennifer Robinson, another of Assange's attorneys, told ABC News last week that espionage charges were imminent.

"Our position of course is that we don't believe it applies to Mr. Assange and that in any event he's entitled to First Amendment protection as publisher of WikiLeaks and any prosecution under the Espionage Act would in my view be unconstitutional and puts at risk all media organizations in the US," Robinson said.

Prosecutors have never successfully used the Espionage Act of 1917 to go after recipients of leaked information.

"Interestingly, though, if those facts are proven, that would be no different than what many US newspaper reporters do in dealing with their sources. All this is to say that whether the government charges a violation of the Espionage Act or solicitation, the case would still be highly problematic and would be a very controversial precedent with relation to the media in this country," Silliman said.

This video is from ABC's Good Morning America, broadcast Dec. 17, 2010.

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