Almost anyone in the United States, and especially soldiers or the families of US Air Force members, could be under the threat of prosecution by the military, according to a recent "guidance" document issued by the Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) public affairs office.
The advisory took on new significance Monday as Julian Assange, founder of the secrets peddling website, was in a British court to argue against his extradition to Sweden, where he was wanted for questioning in relation to allegations of sexual assault and impropriety.
"Classified information does not automatically become declassified as a result of unauthorized disclosure, and accessing the WikiLeaks site would introduce potentially classified information on unclassified networks," the Air Force Material Command explained, noting policy well-documented since the start of WikiLeaks' release of US diplomatic cables.
"Guidance issued by the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force on Aug. 9, 2010, makes clear that Air Force personnel should not access the WikiLeaks website to view or download the publicized classified information."
But, they add:
Within AFMC, and across the Air Force, the WikiLeaks site has been blocked to protect the network. Other sites discovered to be posting the leaked information have also been blocked.
According to AFMC's legal office, Air Force members -- military or civilian -- may not legally access WikiLeaks at home on their personal, non-governmental computers, either.
Also according to the legal office, "if a family member of an Air Force employee accesses WikiLeaks on a home computer, the family member may be subject to prosecution for espionage under U.S. Code Title 18 Section 793. The Air Force member would have an obligation to safeguard the information under the general guidance to safeguard classified information."
It was unclear whether RawStory.com, or other websites which have carried information related to WikiLeaks' US State Dept. documents, were currently being blocked on military networks.
The Air Force legal office decision could pave the way for prosecutors in the US to file espionage charges against Assange. The WikiLeaks founder's attorney has argued that if he is extradited to Sweden he'll be sent to the US where he may end up in Guantanamo Bay or even dead by assassination or capital punishment.
It remained unclear whether the US could prosecute WikiLeaks for doing essentially what other mainstream news publications do on a regular basis. In fact, newspapers like The Guardian and The New York Times published almost as many of the US diplomatic documents as WikiLeaks, so an argument could be made that if one is prosecuted others may be too.
That argument was not lost on New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, who said during a recent Colombia University panel that he didn't believe Assange deserved to be prosecuted.
“It’s very hard to conceive of a prosecution of Julian Assange that wouldn’t stretch the law in a way that would be applicable to us,” he said. “Whatever one thinks of Julian Assange, certainly American journalists, and other journalists, should feel a sense of alarm at any legal action that tends to punish Assange for doing essentially what journalists do. That is to say, any use of the law to criminalize the publication of secrets.”
No charges have been filed against any members of the military of their families, with the exception of Pvt. Bradley Manning, who was charged with delivering massive caches of documents to WikiLeaks. There was some speculation weeks ago that the US may try to accuse Assange of coaxing Manning into the intelligence leak, but he has denied even hearing Manning's name until after it became a news item.