WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said Friday that the US justice system was suffering from a "calamitous collapse in the rule of law", as Washington reeled from the sensational exposure of vast spy agency surveillance programmes.
Speaking in an interview with AFP at Ecuador's London embassy, where he has been holed up for almost a year, the founder of the whistleblowing website accused the US government of trying to "launder" its activities with regard to the far-reaching electronic spying effort revealed on Thursday.
"The US administration has the phone records of everyone in the United States and is receiving them daily from carriers to the National Security Agency under secret agreements. That's what's come out," said the 41-year-old Australian.
Two damning newspaper exposes have laid bare the extent to which President Barack Obama's intelligence apparatus is scooping up enormous amounts of personal data -- on telephone calls, emails, website visits -- on millions of Americans and foreigners.
Obama has defended the programmes, saying they are legal, necessary to combat terror, and balance security with privacy.
Assange, whose website has enraged Washington by publishing hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables and classified files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the Obama administration was engaged in a bid to "criminalise all national security journalism in the United States".
US soldier Bradley Manning is being court-martialled for leaking the huge cache of government files to WikiLeaks, while there has been an outcry in the US media after the government seized the phone records of journalists at the Associated Press and Fox News in a bid to root out government sources.
Commenting on Washington's spying on journalists and members of the public, as well as his own treatment by US authorities, Assange said: "Over the last ten years the US justice system has suffered from a collapse, a calamitous collapse, in the rule of law.
"We see this in other areas as well -- with how Bradley Manning has been treated in prison, with US drone strikes occurring -- even on American citizens -- with no due process."
Manning's long-awaited military trial finally began on Monday at the Fort Meade military base outside Washington.
Assange blasted the court martial as a "show trial" and warned that the future of journalism was at stake over US prosecutors' argument that by leaking the files, 25-year-old Manning had helped Al-Qaeda.
Aiding the enemy is punishable by death in the US, though prosecutors are not seeking this sentence in Manning's case.
"What's at stake in this trial is the future of press in the United States and in the rest of the world," Assange told AFP.
"They are going for Bradley Manning to erect a precedent that if any person in the US government speaks to a journalist, they are then speaking to the public, they are then speaking to Al-Qaeda.
"They're trying to erect a precedent that speaking to the media is the communicating with the enemy -- a death penalty offence."
Critics say the Obama administration has launched an unprecedented war on government officials who leak information to the media, prosecuting more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined.
"This is an absolutely runaway process," Assange said.
A former computer hacker, Assange has not left the Ecuadoran embassy since June 19 last year, when he walked in claiming asylum in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over alleged sex crimes.
Ecuador granted him asylum but British authorities refuse to allow him safe passage out of the country, leaving him stuck inside amid a diplomatic deadlock.
Ecuador's foreign minister is due to fly to London for talks over Assange with his British counterpart on June 17.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]