Don’t use archaic spy law

December 9, 2010

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WHILE WIKILEAKS founder Julian Assange damaged America’s relations with other countries by releasing some 250,000 diplomatic cables, any attempt to prosecute him under an archaic antispying law would do more harm than good.

In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal this week, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California called for Assange to be “vigorously prosecuted’’ under the Espionage Act of 1917. While Assange has not been accused of breaking into the government’s leaky computer networks to steal the cables, his organization was the conduit in making the documents public. Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, argues that Assange violated the 1917 law, which forbids the possession or transmission of “information relating to the national defense which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.’’

The law is a relic of World War I anxieties, and its very breadth helps explain why it has been used so rarely. It could all too easily be exploited to trample rights Americans take for granted — especially freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The law is vague enough that it could have been used against the journalists who exposed the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq, or similar instances of wrongdoing.

Assange has taken the doctrine of total transparency far enough to make traditional diplomacy nearly impossible, so it’s easy to see why federal officials would look for a way to prosecute him. But the 1917 Espionage Act isn’t it. Rather, it’s a bad law that should be repealed or modified, perhaps in a way that would target future Assanges without jeopardizing legitimate speech or reporting.