U.S. looks beyond espionage to deal with Wikileaks

WASHINGTON Mon Dec 6, 2010 12:29pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Attorney General Eric Holder said on Monday the Obama administration was considering using laws in addition to the U.S. Espionage Act to possibly prosecute the release of sensitive government information by WikiLeaks.

"That is certainly something that might play a role, but there are other statutes, other tools at our disposal," Holder told reporters.

The Espionage Act dates back to 1917 and was focused on making it illegal to obtain national defense information for the purpose of harming the United States. Holder described the law as "pretty old" and lawmakers are considering updating it in the wake of the leak.

WikiLeaks has released to news outlets and on the Internet hundreds of internal U.S. diplomatic messages, some of which contained classified information that embarrassed the Obama administration and foreign governments.

Some legal experts have said it would be difficult for the Obama administration to prosecute WikiLeaks or its founder Julian Assange, who is an Australian citizen, for espionage.

Other parts of U.S. law make it easier to prosecute people for unauthorized disclosure of certain classified information. Assange and WikiLeaks, however, could argue they are akin to a news organization protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Holder also said that he authorized a number of unspecified actions as part of the criminal probe the Justice Department is conducting into the WikiLeaks matter.

"I authorized just last week a number of things to be done so that we can get to the bottom of this and hold people accountable," Holder said. He repeatedly refused to elaborate whether that would include search warrants.

"I personally authorized a number of things last week and that's an indication of the seriousness with which we take this matter and the highest level of involvement at the Department of Justice," he said.

He also declined to say whether the Obama administration could try to shut down the WikiLeaks site. The organization has had to switch to overseas web hosting services after Amazon.com last week terminated their arrangement.

"I don't want to get into what our capabilities are," Holder said. "We are looking at all the things we can do to try to stem the flow of this information."

(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, editing by Paul Simao)

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