Sen. Lieberman suggests NY Times violated Espionage Act

Michael Calderone

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman has been blasting WikiLeaks over the past week and successfully pressured to kick the organization's content off its servers.

Lieberman kept up the attack on Tuesday. During a Fox News interview, Lieberman claimed that WikiLeaks is responsible for the "most serious violation of the Espionage Act in our history" and should be indicted in a U.S. court. But Lieberman then suggested that news organizations that published leaked material — originally obtained by WikiLeaks — may have also violated the Espionage Act.

"I'm not here to make a final judgment on that," Lieberman said. "But to me the New York Times has committed at least an act of bad citizenship, but whether they have committed a crime, I think that bears very intensive inquiry by the Justice Department."  You can watch a clip of the Lieberman interview here, via Business Insider.

"We believe that our decision to publish was responsible journalism, legal, and important to a democratic society," Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha told The Cutline, noting that the paper's editors addressed such issues in their note to readers that accompanied the WikiLeaks stories.

Lieberman and other politicians have been grabbing headlines lately for denouncing WikiLeaks and talking about throwing the site's editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, in jail. But legal scholars are quick to point out the difficulty in actually shutting down the online organization or successfully trying Assange for espionage.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Kevin Bankston recently told Politico that "the reason the government hasn't acted to take down WikiLeaks is it knows, as does every First Amendment scholar, that would run afoul of the Supreme Court's decision in the Pentagon Papers case." In that ruling, the high court found in favor of the New York Times' publication of leaked military reports on the Vietnam War.

Lieberman isn't the only senator talking about espionage. California's Diane Feinstein similarly argued in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that Assange should be tried under the 1917 act.

Salon's Glenn Greenwald shot back at the Assange critics who are invoking the Espionage Act. Greenwald pointed out that "every line of pro-prosecution rationale cited by Feinstein applies equally to journalists …  especially the newspapers from around the world which are publishing all of the same diplomatic cables as WikiLeaks is, and which are publishing them before WikiLeaks even does."

There's a common misconception in the coverage on WikiLeaks  —  that the organization simply dumped 250,000 State Dept. cables online. That's not the case. WikiLeaks has published less than 1,000 cables, and Greenwald is correct in noting that news organizations actually vetted the cables and published them before WikiLeaks put them online.

For that reason, Greenwald asked, "how can it possibly be that WikiLeaks should be prosecuted for espionage, but not the New York Times, or the Guardian, or any other newspaper that publishes these cables?"

Assange also questioned Tuesday why his organization— rather than news organizations publishing the material — is the one dealing with the "most vicious attacks and accusations from the U.S. government and its acolytes."

WikiLeaks, a shadowy organization operating primarily overseas, is an easy target for U.S. political leaders. But Lieberman and other senators talking up the Espionage Act may find it much tougher getting support to go after the Times, or any news organization that relies on leaked documents to inform the public.