Legal troubles for Wikileaks founder

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Julian Assange is a wanted man. European authorities say they want to talk to the head of Wikileaks about sexual charges he faces in Sweden. Serious as that is, here in the United States authorities have other legal questions regarding Assange. The questions have to do with the hundreds of thousands of secret US government documents released by Wikileaks. John Bellinger served as a top legal advisor to the US State Department under Condoleezza Rice. He says Assange could face some pretty serious charges if he's ever brought here to the US. They include violating criminal statutes prohibiting the theft of government property and violating US espionage laws. But Bellinger says putting Assange on trial for publishing [elite] government information could be difficult for prosecutors.

John Bellinger: The US government, for example, will have to show that he knew that the release of the information would be expected to be damaging to the United States government. Now, my successor at the State Department under Secretary Clinton wrote a letter to Assange and his lawyers last week, telling him that release of these documents would cause damage to the United States, and asking that the documents be returned. And I'm sure that that letter was not just a nice "pretty please" letter, but it had a specific legal purpose to demonstrate Assange, having been warned, did still go ahead and put these documents up on the web; that this would lay the basis for charges under our criminal statutes.

Mullins: But if the pivotal point here is whether or not Assange knew that it would be damaging to the US government and to national defense to release this information, it seems to me that, so far anyway, it's very subjective as to whether or not it has done or will do any damage. How do they go about proving that?

Bellinger: Well, you've put your finger on why these cases will be quite difficult and why he will certainly make strong arguments to the contrary. That's why these cases can be quite difficult, and why, I think, we have not seen the US government immediately bringing charges

Mullins: Well, as they put together this case and look at what harm has been done or might have been done to national defense and national security in the United States, are we past the point, do you believe, that the release of this information would, if ever, cause any physical harm to anyone who has provided information to the US?

Bellinger: I don't think that we are past that at all. At least, I think that a number of these [cables] - and they are still coming out - have got sources of information in them that are not just foreign government officials who might be embarrassed by the information that comes out, but by human rights activists, by dissidents, by people who are lower level inside a foreign government and who could very well, if their names come out in the cables be subject to physical harm when it is seen that they were talking to members of the US government.

Mullins: Right now, Mr. Assange's whereabouts are unknown; could he potentially be extradited to the United States to face charges?

Bellinger: Potentially, yes, depending on what country he might be found in, whether there is an extradition treaty between the United States and that country. If, for example, he were found in Britain, we do have a very strong extradition relationship and treaty with Britain, and we extradite individuals back and forth.

Mullins: Alright, John Bellinger who served as a legal advisor to the State Department from 2005-2009. He is now with the law firm Arnold & Porter in Washington, DC. Thanks very much.

Bellinger: Thanks so much. Take care, Lisa.