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Will the U.S. prosecute Julian Assange?

From Joe Sterling, CNN
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Warrant out for WikiLeaks founder
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Ecuador's president denies a formal invitation was made to Assange
  • CNN's legal analyst said he believes the U.S. has an arrest warrant for WikiLeaks founder
  • White House spokesman declined to comment on that possibility
  • Assange's "celebrity status" may make hiding hard

(CNN) -- U.S. authorities may be looking for just the right moment to try to detain WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is the subject of a wanted-persons alert sent to police agencies around the world, CNN's senior legal analyst said Wednesday.

Assange is wanted in Sweden on suspicion of rape and sexual molestation. The United States, meanwhile, is conducting a criminal investigation into his website's disclosure of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables.

Some U.S. politicians have called for Assange to face charges related to the leaks, and prosecutors already may have obtained a sealed arrest warrant, said Jeffrey Toobin, CNN's senior legal analyst. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs declined to comment on that possibility when asked Wednesday about it on CNN's "American Morning."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called WikiLeaks' disclosure of the documents an attack on America's foreign policy and an attack on the international community.

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"It's certainly my belief, based on what the attorney general said, that they have already got an arrest warrant for him and they are just waiting for the appropriate moment in the appropriate country," Toobin said.

Toobin said Assange can't "rub the United States' nose in committing illegal acts and get away with it" and he can't elude attention because he's become a "huge celebrity."

"His name and picture have been everywhere for weeks. He cannot just disappear the way Daniel Ellsberg could in the Pentagon Papers because Daniel Ellsberg was not a public figure the way Assange is," Toobin said, referring to

the former military analyst who leaked secret Vietnam War-era documents in the early 1970s.

"Assange in many parts of the world is now a very well-known person, and just can't hide in modern life."

WikiLeaks began publishing more than 250,000 diplomatic cables from U.S. embassies around the world Sunday in what it said was the largest-ever disclosure of confidential information.

The cables are to be released over several months, giving the world "an unprecedented insight into the U.S. government's foreign activities," it said.

The disclosure of secret information "puts people's lives in danger, threatens our national security and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems," Clinton has said.

Some legislators have urged U.S. prosecutors to target Assange.

U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-New York, said Assange should be prosecuted for espionage. He also said that the United States should classify WikiLeaks as a terrorist group so that "we can freeze their assets." And he called Assange an enemy

combatant.

On Tuesday, Interpol made public a Red Notice, or international wanted-persons alert, for Assange. It said it was acting "at the request of Swedish authorities who want to question him connection with a number of sexual offenses."

The Red Notice is not an international arrest warrant. It is an advisory and request, issued to 188 member countries to help police forces identify and locate people with a view toward their arrest and extradition, Interpol says.

Many of Interpol's member countries regard a Red Notice as a "valid request for provisional arrest, especially if they are linked to the requesting country via a bilateral extradition treaty," Interpol said.

So does that mean that the police in a country Assange visits will arrest him?

When and if Assange "enters a country that's part of Interpol -- and that's most of the world -- that country will inform Sweden that he's there and Sweden can then start negotiating to get him back," Toobin said.

Toobin also said that it will be easier for the United States to get its hands on Assange if he is arrested in a country like Britain, which has close law-enforcement ties with the United States.

On Monday, Ecuador invited Assange to travel to Quito to discuss documents leaked on the site relating to Ecuador and other Latin American countries, according to that country's foreign ministry.

The ministry also offered to process a request for residency "in accordance with the country's current laws."

"If he could actually get to Ecuador, it would be a lot harder to get him back," Toobin said.

But Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said Tuesday night that his country had not invited Assange for a visit.

Correa said that his country has not made a formal invitation to Assange and that the ministry declaration, made by Deputy Foreign Minister Kintto Lucas, was "spontaneous" and personal in nature.

Laura Donohue, associate professor of law at Georgetown University Law School, told CNN that nations that have extradition agreements with the United States might be willing to hand over Assange because they too see such leaks as detrimental.

Assange has said that "his intent is to harm the United States" -- and that's precisely what the U.S. Espionage Act is intended to address, Donohue said.

Prosecutors would have "to make a tough case in court," she said, because of the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and the press.

The Justice Department said Monday that it is conducting an "active ongoing criminal investigation" into the WikiLeaks' disclosures.

"To the extent that we can find anybody who was involved in the breaking of American law, they will be held responsible," the attorney general said.

Assange's mother, Christine, said her son sees himself as "fighting baddies," but added she was afraid he had gotten "too smart for himself."

"I'm concerned it's gotten too big and the forces that he's challenging are too big," she told The Australian newspaper in an article published Wednesday.

She did not address the rape charges, and said her son was distancing himself from his family for their own safety.

Christine Assange, who bought Julian his first computer when he was 13 but does not own one herself, said her son deserved respect.

"Whether you agree with what Julian does or not, living by what you believe in and standing up for something is a good thing," she said.

The Stockholm Criminal Court issued an international arrest warrant for Assange two weeks ago on probable cause, saying he is suspected of rape, sexual molestation and illegal use of force in separate incidents in August.

Sweden asked Interpol to post the Red Notice after a judge approved a motion to take him into custody.

Assange's London lawyer, Mark Stephens, blasted the Red Notice as "bizarre," "irregular," and comparable to the tactics of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's secret police chief.

Stephens said Assange has volunteered to meet with the Swedish prosecutor, and that his client is being persecuted, not prosecuted.

Assange had prosecutor Marianne Ny's permission to leave the country, Stephens said.

"Bizarrely," Stephens said, Ny had "ignored or rejected those offers of voluntary cooperation," and sought an arrest warrant, adding: "This action is all the more peculiar as she has not even issued a formal summons for his

interrogation or brought charges against Mr. Assange."

The Swedish court ordered Assange, 39, formally arrested in his absence, which requires Swedish authorities anywhere in the world to detain Assange if they come across him. Ny, Sweden's director of prosecutions, had requested the

arrest-in-absence.

"The background is that he has to be heard in this investigation and we haven't been able to get a hold of him to question him," Ny said at the time.

Assange faces five counts that appear related to two incidents, according to the request Ny filed with the court.

He faces a count of rape and one of sexual molestation related to an alleged incident around August 17 in Enkoping, just outside Stockholm. He also faces two counts of sexual molestation between August 13 and 18 in Stockholm, and one

count of illegal use of force between August 13 and 14, also in the capital.

Assange could be sentenced to at least two years in prison if convicted, according to the document.

Assange, an Australian, was rejected for permanent residency in Sweden in October. Swedish Migration Board official Gunilla Wikstrom said his application failed to fulfill all the requirements but declined to give details.

In a November news release, Assange's lawyer Stephens said the sex-crime charges stem from consensual sexual relationships his client had with two women.

"Only after the women became aware of each other's relationships with Mr. Assange did they make their allegations against him," Stephens said in the statement.

Stephens also said neither he nor Assange "have ever received a single written word, at any time, in any form, from Swedish authorities on the Swedish investigation against our client."

It was through the media that they learned much of the information about the investigation, Stephens said. He called it "a clear contravention to Article 6 of the European Convention, which states that every accused must be informed promptly, in a language which he understands and in detail, of the nature and cause of the accusation against him."

Swedish prosecutors announced over the summer they were investigating Assange in two separate cases of rape and molestation. Ny said then there was reason to believe a crime had been committed, but that more investigation was

necessary before she could make a final decision.

Assange has maintained he is not guilty, telling the Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera this year that the accusations were a "smear campaign" related to the fact that the WikiLeaks website had released hundreds of thousands of documents regarding the war in Afghanistan.

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