WikiLeaks founder’s lawyer claims U.S. prosecutors are poised to charge him with spying

By David Gardner
Last updated at 6:05 PM on 10th December 2010

America is set to bring spying charges against jailed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, claims his lawyer.

She believes U.S. prosecutors are finalising their case against the 39-year-old behind the publication of more than 250,000 secret diplomatic messages.

Jennifer Robinson said she understands U.S. charges are ‘imminent’.

U.S. Justice Department officials refused to make any comment last night.

Though he appears to have committed no crime in the States, the administration is under enormous pressure to find some way of punishing the Australian for unleashing a stream of diplomatic embarrassments on to the internet.

Any prosecution would probably have to be started under the auspices of the Espionage Act, which makes it a crime to receive national defence information if it is known to have been obtained illegally and could be used ‘to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.’

Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed earlier this week that he had ordered a criminal probe and claimed the leaks had put America at risk.

‘We have a very serious, active, ongoing investigation that is criminal in nature. I authorised just last week a number of things to be done so that we can hopefully get to the bottom of this and hold people accountable, as they should be,’ he said.

Mr Assange is still behind bars in London awaiting an extradition hearing on charges that he raped two women in Sweden.

Depending on the outcome of the hearing, the U.S. would then have to launch another extradition bid either in Sweden or the UK.

Although America has extradition treaties with both countries, the process is often lengthy and is likely to take months.

The U.S. has never used the law to charge a recipient who has published classified information.

But a senior legal aide said the government might argue that WikiLeaks is functioning as a kind of storehouse, gathering and maintaining the classified material rather than acting as a traditional media outlet.

Legal experts in Washington claimed an alternative would be to charge Mr Assange with theft of government property. The law makes it a crime for anyone who receives property known to have been stolen with intent to ‘convert to his own use or gain.’

It was used in 1984 to prosecute a U.S. naval intelligence analyst who was jailed for leaking photos of a Soviet aircraft carrier to Britain’s Jane’s Defence Weekly magazine.

Ms Robinson said the WikiLeaks boss is being held in solitary confinement with restricted access to his lawyers.

‘This means he is under significant surveillance but also means he has more restrictive conditions than other prisoners. Considering the circumstances, he was incredibly positive and upbeat,’ she said yesterday.

The latest development emerged as another website claimed it was launching on Monday as a rival to WikiLeaks.

Former WikiLeaks employee Daniel Domschelt-Berg said the new German-based site, called OpenLeaks, would also help anonymous sources publish sensitive material online.

The move follows the arrest of a teenage ‘hacktivist’ in Holland over crippling web attacks on Mastercard and Paypal as the cyber war between WikiLeaks activists and its opponents intensified.

The 16-year-old is alleged to be part of internet campaign group Anonymous which masterminded a string of digital assaults on companies that dropped the whistle-blowing website as a customer.

The group is also under investigation by British police in a bid to snare UK-based cyber cells.

A source said: ‘We have been aware of the group Anonymous for some months now and have an ongoing investigation into their activities in the UK.

‘No arrests have yet been made concerning the recent attacks.’

The arrest came as it was revealed that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, 39, has been transferred to an isolation cell in London’s tough Wandsworth Prison – where he has been BARRED from using the internet.

And with little to pass time but watch TV, Assange has complained about the quality of British daytime shows.

Solicitor Mark Stephens described his mood as ‘quite chipper’ despite being forced to spend his days watching shows like Loose Women and Bargain Hunt.

Mr Stephens said: ‘He doesn’t have access to a computer, even without an internet connection, or to writing material.

‘He’s got some files but doesn’t have any paper to write on and put them in.’

The most famous inmate at the Victorian jail met his legal team on Thursday after being refused bail on Tuesday.

He underwent a mandatory medical test to ensure he wasn’t a suicide risk before spending his first night in the Onslow centre, which usually houses sex offenders and other vulnerable prisoners.

Assange, who was born in Australia, has also met officials from the Australian high commission.

His team of lawyers will try to secure bail for him at Westminster Magistrates on Tuesday.

But his incarceration has only spurred on thousands of ‘hacktivists’ who have launched a campaign of revenge against companies who dropped WikiLeaks links from their sites under the banner ‘Operation Payback’.

Whitehall ramped up its defences against a cyber attack as ‘hacktivists’ continued their assault on perceived enemies of WikiLeaks’ efforts to leak secret information into the public domain.

Specialists are monitoring every Whitehall website after the ­hackers shut down the Swedish government site in revenge for the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

But today WikiLeaks sought to distance itself from the attacks claiming no affiliation to Anonymous.

A statement on its website said: ‘These denial of service attacks are believed to have originated from an Internet gathering known as Anonymous.

This group is not affiliated with Wikileaks. There has been no contact between any Wikileaks staffer and anyone at Anonymous.

“WikiLeaks has not received any prior notice of any of Anonymous’ actions.”

The electronic attack failed, but the group behind the hacking – which calls itself Anonymous – said it would continue to target computer systems around the world.Whitehall computer security analysts are increasingly concerned that the UK will be next and are now on permanent alert.

If successful, an attack on Amazon, the UK’s biggest online retailer, could have cost it millions in the run-up to Christmas.

Yesterday, having already crashed MasterCard payment systems around the world, they also attacked Amazon because it had removed WikiLeaks information from its computer servers.

The electronic attack failed, but the group behind the hacking – which calls itself Anonymous – said it would continue to target computer systems around the world.Whitehall computer security analysts are increasingly concerned that the UK will be next and are now on permanent alert.

If successful, an attack on Amazon, the UK’s biggest online retailer, could have cost it millions in the run-up to Christmas.

A self-appointed spokesman for Operation Payback vowed Amazon was in its sights.

Giving his name as ‘Cold Blood’, the 22-year-old software engineer told the BBC: ‘In recent months and years we’ve seen governments and the EU trying to creep in and limit the freedom of the internet.

‘Our main targets are Amazon, MasterCard and PayPal (the online payment service).

‘We feel that they have bowed to government pressure.’

Other members of Anonymous later posted messages dissociating the group from Cold Blood. Visa’s corporate website was ­suffering ‘intermittent’ disruption yesterday following a temporary shutdown on Wednesday night. A spokesman said customers were not affected.

MasterCard’s website was disrupted for around six hours on Wednesday, with thousands of customers unable to make payments.

Dutch prosecutors said last night they have arrested a 16-year-old boy suspected of involvement in the WikiLeaks cyber attacks on websites ‘including MasterCard and PayPal, among others’.

The youth’s name was not released and it was not clear how important a role he is suspected of playing in the attacks.

But the U.N.’s top human rights official raised the alarm today over officials’ and corporations’ moves to cut off WikiLeaks’ funding and starve it of server space – something she described as “potentially violating WikiLeaks’ right to freedom of expression.”

Navi Pillay also expressed surprise at the scale of the online attacks that have targeted major American financial players – in some cases denying access to their websites for hours at a time.

‘It’s truly what media would call a cyber-war. It’s just astonishing what is happening,”

Yesterday WikiLeaks continued to leak controversial diplomatic cables online even though Mr Assange, 39, is in custody facing deportation over claims that he sexually assaulted two women in Sweden.

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