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Assange Out On Bail, As U.S. Builds Case

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Julian Assange walked out of prison today and told reporters: It's great to smell the fresh air of London again. A judge released the WikiLeaks founder on bail. Assange is still challenging his extradition to Sweden on rape allegations.

And as NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, authorities in the U.S. are searching for a creative way to prosecute him here.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Federal investigators in Virginia are exploring a wide range of legal options to try to build a criminal case against WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange, but the Justice Department is treading carefully because prosecutors don't want to move too soon or use a legal theory that sets a bad precedent for mainstream media organizations.

Former Justice Department official Ken Wainstein told the House Judiciary Committee today that the stakes couldn't be higher.

Mr. KEN WAINSTEIN: If WikiLeaks and Assange end up facing no charges for their mass document releases, which are about as audacious as I've ever heard of, they will conclude that they're legally invulnerable, they'll redouble their efforts to match or exceed their recent exploits, and copycat operations will sprout up around the Internet.

JOHNSON: U.S. lawmakers from both political parties are offering to rewrite the 100-year-old espionage law to make it easier to prosecute Assange. And others are urging the FBI to concentrate on whether the WikiLeaks leader encouraged the young Army private suspected of leaking secret diplomatic cables.

The argument goes like this: If Assange provided technical help or money, he could be charged with conspiracy or aiding the government leaker. This might be a way to get around a First Amendment defense Assange has already choreographed.

Law Professor Steve Vladeck told lawmakers he still has doubts.

Professor STEVE VLADECK (American University Washington College of Law): It may not be as problematic. It would certainly be as unprecedented. The Espionage Act has not previously been used, to my knowledge, to prosecute someone on an inchoate theory of liability as an aider, abettor or co-conspirator, et cetera.

JOHNSON: And prominent Washington attorney Abbe Lowell says reporters engage in lots of strategies to wheedle information out of government sources all the time.

Mr. ABBE LOWELL (Lawyer): Press people, cajole, encourage, flatter, talk to people in the government all the time. They are actively engaged in trying to find out that which the government does not want to disclose.

JOHNSON: A grand jury in Virginia is reportedly hearing evidence in the WikiLeaks case, but how they'll handle the difficult legal issues could itself remain secret for some time.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.