The next court hearing for Julian Assange in London is scheduled to begin around 930am ET on Thursday. Assange is currently being held in London's Wandsworth prison (that's him in the van, above); Sweden wants him extradited over alleged sex crimes.
The US wants him for something else. In the New York Times this evening, Charlie Savage reports on the case federal prosecutors are trying to build against Assange, over the publication of classified government documents. Key to their efforts would be any evidence that Assange worked to encourage or assist Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst suspected of leaking the data (he's in the Marine brig in Quantico, VA). Snip from the NYT story:
Justice Department officials are trying to find out whether Mr. Assange encouraged or even helped the analyst, Pfc. Bradley Manning, to extract classified military and State Department files from a government computer system. If he did so, they believe they could charge him as a conspirator in the leak, not just as a passive recipient of the documents who then published them.
Among materials prosecutors are studying is an online chat log in which Private Manning is said to claim that he had been directly communicating with Mr. Assange using an encrypted Internet conferencing service as the soldier was downloading government files. Private Manning is also said to have claimed that Mr. Assange gave him access to a dedicated server for uploading some of them to WikiLeaks.
Wired's Kevin Poulsen, who has been covering this story longer than anyone, pointed out on Twitter that "The Times missed it, but we did publish that section of the chats. Beginning [with] 'preferably openssl the file with aes-256." And as Poulsen noted, if Assange was not in communication with Manning during the period in which Manning had access to SIPRnet (the military network on which these documents were made available) the government has no case. "If Assange is indicted," Poulsen wrote, "I predict it won't be the Espionage Act. It'll be conspiracy to violate 18 USC 1030(a)(1)."
Related: Human Rights Watch today became the latest human rights group to condemn the US government's plans to attempt to prosecute Assange and Wikileaks.
Prosecuting WikiLeaks for publishing leaked documents would set a terrible precedent that will be eagerly grasped by other governments, particularly those with a record of trying to muzzle legitimate political reporting.
A statement on the Wikileaks situation by journalists' advocacy group PEN is here.
(Photo: A van carrying WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange enters Wandsworth prison in south west London December 14, 2010. A British judge granted bail of 200,000 pounds, about $317,400, on Tuesday for his release. Prosecutors, representing Swedish authorities, quickly said they would appeal against the bail decision and Judge Howard Riddle said Assange must remain in custody until a new hearing is held within 48 hours. REUTERS/Andrew Winning.)