For over three hours on December 16th, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on legal and constitutional issues raised by WikiLeaks. The hearing focused on the Espionage Act and whether the government could prosecute Julian Assange and others affiliated with the organization or not. The hearing also focused on the limits of the law and how the U.S. could adjust the classification process to guard itself from future "attacks" from WikiLeaks.
The seven-person panel included: Abbe D. Lowell, a partner with McDermott Will & Emery LLP in Washington, D.C.; Kenneth L. Wainstein, a partner with O'Melveny & Myers LLP in Washington, D.C.; Geoffrey R. Stone, a professor and Former Dean of the University of Chicago Law School; Gabriel Schoenfeld, Ph.D., a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Thomas S. Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, Stephen I. Vladeck, a Professor of Law at American University Washington College Law; and Ralph Nader, a legal advocate and author.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers: Calls for "Criminal Prosecutions or Other Extreme Measures Make Me Uncomfortable"
John Conyers chaired the hearing, which was likely his last hearing as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. In his opening statement, he uttered words that few Democrats have been able to muster the courage to say:
"In the 1989 case of Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court set forth one of the fundamental principles of our democracy: 'If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.' That was Justice William Brennan, a man who understood the founding principles of our nation..."
"...There is no doubt that WikiLeaks is very unpopular right now. Many feel that the WikiLeaks publication was offensive. But being unpopular is not a crime, and publishing offensive information is not either. And the repeated calls from politicians, journalists, and other so-called experts crying out for criminal prosecutions or other extreme measures make me very uncomfortable.
Indeed, when everyone in this town is joined together calling for someone's head, that is it a pretty strong sign we need to slow down and take a closer look..."
"...the desire to respond to a controversy like this with new legislation is very understandable. And as many panelists will testify, the Committee should take a close look at these issues and consider whether changes in law are needed.
But let us not be hasty, and let us not legislate in a climate of fear or prejudice. For, in such an atmosphere, it is our constitutional freedoms and our cherished civil rights that are the first to be sacrificed in the false service of our national security."
Nader Warns Obama's and Bush's Military and Foreign Policies Have Put Us at Greater Risk Than WikiLeaks
Much of the hearing raised alarms or was cautionary about taking drastic measures.
"I'm very disturbed by the reaction of Attorney General Holder. I think he's reacting to political pressure and he's starting to fix the law to meet the enforcement policy. And, that's very dangerous," Nader testified. "He said the other day, 'The national security of the United States has been put at risk, the lives of the people who work for the American people have been put at risk, and the people themselves have been put at risk by these actions that I believe are arrogant, misguided, and ultimately not helpful in any way,' referring to the WikiLeaks disclosures via the New York Times and The Guardian and other newspapers. Those very words could apply to the Obama Administration and the Bush Administration's military and foreign policy. They have put us at greater risk."
Disseminating Information is "Classic Journalism"
Oddly, Lowell, a man who served as Chief Investigative Counsel to the Minority in the impeachment proceedings of President Clinton and who represented Sam Waksal of ImClone, Gary Condit during the Chandra Levy investigation and currently represents employees at American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), who are being investigated for allegedly disclosing classified information, gave a pretty good argument for caution when going after WikiLeaks. Lowell contended, "In American history, the function of gathering information from the government by whatever source and disseminating it to the public is classic journalism."