Pfc. Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, the two men at the center of the WikiLeaks controversy, have achieved hero status among their allies, but continue to be seen as villains by others.
This week, Manning completes six months in the brig at the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, charged with disclosing government secrets. He is suspected of being the source of the secret government files released in recent months by the WikiLeaks website. His supporters, who argue that leaking government documents is a public service, stage regular demonstrations at the front gate to protest Manning's detention.
Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is also being detained, though under far more comfortable conditions. He is fighting extradition to Sweden for questioning regarding allegations of sexual assault and is being held under house arrest at a country manor in Britain. Assange, too, has been celebrated as a champion of government transparency, but he could face criminal prosecution in the United States, possibly on charges of espionage.
Searching For A Link?
Both men are back in the news this week. British police announced Wednesday they have arrested five men suspected of involvement in cyberattacks against companies that had broken ties with WikiLeaks. The men are believed to be members of an online collective known as "Anonymous," which has supported Assange and his WikiLeaks organization.
Manning's treatment at the Quantico base, meanwhile, prompted a complaint from his lawyer, David Coombs. He protested Manning's continued placement in "prevention of injury" status, allegedly because he is a threat to himself. In the complaint, Coombs pointed out that Manning is kept alone in his cell for 23 hours a day, under constant surveillance, and is subject to other severe restrictions.
In a news briefing on Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell vigorously disputed Coombs' allegations.
"[Manning] is being provided well-balanced, nutritious meals three times a day," Morrell said. "He receives visitors and mail and can write letters. He routinely meets with doctors, as well as his attorney. He is allowed to make telephone calls. And he is being treated just like every other detainee in the brig."
In response, Coombs pointed out that no other prisoner in the Quantico brig is on a "prevention of injury" status, with the restrictions that go with it.
In Britain, Assange has his own theory for why Manning may be getting especially harsh treatment. He thinks Manning is being pressured to say Assange encouraged him to steal secret government files.
"We've recently heard calls to try and set up a plea deal with Bradley Manning to testify against me, personally, to say that we engaged in some kind of conspiracy to commit espionage," Assange said in a recent interview on MSNBC. "It's absolute nonsense."
In fact, the U.S. government is looking to see whether Assange might be prosecuted in this country for publishing classified documents. If it could be shown that Assange communicated with Manning about the theft of secret documents, that might be a basis for prosecution.
NBC News this week reported that government investigators have so far found no evidence of a connection between Manning and Assange.
Assange: 'I'd Never Heard Of' Manning
In his MSNBC interview, recorded last month, Assange said that people who leak secrets to his WikiLeaks group do so anonymously (the group reportedly uses an encrypted Internet "drop box"). And he denied having any conversations with Manning about leaking documents.
"That's not how our technology works or how our organization works," Assange said. "I'd never heard of the name 'Bradley Manning' before it appeared in the media."
Pentagon spokesman Morrell, responding to questions about the NBC report on Wednesday, challenged the suggestion that the case against Assange is proving to be weak, for lack of a connection between him and Manning.
"This case is being taken extremely seriously by the investigators, both here in the Defense Department and at the Department of Justice," Morrell said. "So any pronouncements about a connection or lack of connection, those that have been found or are yet to be found, are just premature."
If Assange were himself not a party to the theft of classified U.S. files, he could be charged simply for publishing them. Difficult, though not impossible, says Jeffrey Smith, a Washington lawyer who has served as an Army judge advocate general and as general counsel at the CIA.
"It would arguably be easier if they could establish a link between the removal of the documents by Manning and the transmission of those documents to Assange," Smith said in an interview, "but I don't think the absence of that link is fatal to the prosecution of Assange."
There is no indication yet that the U.S. government is considering espionage charges against The New York Times, even though the newspaper, like WikiLeaks, published stolen classified documents. Prosecuting a news organization like The Times would be virtually without precedent in the United States. If government lawyers go after WikiLeaks, they would probably argue that it is not a news organization.
In an article released this week on its website, Times editor Bill Keller wrote that the newspaper has regarded Assange "as a source, not as a partner or collaborator."