Julian Assange (Photo by Antonio Marín Segovi via Flickr)

Lawyers for WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, have sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder requesting further information on the Justice Department’s criminal investigation into Assange and WikiLeaks.

Former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, counsel to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) write, “In light of recent reports suggesting the possibility of an ongoing criminal investigation of Mr. Assange and/or WikiLeaks—and the existence of secret grand jury proceedings in the Eastern District of Virginia—we write to assess whether Mr. Assange in fact faces any criminal jeopardy in the United States and to protect his interests in the face of an investigation and/or trial.”

The grand jury exists and has been meeting. It has been confirmed in proceedings in the court martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of releasing classified information to WikiLeaks. It was also confirmed in diplomatic communications between the United States and Australia, which were covered by the Sydney Morning Herald. 

The letter specifically asks for confirmation on whether Assange is a “target or subject of any federal grand jury investigation for alleged violations of the Espionage Act of 1917 and/or other federal criminal law.” It also seeks confirmation on whether the Justice Department plans to “ arrest or extradite Mr. Assange from Sweden or any other country to face current or prospective charges in the United States relating to WikiLeaks and/or his activities as a publisher and journalist.”

Noting the existence of  ”indefinite detention provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, Section 1021 or of the September 21, 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force,” the letter inquires as to whether the Justice Department might be operating under the legal theory that Assange “may have provided ‘substantial support’ to Al Qaeda or ‘associated forces’ by publishing information passed to him by Bradley Manning.”

To what extent the Justice Department considers Assange or WikiLeaks to be legally “an enemy” is important for the lawyers representing WikiLeaks to find out. As Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian recently covered in detail, “A US air force systems analyst who expressed support for WikiLeaks and accused leaker Bradley Manning triggered a formal military investigation last year to determine whether she herself had leaked any documents to the group.” The Air Force interviewed her multiple times to elicit information on her contacts with and support for WikiLeaks. They referred to WikiLeaks, in documents, as an “ant-US or anti-military group.” And the crime she was being investigated for committing was, “Communicating with the Enemy,” an Article 104 offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (the same kind of offense Pfc. Manning allegedly committed).

The letter concludes, “We believe either prosecution or detention of a publisher/media organization would constitute an unwarranted and impermissible intrusion on the First Amendment and set a dangerous precedent.”

For over one hundred days, Assange has been in the Ecuador embassy. The Ecuador government has granted Assange asylum. Assange and the Ecuador government would like to obtain approval from the British government for “safe passage” to Ecuador. If that cannot be obtained because the United Kingdom remains committed to fulfilling Sweden’s request for extradition for questioning on allegations of sexual assault, the Ecuador government would like to find a way to resolve the issue.

Part of resolving the issue would require a presentation of facts and guarantees that Assange would not be extradited from Sweden to the United States if he went to Sweden. And, this letter is just one of a number of steps lawyers and the Ecuador government can take to defend Assange and get him one step closer to freedom from political persecution.