By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In presenting their case that WikiLeaks' alleged U.S. Army leaker Bradley Manning should face a court martial, military prosecutors this week revealed new evidence purporting to link Manning to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
But there is heated debate inside the U.S. government on the wisdom and legality of any move by U.S. authorities to bring criminal charges against the Australian-born Assange.
WikiLeaks supporters believe that, by presenting evidence of apparent contacts between Manning and Assange, the Obama administration is laying groundwork for a Justice Department filing of U.S. charges against Assange.
A federal grand jury in Virginia has been investigating Assange for months.
Assange and his supporters claim U.S. authorities are intent on prosecuting him under the Espionage Act and that one of their hidden objectives in bringing harsh charges against Manning - he could be imprisoned for life if convicted - is to convince the former Army intelligence analyst to testify against Assange.
But current and former U.S. officials close to the case, who asked for anonymity, said there have been intense discussions inside the U.S. government about the wisdom of prosecuting Assange and about the difficulties of bringing him to trial and convicting him.
The Obama administration has been more aggressive than its recent predecessors, including President George W. Bush's administration, in using the law against alleged leakers of government secrets.
Some administration officials say they believe charges should be brought against Assange to deter leakers and people who entice them to leak.
During recent sessions of the preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to send Manning to a full court martial, prosecutors have presented testimony that legal experts say could be used to build a case that Assange engaged in contacts with Manning.
Investigators have alleged in testimony that Manning corresponded with an e-mail account which at one point was used by someone Manning identified as Julian Assange. They have also alleged that Manning made repeated searches in a secret government database for the terms WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. Assange has denied direct contact with Manning.
Prominent conservatives and Republicans have demanded tough government action against Assange. Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich suggested Assange was engaged in "terrorism." On Facebook, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin questioned why Assange "was not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders." Former Arkansas governor and Fox News personality Mike Huckabee said the Australian activist should be tried for treason and executed if convicted.
There is no indication that anyone in the Obama administration has sought to go that far, although a former senior administration official, who asked to remain anonymous, said Justice Department officials felt political pressure to shut down Assange and WikiLeaks.
But some current and former Obama administration officials have strongly argued that bringing U.S. criminal charges against Assange would be unwise, counterproductive and a public relations disaster for the United States at a time when Assange and WikiLeaks appear headed towards irrelevance.
"A prosecution of Julian Assange would come at a tremendous cost to the interests and values that (Americans) hold dear," said P.J. Crowley, who resigned as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's chief spokesman after publicly questioning harsh conditions under which the Army was imprisoning Manning.
Crowley said that a prosecution of Assange would "carry some very serious reputational costs" for the U.S. government's image
around the world.
Some U.S. government officials and people who have followed Assange closely said that due to his mercurial behavior, public perceptions of him and WikiLeaks already have suffered grave damage.
London's Guardian newspaper and the New York Times were among the first media outlets to work with WikiLeaks in disseminating stories based on Pentagon and State Department reports that witnesses at the Manning hearing say match those Manning downloaded. Later, both papers had a falling out with Assange that resulted in public exchanges of bitter recriminations.
Assange has also recently acknowledged that, due to defections from WikiLeaks and to boycotts by money transfer services including Visa, MasterCard, PayPal and Western Union, WikiLeaks' ability to receive new leaks has been crippled.
Some officials and outsiders who have followed the case said it might resurrect WikiLeaks' reputation and rally its supporters if the U.S. government were to try to prosecute Assange at a time when his website has dropped out of the spotlight and erstwhile collaborators are denouncing him.
Nick Davies, a journalist for the Guardian who persuaded Assange to collaborate with mainstream media, said a U.S. prosecution of Assange also would be a threat to press freedom. "Julian was engaged in a journalistic operation."
"To pretend that he is a spy - to try to prosecute him with the Espionage Act - would require a serious distortion of the facts. I think global opinion would recognize that the WikiLeaks disclosures caused a great deal of political embarrassment and would see that kind of prosecution as a political abuse of the law."
A former Obama administration official said one reason why no U.S. charges have so far been filed is that a strong faction of experts inside the government, including some lawyers, agrees it would be legally problematic, if not impossible, to distinguish Assange's actions in receiving U.S. secrets from those of a journalist who does likewise.
"The government is very serious about wanting to prosecute him. But they have never been able to find a way to do it. How do you prosecute Julian Assange and not the New York Times? (Prosecutors) can't get around that problem," the former official said.
(Additional reporting by Alina Selyukh and Lily Kuo at Ft. Meade, Maryland; Editing by Warren Strobel and Eric Beech)