The United States struck its first blow against WikiLeaks today after Amazon.com (NSDQ: AMZN) pulled the plug on hosting the whistleblowing website in an apparent reaction to heavy political pressure. The main website and a sub-site devoted to the diplomatic documents were unavailable from the US and Europe on Wednesday, as Amazon servers refused to acknowledge requests for data. The plug was pulled as the influential senator and chairman of the homeland security committee Joe Lieberman called for a boycott of the site by US companies.
“(Amazon’s) decision to cut off WikiLeaks now is the right decision and should set the standard for other companies WikiLeaks is using to distribute its illegally seized material,” he said in a statement. “I call on any other company or organization that is hosting WikiLeaks to immediately terminate its relationship with them.”
WikiLeaks tweeted in response: “WikiLeaks servers at Amazon ousted. Free speech the land of the free–fine our $ are now spent to employ people in Europe.”
The development came amid increasingly angry and polarised political opinion in America over WikiLeaks, with some conservatives calling for the organisation’s founder, Julian Assange, to be executed as a spy.
Availability of his website has been patchy since Sunday, when it started to come under a series of internet-based attacks by unknown hackers. WikiLeaks dealt with the attacks in part by moving to servers run by Amazon Web Services, which is self-service.
Amazon.com would not comment on its relationship with WikiLeaks or whether it forced the site to leave. Messages seeking comment from WikiLeaks were not immediately returned.
The fury building up among rightwingers in the US, ranging from the potential Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to conservative blog sites such as Red State, contrasts with a measured response from the Obama administration.
The White House, the state department and the Pentagon continued to denounce the leaks, describing them as “despicable”. But senior administration officials, with a sense of weary resignation, also called on people to put the leaks into context and insisted they had not done serious damage to US relations.
The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, interviewed on television, shrugged aside as “ridiculous” a call by Assange, interviewed by Time (NYSE: TWX) magazine, via Skype from an undisclosed location, for the resignation of the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, over an order to spy on the United Nations.
“I’m not entirely sure why we care about the opinion of one guy with one website,” Gibbs said. “Our foreign policy and the interests of this country are far stronger than his one website.”
John Kerry, the Democratic head of the Senate foreign relations committee, on Sunday denounced the leaks but he sounded more sanguine at an event in Washington on Tuesday night.
He said there was a “silver lining” in that it was now clear where everyone stood on Iran. “Things that I have heard from the mouths of King Abdullah [of Saudi Arabia] and Hosni Mubarak [Egyptian president] and others are now quite public,” Kerry said. He went on to say there was a “consensus on Iran”.
But others, particularly rightwingers, are seeking retribution, with Assange as the prime target. Legal experts in the US were divided over whether the US could successfully prosecute Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act. Sceptics said that the US protections for journalists would make such a prosecution difficult and also cited pragmatic issues, such as the difficulty of extraditing Assange.
Huckabee, who was among the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and is likely to stand again in 2012, told the Politico website: “Whoever in our government leaked that information is guilty of treason, and I think anything less than execution is too kind a penalty.”
His later comments suggest he had in mind Bradley Manning, the US private in Iraq who is suspected of leaking the information and is under arrest in Virginia, rather than Assange.
Another potential Republican candidate for the presidency, Sarah Palin, had earlier called for Assange to be hunted down.
Conservative blogsites and commentators are full of ire directed at Assange, and criticism of the Obama administration for its seeming inability to do anything about it.
Typical is a blog by lexington_concord on Red State, a popular rightwing site, in which the writers says Assange is a spy.
“Under the traditional rules of engagement he is thus subject to summary execution and my preferred course of action would [be] for Assange to find a small calibre round in the back of his head.”
The attorney general, Eric Holder, earlier this week hinted at legal action but did not clarify whether his words were aimed at Manning or Assange. A department of justice spokeswoman failed to clarify this yesterday: “He [Holder] said the department would pursue those to be found violating the law.” She added she was not commenting on the scope or direction of the investigation.
The Pentagon press secretary, Geoff Morrell, interviewed on Fox, suggested Holder’s reference had been to Assange. Asked why the US was not mounting a cyberattack on WikiLeaks, Morrell said the disclosures were awkward and embarrassing but these were not sufficient grounds for offensive action.
He referred back to comments made the previous day by the defence secretary, Robert Gates, who attempted to put the leaks in perspective. Gates said: “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for US foreign policy: I think fairly modest.”
A former defence secretary under Bill Clinton, William Cohen, echoed Gates, saying that the information was probably not fatal. Cohen joined the chorus calling for Assange to be prosecuted, provided he can be found.
“He may be hiding in a cave with Osama bin Laden. We don’t know where he is but I am confident we will find him in the near future. He will be arrested and brought to justice,” Cohen said.
Ruth Wedgwood, a former federal prosecutor and Johns Hopkins law professor, said, in an email exchange, that Assange, an Australian, could prosecuted. “A person who steals or knowingly receives and transmits protected national security information is not exempt from US criminal law merely because he is foreigner. The Espionage Act has been used to prosecute foreign defendants as well as Americans.
“Freedom of the press and the First Amendment would not shelter someone who deliberately steals tens of thousands of closely-held communications containing national security and defence information, and wantonly publishes them to both friends and foes alike, with heedless disregard for the damage that is caused.”
Floyd Abrams, the constitutional expert who has argued before the supreme court on the First Amendment, which enshrines press freedom, was more sceptical. He said the government had a plausible case under the Espionage Act, which is phrased very broadly.
The government had looked in 1971 at prosecution of the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) over the Pentagon Papers leak and decided against. “Here I think it is a closer call. The documents are much more current and they have the potential to do more harm, for example the reference to the King of Saudi Arabia urging the US to bomb Iran,” Abrams said in an phone interview.
“I think for the government it must be a close call. On the one hand, the leaks are of such magnitude and involve topics of such sensitivity and currency, it must be tempting to consider prosecution but on the other hand the government would be forced to address difficult and sensitive issues of whether a journalist could be accused of violating the law.”
He added that Assange was not a journalist but does some of the things associated with journalism.
Another legal expert, Scott Silliman, a professor at the Duke University School of Law, said: “A US prosecution of Assange would be possible, but it would be fraught with problems for the government. The applicable statute, section 793(e) of the Espionage Act, is somewhat ambiguous when dealing with a case of this type where the accused claims to be part of or allied with the media. Further, there will probably be difficulties in having Assange extradited to the United States for trial.”
This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.