The most extreme attacks have come from prominent Republicans including Sarah Palin, who has likened Mr. Assange to an al-Qaida operative; Newt Gingrich, who dubbed him an information terrorist and Mike Huckabee, who called for his execution.

The outcry against Julian Assange is intensifying in the U.S., drawing a rare degree of political consensus across the spectrum from politicians and pundits who have cast the WikiLeaks founder in the role of a common enemy.

In the past few days the calls for action against Mr. Assange have grown steadily louder and more shrill, with leading Republicans labelling him a terrorist and top liberal Democratic politicians, albeit in more moderate language, also calling for his prosecution.

The highly unusual bi-partisanship of the hounding of Mr. Assange has led some free speech campaigning groups to warn of a “chilling effect” in which the threats of legal action are already having an impact on the open spirit of the internet.

The most extreme attacks have come from prominent Republicans including Sarah Palin, who has likened Mr. Assange to an al-Qaida operative; Mitch McConnell the Republican leader in the Senate who called him a “hi-tech terrorist“; Newt Gingrich, who dubbed him an information terrorist and said he should be arrested as an “enemy combatant“; and Mike Huckabee, who called for his execution.

Mr. Assange was also attacked by leading Democrats such as Dianne Feinstein, who said he should be charged under the U.S. espionage act and John Kerry, who has called for the law to be changed to allow a prosecution of WikiLeaks.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and author of Necessary Secrets, said the cross-party baying put the Obama administration in a difficult place. “There is a huge amount of pressure on them to do something about WikiLeaks.” This week Joe Lieberman, the independent senator who has long been an opponent of WikiLeaks, widened the net when he accused the New York Times of an “act of bad citizenship” by publishing versions of the embassy cables and called on the justice department to hold a “very intensive inquiry” into whether the paper had committed a crime.

Mr. Schoenfeld and other experts on the first amendment think it highly unlikely that a prosecution will be brought against the New York Times - no news outlet has ever been charged under the espionage act and the supreme court ruled out such an action against the same newspaper over the leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

The Times is keeping its head down for the moment, saying only that “We believe that our decision to publish was responsible journalism, legal, and important to a democratic society”. It has also published a long explanation of why it went ahead with the embassy leaks.

So far key Obama administration figures have adopted a more temperate tone than much of the swirling debate around them. Robert Gates, the defence secretary, has called the embassy cables “moderate” in their seriousness and said arguments that they had damaged national security were “fairly significantly overwrought”.

The secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has played a double game, threatening to take “aggressive steps” against disseminators of the cables while emphasising the positive worth of an open internet.

Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney general, who will have the final decision on whether to prosecute, has said he will do everything he can to hold WikiLeaks accountable, but has not specified what that would mean.

“Whether or not new laws are passed to further curb freedom of speech, there is already a chilling effect,” said Steve Rendall of the media watchdog FAIR.

There is already evidence that some people who were willing to donate to WikiLeaks in support of the site’s freedom of information work have now stopped doing so for fear of being arrested as terrorist funders.

Bloggers pointed out that if Feinstein’s desire to wield the espionage act against WikiLeaks were followed through, it would have a powerful deadening effect on mainstream media outlets’ efforts to report on national security matters.

However, some at the coal face of internet publishing say that they are unfazed by the current furore. John Young, whose website cryptome.org has published about 60,000 classified and non-classified documents over the past 14 years, believes the storm will pass. “This is just typical arm-waving and yelling. If anything, this will just further wind people up to oppose authority and send in more documents.”

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010

More In: International | News