An influential US newspaper has condemned alleged plans by the US Department of Justice to charge WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under the Espionage Act of 1917.
In an editorial published today, the Washington Post claimed media outlets had no obligation to comply with government demands for secrecy.
The article repeated suggestions made by Assange himself that he could face prosecution under the archaic Act, condemning the alleged plans as a "misuse" of the legislation.
The Australian journalist, who spends much of his time in Iceland, Sweden and Belgium, told a press conference in London on 27 July that a source "inside the US government" had informed him the authorities were at one point mulling the idea of charging him "as a co-conspirator for espionage".
Fears of a prosecution under the Espionage Act were rumoured to be behind Assange's failure to attend the Hackers On Planet Earth conference in the US earlier in July. Prominent US hacker Jacob Appelbaum, who stood in for Assange at the event, was detained by US customs for questioning over the whereabouts of the site's owner.
The legislation, passed by President Woodrow Wilson during the First World War, was originally intended to prosecute individuals for spying on the US on behalf of foreign powers - but its provisions are so vague that it has been used in recent years to pursue private individuals for obtaining all sorts of information.
The Act makes it a federal crime for anyone who comes into unauthorised possession of "information relating to the national defense" to share it with anyone else.
Criticising WikiLeaks for failing to protect individuals mentioned in the 75,000 secret documents so far outed, the newspaper nevertheless said that prosecuting the site's founder under the Act would set a dangerous precedent:
"The government has no business going after third parties that obtain secret information without committing theft. Media outlets do not have a legal duty to abide by the government's secrecy demands; in the past, publication of classified documents has yielded important disclosures in the public interest."