WikiLeaks and Assange are unpopular and even hated in some circles. Senator Joe Lieberman, were he president, would long ago have begun the extradition. "I think it's the most serious violation of the Espionage Act in our history," he recently told FOX News. But let's not let the impulse to punish WikiLeaks indict not just Mr. Assange but the editors of the New York Times, sympathetic bloggers, and anyone else around the world who mirrors leaked materials.
Prosecution of WikiLeaks would hurt, if it not destroy, the credibility of the United States in claiming to be the world's most vital advocate of an open Internet. It would send the dangerous signal that the United States only claims to uphold the virtues of an open Internet and free speech -- until it decides it doesn't like a particular website. There could hardly be a worse moment to send that message, to be telling the Arab world: Do as we say, not as we do.
Foreign concerns aside, the Obama administration must also consider its own duties to uphold the Constitution. Lest we forget, the last administration to champion the view that the publishers of leaked materials are criminals was, of course, the Nixon administration, which took this position in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case -- and lost. Were it to go forward, the prosecution of WikiLeaks would force the Obama administration to go to court and argue that First Amendment protects only certain kinds of speech. While Nixon himself would certainly be pleased to hear that Barack Obama has adopted his campaign against the First Amendment, I sincerely doubt Obama's supporters feel that way.
For the Obama administration, there lies here a real danger here of repeating the mistakes made by the previous White House. George W. Bush's team believed that that the United States could disregard human rights when it was convenient and somehow still maintain America's international reputation as the foremost agent of freedom and democracy. The Bushies were wrong. Let's hope Obama's team won't make the same mistake. As the saying goes, if you want to talk the talk, it helps to walk the walk.