The founder of WikiLeaks said Friday he fears that the United States is getting ready to indict him, but insisted that the secret-spilling site would continue its work despite what he has called a dirty tricks campaign.
Julian Assange spoke from snowbound Ellingham Hall, a supporter's 10-bedroom country mansion where he is confined on bail as he fights Sweden's attempt to extradite him on allegations of rape and molestation. Assange insisted to television interviewers that he was being subjected to a smear campaign and "what appears to be a secret grand jury investigation against me or our organization."
He did not elaborate, but said he had retained an unnamed U.S. law firm to represent him.
Assange has repeatedly voiced concerns that American authorities were getting ready to press charges over WikiLeaks' continuing release of some 250,000 secret State Department cables, which have angered and embarrassed U.S. officials worldwide.
"There has been many calls by senior figures in the United States, including elected ones in the Senate, for my execution, the kidnapping of my staff, the execution of the young soldier, Bradley Manning, who they allege is embroiled in these affairs somehow," Assange said Friday. "That's a very, very serious business. And the United States recently has shown that its institutions seem to failing. They are failing to follow the rule of law and with dealing with a superpower that does not appear to be following the rule of law is a serious business."
U.S. officials are investigating WikiLeaks and considering charges, a case that if pursued could end up pitting the government's efforts to protect sensitive information against press and speech freedoms guaranteed by First Amendment free speech right. The government suspects WikiLeaks received the documents from an Army private, Bradley Manning, who is in the brig on charges of leaking other classified documents to the organization.
A High Court judge in Britainon condition he reside at the 600-acre estate in eastern England, wear an electronic tag and report to police daily. Assange spent more than a week in prison after handing himself in to British police on Dec. 7. He is wanted in Sweden for questioning about sex allegations leveled against him by two women he spent time with while visiting the country in August.
Swedish officials - and the lawyer for the women involved - have denied accusations from Assange and his supporters that the allegations are politically motivated.
Attempts to reach Assange's British lawyers weren't immediately successful Friday.
In an interview Friday on ABC's "Good Morning America," Assange said he had never even heard Manning's name until the press began reporting it, though in his earlier appearance at Ellingham Hall he appeared to come close to acknowledging he was one of WikiLeaks' sources.
There are no restrictions on Assange's Internet use while on bail, even as U.S. authorities consider charges over the leaked cables. The site has released just 1,621 of the more than 250,000 State Department documents it claims to possess, many of them containing critical or embarrassing U.S. assessments of foreign nations and their leaders. And even those cables were vetted by news organizations with expertise on the subjects - and proffered to the U.S. for redactions.
Dressed in a dark gray suit, Assange emerged from London's neo-Gothic High Court building late Thursday following a tense scramble to gather the money and signatures needed to free him. Speaking under a light snowfall amid a barrage of flash bulbs, Assange - who's been out of the public eye for more than a month - told supporters he will continue bringing government secrets to light.
"It's great to smell the fresh air of London again," he said to cheers from outside the court. "I hope to continue my work."
Assange ignored shouted questions from the assembled media.
Later, BBC footage captured the 39-year-old riding in a white armored four-by-four outside the Frontline Club, a venue for journalists owned by his friend and supporter Vaughan Smith. The broadcaster reported that Assange jumped upstairs for a celebratory cocktail at the bar, then went back outside to engage in a brief verbal joust with journalists over the merits of one of the leaked cables.
A few hours later, Assange arrived atAssange was granted conditional bail Tuesday, but prosecutors appealed, arguing that he might abscond. High Court Justice Duncan Ouseley rejected the appeal Thursday, saying Assange "would diminish himself in the eyes of many of his supporters" if he fled."I don't accept that Mr. Assange has an incentive not to attend (court)," Ouseley said. "He clearly does have some desire to clear his name."WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson had said Assange might have to spend one more night behind bars anyway, because of difficulties producing the $316,000 bail pledged by several wealthy supporters, including filmmaker Michael Moore. But lawyers managed to collect the money quickly.The restrictions Ouseley imposed on Assange amount to "virtual house arrest," Hrafnsson said. But he added that Assange can still use Smith's estate as a base for coordinating the publication of the leaked cables."There is a good Internet connection there," he noted.The subject of whether Assange should have Internet access was never raised in court, and CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips reports the WikiLeaks releases continued even during the nine days Assange spent in prison, with the last coming just two hours before his release. "We have seen in the week I have been away that my team is robust," Assange told the BBC outside the Frontline Club. "It does show the resilience of the organization, that it can withstand decapitation attacks."The publication of the cables has angered U.S. government officials, embarrassed allies and nettled rivals. The U.S. State Department says that international partners have curtailed their dealings with Washington as a result of the cable leaks, and have gone on the offense in a bid to limit the diplomatic fallout.Assange insists that publishing the documents was essential to expose government wrongdoing. In particular, he has referred repeatedly to one cable that asked diplomats to gather information on United Nations staff such as their passwords, frequent flier numbers and even biometric information.State Department officials say the cable originated from the U.S. intelligence community and deny Assange's contention that it ordered diplomats to spy. On Thursday, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva continued America's damage-control efforts over the document."I just want to assure everybody we're not collecting data on U.N. officials," Betty E. King told reporters in Geneva.U.S. officials are investigating WikiLeaks and considering charges against Assange, a case that if pursued could end up pitting the government's efforts to protect sensitive information against press and speech freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. The government suspects WikiLeaks received the documents from an Army private, , who is in the brig on charges of leaking other classified documents to the organization.
Australia's prime minister said Thursday that police determined that WikiLeaks. The government had ordered the Australian Federal Police to investigate whether the website had broken local laws in publishing sensitive U.S. diplomatic documents leaked to it because Assange is Australian.
Assange was arrested not because of WikiLeaks, but because Swedish officials are seeking him for questioning on allegations stemming from separate encounters with a pair of women in Sweden over the summer. The women have accused Assange of rape, molestation and unlawful coercion. Assange denies the allegations, which his lawyers say stem from a dispute over "consensual but unprotected sex."
Assange's British lawyer, Mark Stephens, has called the case against him a, and vowed to contest Sweden's attempt to extradite him for questioning.
After his release, Assange said he will "continue to protest my innocence in this matter and to reveal, as we get it, which we have not yet, the evidence from these allegations."
Although Swedish officials insist the extradition effort has nothing to do with the WikiLeaks controversy, Assange's supporters say the timing of the allegations suggest that the case has been tainted by politics.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley stressed that the U.S. has no involvement in Sweden's case. He said of Assange's release, "Perhaps that will put the conspiracy theories to bed once and for all."
The Swedish moves could complicate any potential U.S. effort to bring Assange to trial for revealing classified information. A U.S. extradition request would have to compete with the Swedish one, and the legal wrangling could drag on for months or years.
Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny said the bail decision would not change the ongoing investigation in Sweden, and the extradition case would be handled by British authorities. Assange's next hearing is set for Jan. 11.