Rep. Conyers: Calls for criminal charges against WikiLeaks founder 'extreme'

The Obama and Bush administrations have classified too much information unnecessarily and contributed to an overly secretive atmosphere surrounding U.S. policy, lawmakers at a House Judiciary Committee hearing said Thursday.

At a hearing on the legal implications of potentially prosecuting WikiLeaks, panel Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) said the group’s recent dissemination of classified diplomatic cables might have been embarrassing for the government but that the real-world consequences have been fairly modest.

ADVERTISEMENT
He labeled calls for criminal charges against site founder Julian Assange "extreme measures" and said the widespread outrage in Washington is a sign that caution is needed before proceeding.

"Prosecuting WikiLeaks would raise the most fundamental questions about free speech, about who is a journalist and what citizens can know about their government," Conyers said. "The problem today is not too little secrecy but too much secrecy."

Conyers also acknowledged the committee would likely address the outdated Espionage Act under Republican leadership in the next Congress but said it's unclear how much action is needed.

Lawmakers from both parties joined Conyers in condemning the overclassification of data but Republicans also called for the prosecution of those responsible for the leaks. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) argued previous WikiLeaks releases revealing troop locations were more damaging and put soldiers at risk.

"This isn't simply about keeping government secrets secret. It's about the safety of American personnel overseas at all levels from the foot soldier to the commander in chief," Gohmert said.

Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass) also condemned the Bush and Obama White Houses for making it too difficult to get information.

"Secrecy is the trademark of totalitarianism. In contrast, transparency and openness is why democracy is all about," Delahunt said.

"There is far too much secrecy and overclassification in the executive branch, and I think it puts American democracy at risk."

Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) called for the government to find the leaker and hold him or her accountable. He likened the leaker to "a Texas pawn shop dealer who deals in stolen merchandise.”