Washington Extra – Pirate justice

December 1, 2010

The U.S. government would surely love to get its revenge on Julian Assange, and the Justice Department says a criminal investigation has already begun. But specialists in espionage law tell us that peculiarities of American law make it virtually impossible to bring a successful case against Assange, even if he were to set foot on U.S. soil. Evidence would be needed that defendants were in contact with representatives of a foreign power and intended to provide them with secrets, evidence that has not yet surfaced. SWITZERLAND/

So although the leaked documents may make intelligence sharing harder in the future, and may make foreign governments reluctant to trust the U.S. with sensitive information, retribution could be tough.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee took aim at whoever leaked the documents, saying they should be tried for treason and “executed.”  Others might yearn for a bit of pirate justice, for both Assange and the leaker.

Talking of which, one gem from the leaked cables was the revelation that the world’s most controversial private security company had reconfigured a 183-foot boat into a pirate-hunting vessel. Blackwater had apparently offered its services to shipping companies seeking protection from Somali pirates, but failed to drum up any business.

They may not have caught any pirates but the New York Times reports that practices on-board the vessel were “little improved from the days of Blackbeard.” One former crew member, caught drinking during a port call to Jordan, was apparently “placed in irons”, which might sound appealing in an evil sort of way until you learn it amounted to being handcuffed to the towel rack. Meanwhile, I am officially banishing from my mind any thoughts of Dick Cheney, cutlass in hand, forcing Assange to walk the plank into a shark-infested sea.

More seriously, Republican leaders were almost purring today after emerging from their meeting with President Barack Obama, apparently confident they have the upper hand over the question of extending the tax cuts. Both sides said the meeting had been positive, but in the end there was little sign – yet — of common ground. Obama cut a much more defensive figure after the meeting, stressing the disagreements more than the idea of a possible bipartisan accord. The two sides have agreed to negotiate further, but even though they are to set up a working group, the maneuvering continues. Democrats are now promising a vote in the House on Thursday on just extending the cuts for the middle classes.

Finally, hats off to Fed board nominee Peter Diamond. Nominees for official office, especially those facing tough confirmation votes, usually go to ground, but Diamond is clearly cut from a different cloth. The Nobel laureate told Reuters Insider Television the U.S. economy needed more fiscal policy support but added that extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans would be the wrong medicine – a view that could cost him the support of some wavering Republicans.

Here are our top stories from Washington today…

U.S. deficit panel postpones vote on plan

A presidential commission looking for ways to slash the budget deficit has postponed by two days a vote on its final plan, commission co-Chairmen Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles said.

For more of this story by Kevin Drawbaugh and Donna Smith, read here.

Obama, Republicans agree to negotiate on taxes

President Obama said he still disagreed with Republicans on whether to extend Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, but the two sides agreed to negotiate a deal in the coming days. Obama said appointed Tim Geithner and budget director Jack Lew to work with Republicans and Democrats to come up with a compromise. “We should work to make sure that taxes will not go up by thousands of dollars on hard-working middle-class Americans come January 1, which would be disastrous for those families but also could be crippling for the economy,” Obama told reporters.

For more of this story by Jeff Mason, read here.

For scenarios of how the tax battle could play out, by Kim Dixon, read here.

Fed nominee Diamond: Limit tax cut extension

Federal Reserve Board nominee Peter Diamond says extending Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans would be the wrong medicine.

For more of this story by Mark Felsenthal, read here.

Senate rejects proposal to ban earmarks

The Senate rejected a proposed ban on the pet spending projects known as earmarks that have become a symbol of wasteful spending for many voters. Republicans in the House and Senate have adopted a voluntary ban, but their unity will be tested as eight broke with the party to vote against giving that ban the force of law and several have indicated that they may continue to seek earmarks next year. Most Democrats also voted against the measure, which would have lasted until October 2013.

For more of this story by Andy Sullivan, read here.

Senate passes overhaul of US food safety system

The Senate has passed the largest overhaul of the food safety system in decades, a response to massive recalls. The House of Representatives backed a different version in July 2009. With their post-election session due to end by mid-December, lawmakers have just weeks to resolve their differences and send legislation to President Obama.

For more of this story by Charles Abbott, read here.

One U.S. military network cut off from cables

The State Department has cut off a military computer network from its database of diplomatic cables after WikiLeaks obtained more than 250,000 such cables, a senior official said. The official said the system was believed to have been the source for the cables obtained by the whistleblower website, which have been a severe embarrassment to the government because they contain candid, critical assessments of foreign leaders. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates has sought to play down the significance of the leaks. “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.

For more of this story by Arshad Mohammed and Ross Colvin, read here.

Military study gives green light to end gay ban

The Pentagon has unveiled a study that played down the impact of ending the military’s ban on gays, but worries among generals about the fallout on troops fighting abroad could delay action. The study dismissed or minimized concerns raised in Congress and some quarters of the military about President Obama’s plans to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — hopefully by the end of the year.

For more of this story by Phil Stewart and Ross Colvin, read here.

Obama urges Senate approval of START nuclear pact

President Obama reiterated his call for the Senate to ratify a new nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, calling it “absolutely essential” to national security. The president has pledged to make ratification a top priority for the remaining weeks of the current session of Congress, but Republican opponents have shown no sign of removing obstacles that stand in the way.

For more of this story, read here.

US proposes broadcast airwaves for wireless use

Telecommunications regulators proposed freeing up more airwaves for wireless services to meet the expanding use of handheld devices. The FCC voted unanimously to seek public comment on the proposals that include the use of some broadcast television airwaves for wireless devices. “The explosive growth of mobile communications threatens to outpace the infrastructure on which it relies,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said.

For more of this story by Jasmin Melvin, read here.

Senator group opposes extending ethanol tax break

A bipartisan group of senators called for an end to a tariff on ethanol imports and subsidies to ethanol blenders, saying the program is too expensive and increases dependency on foreign oil. The ethanol industry is fighting to have a lame-duck Congress extend the tariff and subsidy for blending ethanol into gasoline before they expire at the end of December.

For more of this story by Tom Doggett, read here.

TSA says airlines providing more passenger data

All passengers on flights to, from and within the United States are being checked against government security watchlists, the TSA said. TSA said all of the nearly 130 international carriers flying to and from the U.S. have begun collecting new data from passengers, including their full name, date of birth and gender, which are then checked against the lists, a program known as Secure Flight.

For more of this story by Jeremy Pelofsky, read here.

What we are blogging…

Lady Gaga, WikiLeaks and :’(

Washington has been buzzing about Bradley Manning, the 23-year-old Army intelligence analyst at the heart of the investigation into the WikiLeaks leaks. And then there’s the Lady Gaga connection. Manning said he listened to “Telephone” as he pulled documents off a server in Baghdad, according to his online chats with former hacker Adrian Lamo, who confirmed details of the chats to Reuters.

For Deborah Zabarenko’s full post, read here.

From elsewhere…

Oxford English Dictionary relaunch online version

The Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) online version has relaunched, a decade after it first appeared on the internet. The new version contains 600,000 words, three million quotations and covers more than 1,000 years of the English language, organizers said.

For more of this story, read here.

Photo credit: Reuters/Valentin Flauraud (Assange holds news conference in Geneva on Nov. 4)

No comments so far

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/