Interpol in Europe placed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on its most-wanted list Tuesday after Sweden issued an arrest warrant against him as part of a drawn-out rape probe – involving allegations Assange has denied. The Interpol alert is likely to make international travel more difficult for Assange, whose whereabouts are publicly unknown.
Meanwhile the government scrambled to prevent future spills of US secrets like the embarrassing WikiLeaks' disclosures, while officials pondered possible criminal prosecutions against Assange.
In Washington, the State Department severed its computer files from the government's classified network, officials said, as US and world leaders tried to clean up from the leak that sent America's sensitive documents onto computer screens around the globe.
By temporarily pulling the plug, the US significantly reduced the number of government employees who can read important diplomatic messages. It was an extraordinary hunkering down, prompted by the disclosure of hundreds of thousands of those messages this week by WikiLeaks, the self-styled whistleblower organization.
The documents revealed that the US is still confounded about North Korea's nuclear military ambitions, that Iran is believed to have received advanced missiles capable of targeting Western Europe and, perhaps most damaging to the US, that the State Department asked its diplomats to collect DNA samples and other personal information about foreign leaders.
While Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, taunted the US from afar on Tuesday, lawyers from across the government were investigating whether it could prosecute him for espionage, a senior defense official said. The official, not authorized to comment publicly, spoke only on condition of anonymity.
There have been suggestions that Assange or others involved in the leaks could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act, but the question could be complicated. Who and what is he and his website? He has portrayed himself as a crusading journalist, and the Justice Department has steered clear of prosecuting journalists for publishing leaked secrets.
Meanwhile, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley sought to reassure the world that US diplomats were not spies, even as he sidestepped questions about why they were asked to provide DNA samples, iris scans, credit card numbers, fingerprints and other deeply personal information about leaders at the United Nations and in foreign capitals.
'Clinton should resign'
WikiLeaks has not said how it obtained the documents, but the government's prime suspect is an Army Pfc., Bradley Manning, who is being held in a maximum-security military brig on charges of leaking other classified documents to WikiLeaks. Authorities believe Manning defeated Pentagon security systems simply by bringing a homemade music CD to work, erasing the music, and downloading troves of government secrets onto it.
While world leaders nearly universally condemned the leak, the US and Assange traded barbs from afar. In an online interview with Time magazine from an undisclosed location, Assange called on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to resign because of the cables asking diplomats to gather intelligence.
"She should resign, if it can be shown that she was responsible for ordering US diplomatic figures to engage in espionage in the United Nations, in violation of the international covenants to which the US has signed up," he said.
In France, Lyon-based Interpol placed the 39-year-old Assange on its most-wanted list, sent around the world.
His lawyer, Mark Stephens, a prominent media attorney in Britain, said an appeal by Assange remains pending in Sweden, and the lawyer is waiting for prosecutors there to "contact us and with details of the allegations and evidence."
Crowley, at the State Department, showed disdain for Assange.
"I believe he has been described as an anarchist," he said. "His actions seem to substantiate that."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates played down the fallout from the leaks, calling them embarrassing and awkward but saying they would not significantly complicate US foreign policy.
Crowley would not say how long the State Department would keep its files off the classified network.
"We have made some adjustments, and that has narrowed, for the time being, those who have access to State Department cables across the government," he said.
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