Vice President Mike Pence's vow to go after WikiLeaks for "one of the most significant compromises of national security in recent memory" could run smack into a First Amendment wall, according to one legal expert.
Pence, in an interview with Fox News' Bret Baier Thursday night, promised that those responsible for the 8,000-plus-file dump of CIA secrets, possibly including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, will pay a hefty price.
"Assange is clearly a media entity, albeit an unorthodox one... so the thief, the person who hands it to WikiLeaks, is the criminal. Not WikiLeaks."
"Trafficking in national security information, as is alleged WikiLeaks has done, is a serious offense," Pence said in an exclusive "Special Report" appearance. "This president and this administration will take it very seriously and use the full force of the law, and the resources of the United States, to hold all of those to account that were involved."
The idea of prosecuting Assange has been floating around since 2010, when WikiLeaks shared a massive trove of U.S. secrets leaked by Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning, then known as Bradley Manning. But to date, Assange has not been charged with any crime related to his website.
The Australian-born Assange remains holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London where he was granted asylum in 2012, because of a European arrest warrant stemming from sexual assault allegations made by two women in 2010. Assange denies the claims, but risks deportation the moment he steps foot outside of that embassy.
Prosecuting Assange for the document dump would be an uphill battle for the U.S., according to Fox News Senior Judicial Analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano. In the modern, increasingly broad definition of press, WikiLeaks fits the bill, he said.
"If a stolen document containing state secrets gets into the hands of the press, which is loosely defined as any entity in the business of revealing things, and it is a matter of public interest then it can be exposed with impunity," Napolitano said. "Assange is clearly a media entity, albeit an unorthodox one... so the thief, the person who hands it to WikiLeaks, is the criminal. Not WikiLeaks."
Pence is not the only elected official who would like to see Assange behind bars.
"Assange should spend the rest of his life wearing an orange jumpsuit," Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said in a Thursday statement. "He's an enemy of the American people and an ally to Vladimir Putin."
Tuesday's leak of more than 8,000 documents touched off an international uproar, as some of the spy agency's most closely guarded cyber tools were allegedly revealed to the world. The CIA, according to the files, has the ability to spy on people through their smartphones and certain TVs and computers, expressed interest in hacking into the electrical systems of automobiles and operates a clandestine hacking sites in Germany.
While the First Amendment may protect Assange, it would not cover anyone who illegally leaked the material to his organization. The FBI has already mounted an investigation aimed at finding the mole who divulged the material or any external hacker who retrieved it from CIA servers.
But U.S. investigators will get no help from Assange on that score.
"We're specialists in source protection," Assange said.
Adding to the difficulty in tracing the source of this leak is the fact that many of the tools the government would have used may have just been shared with the public, at least according to WikiLeaks.
"How can you use your full resources when they were just radically depleted?" cybersecurity expert Gregory Keeley wondered. "This is analogous to the nuclear football codes being posted on Facebook."