U.S. Struggling to Build Case Against WikiLeaks Founder Assange

U.S. investigators have been unable to uncover evidence that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange induced an Army private to leak government documents to his website, according to officials familiar with the matter.

New findings suggest Pfc. Bradley Manning, the intelligence analyst accused of handing over the data to the WikiLeaks website, initiated the theft himself, officials said. That contrasts with the initial portrait provided by Defense Department officials of a young man taken advantage of by Assange.

Further denting the push by some government officials to prosecute Assange, the probes have found little to link the two men, though others affiliated with WikiLeaks have been tied to Pfc. Manning, officials said.

For the U.S. to bring its preferred case against Assange of inducing the leak, it would have to show that the WikiLeaks founder specifically encouraged Manning to hand over the documents, which included thousands of State Department cables, as well as low-level intelligence reports on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and Justice Department lawyers continue to gather evidence for a possible conspiracy charge against Assange, but that's a harder case to make, government officials said. Such a charge would be based on contacts, which are more evident, between Pfc. Manning and lower-level WikiLeaks activists, and on Assange's leadership of the group, these officials said.

Attorneys for Assange and Pfc. Manning, who is being held in a military brig in Virginia, didn't return calls seeking comment Tuesday. Assange has denied he had any contact with Pfc. Manning, whose lawyers have never commented on the accusations against him.

Failing to prosecute Assange, who has been portrayed as the chief instigator of the leaks, would be a setback to U.S. officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder, who have been vocal in asserting that the publication of the documents was a crime that should be prosecuted. The State Department cables, in particular, embarrassed U.S. diplomats and could expose their contacts to reprisals.

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