Vice President Joe Biden on Sunday blasted Julian Assange as a dangerous “hi-tech terrorist” and said Washington was exploring a legal pursuit of the WikiLeaks founder.
Biden made the comments as Assange spent his third full day under “mansion arrest” at a friend’s house in eastern England while he fights extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over allegations of crimes.
The Australian has enraged the United States by obtaining a cache of some 250,000 US diplomatic cables and slowly releasing the documents through his whistleblowing website, often causing huge embarrassment in Washington.
Assange voiced fears last week that the US would try to extradite him on charges related to the leaked cables, and Biden said the US Justice Department was examining how to take legal action against Assange.
“We’re looking at that right now,” the vice president told NBC’s Sunday talk show “Meet the Press”, without elaborating on just how the administration could act against the WikiLeaks chief.
“I’m not going to comment on that process.”
When asked whether he thought Assange was a hi-tech terrorist or a whistleblower akin to those who released the Pentagon Papers — a series of top-secret documents revealing US military policy in Vietnam — Biden said: “I would argue that it’s closer to being hi-tech terrorist.”
As he savoured his first day of freedom Friday after a British court released him on bail, Assange said his lawyers believed a secret US grand jury investigation had been started into his role in the diplomatic cable leak.
Media reports suggest that US prosecutors are trying to build a case against him on the grounds that he encouraged a US soldier, Bradley Manning, to steal US cables from a government computer and pass them to WikiLeaks.
Assange has denied knowing Manning.
A report by congressional researchers said the Espionage Act and other US laws could be used to prosecute Assange, but there is no known precedent for prosecuting publishers in such a case.
Assange is staying at Ellingham Hall, the mansion in eastern England of journalist friend Vaughan Smith, as part of the conditions of bail, which he was granted by London’s High Court on Thursday.
He must also report daily to a nearby police station and wear an electronic tag.
On Shabbos, WikiLeaks was dealt another blow when Bank of America, the largest US bank, became the latest institution to halt financial transactions for the site after MasterCard, PayPal, Visa Europe and others.
The bank said its decision was “based upon our reasonable belief that WikiLeaks may be engaged in activities that are, among other things, inconsistent with our internal policies for processing payments.”
But Assange lashed out at the move, telling AFP it was a “new type of business McCarthyism in the US.”
The term was coined to describe the anti-communist pursuits of former Senator Joseph McCarthy from the late 1940s to the 1950s.
New information about the allegations Assange faces in Sweden also emerged at the weekend.
The 39-year-old denies the charges.
Assange hit out at Swedish handling of the case, accusing authorities there of leaking fresh details about the case that even he and his defence lawyers have not had access to.
The former computer hacker also reiterated that there were threats against his life and those of the website’s staff, but he vowed that WikiLeaks would continue publishing the cables.
“We are a robust organisation. During my time in solitary confinement we continued to publish every day and it’s not going to change,” he said.