One avenue by which the United States could press charges against Julian Assange appeared to have closed Monday, with US military officials' admission that they can't find a link between the WikiLeaks founder and PFC Bradley Manning, the alleged source of WikiLeaks' State Department cables.
News reports late last year indicated that the US was trying to build a criminal conspiracy case against Assange through evidence that he aided Manning when the Army private allegedly copied more than a quarter million classified State Department cables onto CD and walked away with them.
But according to military officials who spoke to NBC News, the US has failed to find evidence proving that link:
The officials say that while investigators have determined that Manning had allegedly unlawfully downloaded tens of thousands of documents onto his own computer and passed them to an unauthorized person, there is apparently no evidence he passed the files directly to Assange, or had any direct contact with the controversial WikiLeaks figure.
The news appears to jibe with what Assange himself has said. In an interview with ABC News, Assange said he had "never heard of the name Bradley Manning before it was published in the press."
Assange added that WikiLeaks technology was designed such that sources of leaked information remain anonymous even to WikiLeaks itself. "That is, in the end, the only way the sources can be guaranteed that they remain anonymous, as far as we are concerned."
Without a link to Manning, the US can't charge Assange with conspiracy under the Espionage Act. The only clear path towards prosecution left would be to charge Assange directly with disseminating secret US information -- the first time a non-governmental employee would be charged directly under the Espionage Act.
Critics see that option as politically distasteful, because the law could just as easily be applied in the same way to the New York Times, which worked with WikiLeaks last year to release the State Department cables. US media have a long tradition of publishing classified government information, and traditionally it has been the government employees who leaked the information, and not the reporters who disseminated it, who have been charged.
Thus, prosecuting Assange in this way could alienate and antagonize the US media establishment.
OFFICIALS DENY MANNING MISTREATED
US military officials also denied to NBC News that Manning is being mistreated in US custody at the brig at Quantico.
Many observers have said Manning's pre-trial detention -- which sees him in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day -- is a form of torture, perhaps designed to break his will before the trial.
Officials told NBC News Manning's treatment is standard for any maximum security detainee at the facility.
They did, however, note that the brig commander "did not have the authority" to place Manning on "suicide watch" last week.
Manning was temporarily confined to his cell, stripped of his clothing and denied his reading glasses for several days last week when the suicide watch was in effect. The watch was quickly dropped after Manning's lawyer filed a complaint.