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US documents reportedly refer to Assange, WikiLeaks as 'enemy'

File - Kerim Okten / EPA

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange addressed supporters last month as British police stood outside Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

The U.S. Defense Department has formally declared WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange an enemy on par with al-Qaida, according to documents that an Australian newspaper said Wednesday it had obtained under freedom of information laws.

The Sydney Morning Herald, the flagship of the Fairfax Media chain, reported that the declassified Air Force counterintelligence documents declare that military personnel who make contact with WikiLeaks or "WikiLeaks supporters" are at risk of being charged with "communicating with the enemy" — an article of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that carries the death penalty.

Fairfax has been investigating whether the Australian government has been informed that Assange, an Australian national, could face U.S. extradition. He is in hiding in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London under diplomatic asylum on Swedish sexual assault charges, which Ecuador granted because of the possibility that he could be extradited to the U.S. on espionage charges.

Working with several U.S. and European news agencies, WikiLeaks has published thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, some of them highly embarrassing to the U.S. According to The Herald, Australian diplomatic cables released to Fairfax Media confirm that the Justice Department continues to mount an "unprecedented" espionage investigation of Assange and WikiLeaks.

NBC News couldn't immediately reach Assange's U.S. attorney, Michael Ratner, for comment. But in the Herald story, Ratner was quoted as having said: "It appears that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are the 'enemy.' An enemy is dealt with under the laws of war, which could include killing, capturing, detaining without trial, etc."

Assange was scheduled to speak by satellite Wednesday evening to a U.N. conference on asylum seekers. Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, meanwhile, was scheduled to meet Thursday with British Foreign Secretary William Hague to seek a compromise over Assange's seclusion, the BBC reported Wednesday.

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