01/04/2011 12:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: "My Parents Were Executed Under the Unconstitutional Espionage Act. Here's Why We Must Fight to Protect Julian Assange"

As the U.S. Department of Justice considers charging WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under the Espionage Act of 1917, Democracy Now! interviewed Robert Meeropol, the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg -- the only U.S. citizens to be executed under the Espionage Act, in what's been described as the most controversial death sentence in U.S. history.

This week, Meeropol released a widely read statement in support of WikiLeaks called, "My Parents Were Executed Under the Unconstitutional Espionage Act -- Here's Why We Must Fight to Protect Julian Assange." In the interview, Meeropol provided the background of the Espionage Act, and discussed how the law has turned dissent into treason:

World War I was very unpopular in the United States, and there was an effort to convince the public about this war, and that was a two-pronged effort. One was propaganda was put in place to drum up support for the war, but the other was the Espionage Act of 1917 was passed, basically to criminalize dissent. And this criminalization of criticism of government policy landed hundreds of people in jail, perhaps most famously Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate for president who ran from a jail cell and got almost a million votes in 1920. That whole panoply of repressive activity, that quieted down after a while. But in the McCarthy period, it was reinstituted.

And the act, the Espionage Act, has been criticized as an attempt to do an end run around the constitutional definition of "treason." You see, the founders of our nation were very anxious to make sure that the term "treason" wasn't thrown around to attack people who were dissenters. So they put, within the Constitution, a very narrow definition -- giving aid and comfort to the enemy -- in as the only way you could be convicted of treason. But as you saw in that television clip of the 1950s, my parents charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, here's the press reporting "executed for their crime of treason." So this was an effort to do an end run around the treason clause of the Constitution and turn dissent into treason.

Well, now we fast-forward to today, and we have the possibility that Julian Assange will be charged under that act... And so, what we see here is, if there is a criminal indictment for conspiracy, not an attack on just Julian Assange himself, but on the entire community of support that is seeking to promote the very revolutionary idea that the people have the right to know what their government is doing, that's what this ultimately is all about.

And every left-wing, every progressive organizer, every organizer, in general--how can you engage in organizing, in getting groups of people to protest and coordinating activities, without engaging in what the government would term a conspiracy? And so, it is a threat to all of us. And that is really why I issued my call for us to recognize this. This Espionage Act of 1917 has been the sword of Damocles, sitting quietly, mostly unused, ready to spring out and attack dissenters. And when you have it in the context of the growing secrecy and an authoritarian-oriented Supreme Court, it is a danger to us all.

For the complete interview, transcript and audio/video podcasts, visit Democracy Now!. Democracy Now! has been covering WikiLeaks and the case against Julian Assange closely. Click here to see all of our WikiLeaks reports, which include interviews with Julian Assange, whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, attorneys and legal experts, and journalists. Join us on Facebook.