Julian Assange: Five things to know about the legal case against him
U.S. officials have unveiled long-awaited charges against Julian Assange, alleging that the WikiLeaks founder conspired to hack a government computer in connection with the organization’s release of sensitive government files back in 2010.
The news came shortly after Assange was expelled from the Ecuadorian Embassy and arrested by British authorities, after nearly seven years in asylum there.
As the founder of WikiLeaks, Assange is infamous for document leaks that have embarrassed the United States over the years. The organization most recently captured notoriety for leaking hacked Democratic emails that the U.S. intelligence community later tied to a plot by Russia to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
Here are five things to know about the charges against Assange.
Allegations date back to secret diplomatic cables
The allegations laid out in the indictment trace back more than a decade, when WikiLeaks obtained and published Afghanistan and Iraq war logs as well as secret diplomatic cables from former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
According to the charging document, Assange allegedly agreed to assist Manning in cracking a password to a classified government computer in March 2010, after already having received “hundreds of thousands of classified records” from Manning that WikiLeaks planned to release publicly.
It is unclear whether the hacking effort was successful. The indictment notes that the password cracking measure “would have made it more difficult for investigators to identify Manning as the source of disclosures of classified information.”
The WikiLeaks founder also allegedly egged Manning on to provide additional information, telling her, “curious eyes never run dry in my experience.”
Manning was eventually convicted in 2013 on multiple counts, including violations of the Espionage Act and for copying and disseminating classified military field reports.
U.S. military prosecutors argued at the time of Manning’s court case in 2013 that her leak likely provided intelligence to U.S. enemies like al Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups.
Manning ultimately served seven years of a 35-year prison sentence — the longest ever imposed in a leak case — before then-President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe sheer size of our government workforce is alarming — and we can’t afford it A radical centrist platform for 2020 Design with a cause: Graphics in a polarized world MORE commuted her sentence.
Assange has long evaded federal authorities, remaining beyond their reach by seeking asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London starting in 2012 when he was facing an investigation for rape allegations in Sweden.
The Embassy, however, grew tired of hosting the fugitive, claiming he violated the terms of his asylum and accused him of “discourteous and aggressive behavior,” which ultimately led to his arrest.
Assange faces charges tied to hacking
The charge unveiled Thursday alleges that Assange conspired with Manning to access classified information on government networks. The indictment does not say if the information was successfully obtained.
The charge did not allege criminal conduct in WikiLeaks’s publication of the files accessed by Manning, though the indictment notes that WikiLeaks “publicly released the vast majority of the classified records” provided by Manning on the web in 2010 and 2011.
Mark Zaid, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in national security cases, asserted that the charging choice represented an intentional effort by U.S. prosecutors to avoid alleging offenses that could raise concerns about freedom of the press.
“The indictment is a very deliberate decision by the U.S. government to pursue Assange without crossing the line to raise First Amendment concerns for a legitimate journalist,” Zaid said.
Press advocacy groups, however, pushed back against the premise that Assange’s arrest was unrelated to the publication by WikiLeaks of classified information. They argue that it’s unlikely that Assange would be charged at all if he hadn’t been responsible for releasing the documents.
“I think that the Trump administration has some unique hostility to the media,” said Kathleen McClellan, the deputy director for the whistleblower and source protection program at ExposeFacts. “And indicting Julian Assange and then having him arrested and seeking his extradition is a real threat to the media.”
Edward Snowden also decried Assange’s arrest as a “dark moment for press freedom.”
And of one Assange’s attorneys, Jennifer Robinson, told reporters outside of court that the precedent “means that any journalist can be extradited for prosecution in the United States for having published truthful information about the United States.”
Mueller is elephant in room
Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation is somewhat of an elephant in the room with the indictment against Assange.
The indictment unsealed Thursday makes no mention of Assange’s involvement in the release of troves of stolen Democratic emails in 2016, though much of the talk about the WikiLeaks founder has centered on that for the last two years.
U.S. officials tied the email hack to a plot by the Russian government to meddle in the last presidential election, which was under investigation by Mueller until last month.
Mueller’s indictments offered glimpses at WikiLeaks’s involvement in the Russia plot, raising suspicions Assange might eventually face charges in connection with the interference campaign.
The special counsel’s indictment charging 12 Russian intelligence officers with hacking offenses last July referred to WikiLeaks as “Organization 1” and alleged that the Russians, posing as the hacking group Guccifer 2.0, “discussed the release of the stolen documents and the timing of those releases with Organization 1 to heighten their impact on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
Mueller concluded the 22-month probe in March without recommending further charges.
Other figures caught up in the Mueller probe were also questioned over their contacts with Assange ahead of the 2016 election, such as one-time Trump campaign adviser Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneRoger Stone attacks Mueller indictment, demands to see final report Does Mueller report anticipate campaign finance crimes related to Trump’s Russia contacts? Julian Assange: Five things to know about the legal case against him MORE, who was widely scrutinized over statements he made in 2016 that appeared to predict WikiLeaks’s release of the damaging Democratic emails.
He denied having any contact with Assange, but claimed he had a back channel into the group.
Stone was indicted in January on seven counts in connection with Mueller’s investigation, including lying about his contacts with Trump campaign officials about WikiLeaks, and is set to face a trial in November.
It’s possible that Mueller’s full report will shed more light on WikiLeaks’s machinations.
And if and when Assange is extradited to the U.S. to face charges, the Russia investigation will likely come up at his trial.
Assange has dismissed criticisms, stating that he acted like other journalists would when they seek to leak classified documents that are of public interest. He also repeatedly denied that Russia was his source for the emails.
Extradition battle approaches
While Assange was arrested at the request of American officials, he will still have to go through the extradition process before he goes to trial.
Under an extradition treaty between the U.K. and the U.S., American authorities have to provide evidence of Assange’s alleged crime, like the charging document revealed on Thursday.
But the U.S. almost ran out of time to bring a charge against Assange: Tor Ekeland, an attorney who specializes in cybersecurity, told The Hill that the sealed indictment was filed toward the end of the statute of limitations for the charge.
Any later, he said, and Assange could have slipped through prosecutors’ fingers.
It’s highly possible that Assange could face future charges in the U.S.: Multiple reports Thursday indicated that the Justice Department will unveil another complaint against the WikiLeaks founder in the near future.
Manning is also in federal prison in Virginia, after she was held in contempt for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury in a case believed to be related to WikiLeaks.
Ekeland said that it “wouldn’t make sense” for Thursday’s indictment to be the case that Manning was called in to testify about, as the charge had been filed under seal in 2018, pointing to a new charge related to WikiLeaks coming down the line.
British authorities could be wary of sending Assange overseas before they have a full picture of the charges he would face in an American court.
Assange is also facing an allegation of rape in Sweden, and the country reportedly received a request on Thursday to reopen the case. That means the nation could also request that Assange be extradited there, setting up a potential showdown with the U.S.
Bipartisan support for charges
Thursday’s developments illuminated the bipartisan vitriol for Assange that exists in Washington.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle celebrated the news of Assange’s indictment.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP trapped between Trump and Dems on spending Conservative groups defend tech from GOP crackdown Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks MORE (R-S.C.) blasted Assange for sharing classified information that endangered troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, stating that he has “never been a hero” in his mind.
Others accused Assange of working on behalf of the Russian government.
Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley: Trump unveils initiatives to boost 5G | What to know about the Assange case | Pelosi warns tech of ‘new era’ in regulation | Dem eyes online hate speech bill Warner looking at bills to limit hate speech, have more data portability on social media Julian Assange: Five things to know about the legal case against him MORE (Va.), the top Democrat on the Intelligence panel, castigated Assange as a “direct participant in Russian efforts to undermine the West and a dedicated accomplice in efforts to undermine American security.”
The developments have also revived Trump’s past praise of WikiLeaks for leaking embarrassing emails from the Clinton campaign.
“I love WikiLeaks,” Trump declared at one point on the campaign trail.
But the president sought to distance himself from WikiLeaks on Thursday, telling reporters in the Oval Office, “I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It’s not my thing.”
Members of Trump’s administration have offered biting criticisms of Assange and his organization, despite the president’s past praise.
During his first public remarks as CIA director, Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoGOP trapped between Trump and Dems on spending Pompeo: Russia, China ‘spread disorder’ in Latin America Two dozen Dem senators urge Trump to extend nuclear treaty with Russia MORE blasted WikiLeaks as a “nonstate hostile intelligence service” in August 2017.