WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested in London by British police Thursday after being expelled from the Ecuadorian Embassy — and he’ll now likely face extradition to the United States.
“We can confirm that Julian Assange was arrested in relation to a provisional extradition request from the United States of America,” the UK Home Office said in a statement. “He is accused in the United States of America of computer related offences.”
Then the Justice Department unsealed an indictment of Assange filed in March 2018. In it, he is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, related to the leaks of US government documents he received from then-US Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning in 2010.
Assange has had an outstanding arrest warrant in the United Kingdom for years because, back in 2012, he skipped out on bail to avoid extradition related to sexual assault allegations against him in Sweden.
He took refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy, where he had been holed up for nearly seven years. Swedish prosecutors rescinded their warrant for him during that time, but Assange remained in the embassy for just this reason: because he feared there were secret US charges against him. However, his relations with the Ecuadorian government soured after a new president took power, leading to his ultimate expulsion from the embassy.
Assange has dogged the US government with a series of leaks over the past decade — such as the war documents and State Department cables provided by Manning, and CIA hacking material.
Also, infamously, in 2016, Assange posted emails that had been hacked from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. Special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers with carrying out this hack and leak operation, but he did not file charges against Assange.
Instead, the WikiLeaks founder is being charged with “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion” — specifically, that he “agreed to assist” Manning in “cracking a password” stored on Defense Department computers that didn’t belong with her.
Assange’s lawyer Barry Pollack said in a statement that this charge is mainly about “encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identity of that source,” adding that “journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by these unprecedented charges.”
For now, Assange is not being charged with any other crimes (such as the Espionage Act or crimes related to classified information). But CNN reported Thursday morning that the Justice Department expects to bring additional charges against him.
Who is Julian Assange?
Assange is an Australian “hacktivist” who founded WikiLeaks in 2006, with the stated goal of publishing information the powerful were trying to keep secret. The group had its greatest successes in obtaining and posting US military, national security, and foreign policy documents, and Assange was a harsh critic of what he deemed the US’s imperialist ambitions.
Starting in 2010, WikiLeaks published a video of an airstrike in Iraq that killed civilians, military documents about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and State Department cables in which diplomats gave candid assessments of foreign governments — all provided by US Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning. The unprecedented leaks gained enormous attention and made Assange a sort of celebrity — and a target, as top US officials like Attorney General Eric Holder publicly mused about how they could charge him.
So in June 2012, Assange, a citizen of Australia who had lived abroad for several years, showed up at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and asked for political asylum. His imminent danger was extradition to Sweden, where authorities were investigating a rape allegation against him. But Assange’s pitch was that he truly needed asylum from the United States because of WikiLeaks’ work. The Ecuadorian government granted his request, and he’s been holed up inside the embassy ever since — for nearly seven years now.
In that time, WikiLeaks has continued to post new material — and grown more controversial. Assange roiled the 2016 presidential campaign by posting hacked emails from, first, the Democratic National Committee and then Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. (Mueller has since charged several Russian intelligence officers with carrying out these hacks.)
Was Assange simply bringing more transparency by publishing powerful people’s communications? Was he effectively just helping out the Russians and Donald Trump? Was he engaged in a project to weaken the US politically? Perhaps it was all of the above. (“We believe it would be much better for GOP to win,” Assange wrote privately in late 2015, according to messages obtained by the Intercept. Hillary Clinton, he continued, was “a bright, well connected, sadistic sociopath.”)
But Assange’s leaks didn’t stop once Trump was elected. In early 2017, WikiLeaks posted a new set of material about the CIA’s hacking capabilities, in a leak referred to as “Vault 7.” The New York Times wrote that this “appeared to be the largest leak of CIA documents in history,” and a former CIA software engineer, Joshua Schulte, has been charged in connection with it.
That year, however, Assange’s position in the Ecuadorian Embassy began to grow tenuous, as a new and more centrist president, Lenín Moreno, took power in the country. Moreno has said that Assange has “repeatedly violated” the conditions of his asylum. And now the embassy has kicked him out, leading to his arrest by British police.
What was the sealed indictment against Assange about?
On March 8, 2018, the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia filed a one-count indictment against Assange, under seal. (It was unsealed Thursday morning, after his arrest.)
In it, Assange was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, related to Manning’s 2010 leaks.
Specifically, the indictment focuses on how, after Manning had already leaked hundreds of thousands of documents to Assange, the WikiLeaks founder allegedly “agreed to assist Manning in cracking a password stored on United States Defense Department computers.”
“Cracking the password would have allowed Manning to log onto the computers under a username that did not belong to her,” the indictment claims.
Prosecutors claim that on March 8, 2010, Manning had told Assange, “after this upload, that’s all I really have got left,” and that Assange responded, “curious eyes never run dry in my experience.”
However, there does not seem to have been any success in cracking the password. The indictment claims that on March 10, 2010, Assange said he’d had “no luck so far,” and there’s no further information on the matter.
Broader charges against Assange could pose freedom of speech concerns
This charge against Assange is rather narrowly tailored — but we know the Justice Department has long considered broader charges against him, and CNN reported Thursday that additional charges are indeed still in the works.
The US government has already charged people whom they’ve accused of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks, like Manning and Schulte. But charging Assange or WikiLeaks solely for publishing such information has been viewed by many as more troubling, due to its implications for freedom of the press.
“Never in the history of this country has a publisher been prosecuted for presenting truthful information to the public,” the American Civil Liberties Union’s Ben Wizner told CNN in 2017. “Any prosecution of WikiLeaks for publishing government secrets would set a dangerous precedent that the Trump administration would surely use to target other news organizations.”
Indeed, many journalists often publish important and newsworthy stories based on leaked classified information. This was one reason why the Obama Justice Department opted not to charge Assange — they called it a “New York Times problem,” the Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz reported in 2013.
“If the Justice Department indicted Assange, it would also have to prosecute the New York Times and other news organizations and writers who published classified material, including The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper,” Horwitz wrote, describing the officials’ conclusions.
Manning, meanwhile, is currently in jail, after she refused to testify to a grand jury against Assange last month. This is another sign that further charges against Assange could be coming, since the newly unsealed indictment was filed more than a year ago.