Assange attorney: Charges against WikiLeaks founder 'boil down' to source protection

Jenna McLaughlin
National Security and Investigations Reporter

On Thursday morning, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was dragged out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London by British law enforcement, bearded, screaming and carrying a copy of Gore Vidal’s “History of the National Security State,” which he was seen hours later reading during a London court hearing where District Judge Michael Snow pronounced him guilty of failing to surrender to British authorities in 2012.

Since Assange first took refuge in the embassy nearly seven years ago amid a Swedish investigation into allegations of rape, observers around the world wondered whether U.S. authorities would attempt to charge him with crimes related to the publication of classified documents and cables on the Iraq War, first provided to him in 2010 by Chelsea Manning, then a military intelligence officer.

On Thursday, hours after Assange was ejected from the embassy, the U.S. Department of Justice published an indictment against him alleging he had conspired to help Manning crack a sensitive Department of Defense computer password in order to access files Manning did not have permission to view. According to the BBC, Assange will reappear in the London court by video screen on May 2, relating to the U.S. extradition charges.

Julian Assange arrives at Westminster Magistrates' Court in London after being taken into custody, April 11, 2019. (Photo: Victoria Jones/PA via AP)

The current charges do not appear to relate to espionage or publication of classified information — allegations that activists, journalists and former Justice Department officials have warned would have a chilling effect on journalists who publish sensitive information. Matt Miller, a former DOJ spokesperson, has repeatedly said that a key barrier to bringing charges against Assange during President Barack Obama’s tenure was related to the dangers of setting a precedent against publishers.

However, the indictment accuses Assange of a conspiracy that includes his attempts to “conceal Manning as the source of the disclosure” by “removing usernames from the disclosed information and deleting chat logs between Assange and Manning” as well as using a “special folder” on a cloud drop box to transfer the files. These tactics, including concealing the identity of a source and facilitating secure transfer of documents, are tactics utilized by many journalists and news organizations, including through the use of end-to-end encrypted message platforms like Signal and secure file-transfer systems like SecureDrop.

“While the indictment against Julian Assange disclosed today charges a conspiracy to commit computer crimes, the factual allegations against Mr. Assange boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identity of that source,” wrote Barry Pollack, one of Assange’s attorneys, in an email to Yahoo News. “Journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by these unprecedented criminal charges.”

One source familiar with the ongoing case against Assange, which has been proceeding for nearly a decade at this point, told Yahoo News the FBI and DOJ possessed the Jabber chat exchanges between Assange and Manning for years. Those messages, according to the indictment, appear to be key evidence that Assange offered to help crack a password for Manning — going beyond the journalistic role of accepting information, and actually soliciting it. However, according to the indictment, it is not clear whether those attempts to break into the military computer network were successful.

There are additional sealed charges against Assange, the source told Yahoo News.

While Assange’s attorneys were concerned with the precedent the charges would set, former colleagues of the WikiLeaks founder were not surprised by them. Andy Stepanian, a former WikiLeaks consultant, referred Yahoo News to a Twitter thread he had posted in 2018 suggesting that it was possible Assange would be charged with crimes relating to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, whose sentencing guidelines he described as “so broad and draconian the accused can face decades for merely sharing hacked materials.”

Stepanian told Yahoo News he spoke to people interviewed by the DOJ, who said they were asked about computer intrusion topics that the government has publicly focused on: “2010 cables and war logs,” connections to other hacker figures including Jeremy Hammond and LulzSec, and the “Vault 7” disclosures of CIA hacking tools. “All touch CFAA,” Stepanian wrote in a text message.

The arrest and extradition were made possible because Ecuadorian authorities chose to expel Assange from his diplomatic safe haven by withdrawing his asylum status.

Assange’s situation in the embassy was becoming “unusually bad,” CNN reported in May 2018. However, the possibility of returning him to U.S. authorities was never popular in Ecuador, according to a BuzzFeed investigation. Lenín Moreno, elected president of Ecuador in 2017, was under increasing pressure from both U.S. and Spanish authorities to push him out. Spanish authorities were frustrated by Assange’s social media posts about Catalonia.

Assange’s access to the internet was cut off by embassy staff on multiple occasions, and his visitors largely were severely restricted. Even his attorneys had difficulty visiting and communicating with him.

In April 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Assange’s arrest was a “priority.” Earlier, however, multiple Trump allies, including Mike Pompeo, now secretary of state, celebrated Assange and WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential election for the disclosures of emails relating to Hillary Clinton, John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee — only for Pompeo to turn around and condemn WikiLeaks when he was director of the CIA.

U.S. authorities were also interested in WikiLeaks’ publication of CIA hacking tools, a disclosure that a former CIA employee, Josh Schulte, is currently charged with providing to WikiLeaks. It’s unclear whether the DOJ will reference those disclosures in its case against Assange.

In the meantime, Swedish authorities may still pursue an investigation into Assange on the original allegations of rape and sexual assault. While the case was officially dropped in March 2017, Swedish attorney Elisabeth Massi Fritz told Yahoo News she is hopeful the police will reopen the case.

Assange’s arrest “understandably comes as a shock to my client,” and “what we have been waiting and hoping for since 2012 has now finally happened,” she wrote in an email. “We are going to do everything we possibly can to get the Swedish police investigation re-opened so that Assange can be extradited to Sweden and prosecuted for rape. No rape victim should have to wait 9 years to see justice be served.”

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