U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrested and charged with conspiracy

Incident Details

Date of Incident
April 11, 2019

Arrest/Criminal Charge

Arresting Authority
U.S. Department of Justice
Detention Date
Release Date
Unnecessary use of force?

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
  • other for other
    • June 10, 2019: Pending
    • Jan. 4, 2021: Quashed
    • July 7, 2021: Objected to
    • Dec. 10, 2021: Upheld
    • March 14, 2022: Objected to
    • June 17, 2022: Upheld
    • July 1, 2022: Objected to
    • June 6, 2023: Upheld
    • Feb. 20, 2024: Objected to
    • May 20, 2024: Pending
    • June 25, 2024: Dropped
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen in a police van in London, England, after his removal from the Ecuadorian Embassy and arrest by British police on April 11, 2019.

— REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
June 26, 2024 - Update

WikiLeaks founder pleads guilty to Espionage Act charge, sentenced to time served

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange pleaded guilty to a single count under the Espionage Act in federal court in the Northern Mariana Islands on June 26, 2024, and was sentenced to time served as part of a plea agreement with the U.S. government, The Guardian reported.

Assange left the United Kingdom on June 24 after he was granted bail by London's High Court and released from the city's Belmarsh Prison, where he spent the last five years, according to a WikiLeaks post on the social platform X.

In a June 25 indictment reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, Assange was charged with one felony count of conspiracy to obtain, receive and disclose national defense information. An additional 17 counts were dropped as part of the plea deal.

The charges stem from allegations that Assange conspired with Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to acquire and publish hundreds of thousands of sensitive government documents from 2009 to 2011.

A letter from the Department of Justice said that the hearing was held in the U.S. District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the Pacific, because of Assange’s opposition to traveling to the continental United States and because of the court’s proximity to Australia, where Assange plans to return following the hearing.

During the hearing, Assange defended his actions but acknowledged that he would have struggled to win in a trial, The Washington Post reported. “Working as a journalist, I encouraged my source to provide information that was said to be classified in order to publish that information. I believe the First Amendment protected that,” Assange said.

As a condition of his plea agreement, Assange is required to destroy the information provided to WikiLeaks, according to The Associated Press.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation, which operates the Tracker, released a statement that the plea agreement and end of the case has mixed implications for the press.

“It’s good news that the DOJ is putting an end to this embarrassing saga. But it’s alarming that the Biden administration felt the need to extract a guilty plea for the purported crime of obtaining and publishing government secrets. That’s what investigative journalists do every day,” said FPF Director of Advocacy Seth Stern. “The plea deal won’t have the precedential effect of a court ruling, but it will still hang over the heads of national security reporters for years to come.”

May 20, 2024 - Update

WikiLeaks founder granted leave to appeal extradition order

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was granted leave on May 20, 2024, to appeal an order authorizing his extradition to the United States to face charges of multiple violations of the Espionage Act, The Guardian reported.

The publisher was first charged in March 2018 with a single count of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, but the indictment was not unsealed until more than a year later. A superseding indictment in May 2019 revealed that he was facing an additional 17 charges for violating the Espionage Act. While the law has been used against whistleblowers and journalists under previous administrations — most notably under former President Barack Obama — these charges marked the first time they were used against a publisher.

The charges, which include conspiring to obtain national defense information and receiving and disclosing that information, stem from allegations that Assange conspired with Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to acquire and publish hundreds of thousands of sensitive government documents.

Assange has been held at Belmarsh Prison, a high-security detention center, since his arrest by British authorities in 2019 while awaiting a decision on the United States’ extradition request. Britain’s then-Home Secretary Priti Patel signed the judicial extradition order in June 2022.

London’s High Court first refused Assange’s request to appeal the order in 2023 and deferred a decision in March 2024, according to The Guardian. During the latter hearing, two judges ruled that they would allow an appeal unless the U.S. government could provide satisfactory assurances that Assange would be able to rely on the First Amendment in court, would not face prejudice based on his nationality and would not face the death penalty.

James Lewis, an attorney representing the United States, argued again that Assange’s alleged conduct was not protected by the First Amendment, according to The Guardian. “The position of the US prosecutor is that no one, neither US citizens nor foreign citizens, are entitled to rely on the first amendment in relation to publication of illegally obtained national defence information,” Lewis said in a written submission to the court.

The court then ruled that the U.S. government’s assurances were insufficient and granted Assange leave to file an appeal on May 20.

Speaking outside the high court following the hearing, Assange’s wife, Stella, called on President Joe Biden to drop the charges. She added that “as the case goes along, it becomes clearer and clearer to everyone that Julian is in prison for doing good journalism, for exposing corruption, for exposing the violations on innocent people in abusive wars for which there is impunity.”

Freedom of the Press Foundation, which operates the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, has repeatedly condemned the charges against Assange and called for reforms to the Espionage Act to ensure that it isn’t wielded against journalists and their sources.

“On appeal, we urge the court to refuse to extradite Assange. But better yet, the Biden administration can and should end this case now,” said FPF Deputy Director of Advocacy Caitlin Vogus. “If Biden continues to pursue the Assange prosecution, he risks creating a precedent that could be used against any reporter who exposes government secrets, even if they reveal official crimes. If the Biden administration cares about press freedom, it must drop the Assange case immediately.”

Editor’s Note: This article was first published under the Tracker’s “Other” category but was subsequently recategorized to the “Arrest/Criminal Charge” and “Subpoena/Legal Order” categories to account for the superseding charges that stem from his journalistic work.

June 17, 2022 - Update

British home secretary signs extradition papers for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

The British home secretary formally approved the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States on June 17, 2022, so he can face trial on 18 charges under the Espionage Act and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

The charges stem from allegations that Assange conspired with Army Intelligence Analyst Chelsea Manning to acquire and publish hundreds of thousands of sensitive government documents.

The New York Times reported that Assange has 14 days to apply to the High Court for permission to appeal the home secretary’s decision. Assange’s wife, Stella Moris, told The Times that they will continue to fight the extradition and charges against him.

“I am going to spend every waking hour fighting for Julian until he is free, until justice is served,” Moris said.

Freedom of the Press Foundation, where the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is housed, condemned the move.

“By continuing to extradite Assange, the Biden DOJ is ignoring the dire warnings of virtually every major civil liberties and human rights organization in the country that the case will do irreparable damage to basic press freedom rights of U.S. reporters,” FPF Executive Director Trevor Timm wrote. “A successful conviction would potentially make receiving classified information, asking for sources for more information, and publishing certain types of classified information a crime.”

According to The Times, if he exhausts his avenues for appeal in British courts, he could attempt to plead his case before the European Court of Human Rights.

June 24, 2020 - Update

Justice Department announces new indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

The Department of Justice announced a superseding indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on June 24, 2020, charging him with conspiring to violate a federal anti-hacking law.

In a press release, the DOJ specifies that the indictment does not add new counts to the 18-count indictment filed against Assange in May 2019.

“It does, however, broaden the scope of the conspiracy surrounding alleged computer intrusions with which Assange was previously charged,” the press release says. The charging document alleges that Assange recruited and conspired with hackers, including those affiliated with the hacking groups LulzSec and Anonymous.

The broadened indictment still charges Assange under the Espionage Act and maintains allegations that he conspired with Army Intelligence Analyst Chelsea Manning.

Assange is currently detained in the United Kingdom as a request for his extradition is being decided by the British government.

May 23, 2019 - Update

WikiLeaks founder indicted on Espionage Act charges, raising press freedom concerns

On May 23, 2019, a federal grand jury returned an 18-count superseding indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, which included an additional 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act on top of the single count of conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that was contained in an initial indictment against Assange in April.

The new charges have alarmed press freedom advocates, who say they could potentially criminalize newsgathering and reporting techniques commonly used by mainstream U.S. reporters on national security and foreign policy issues.

Assange has been in jail in London since April, when he was removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy where he previously had asylum.

Three of the Espionage Act charges (counts 15–17) relate to Assange’s decision to publish unredacted copies of the Afghanistan war logs, Iraq war logs, and State Department cables. The government claims that Assange’s decision to publish the documents without first redacting the names of confidential informants mentioned in the documents put the informants’ lives at risk and damaged U.S. national security.

The other Espionage Act charges concern Assange’s communications with Manning about leaking specific documents. Assange is charged with conspiring to obtain classified documents, causing Manning to obtain classified documents, causing Manning to disclose classified documents to him, and receiving classified documents. Those are all separate charges.

However, First Amendment lawyers have strongly disagreed with the Justice Department’s position. “It’s not criminal to encourage someone to leak classified information to you as a journalist — that’s called news gathering, and there are First Amendment protections for news gathering,” Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a prominent media lawyer who recently represented CNN in a lawsuit against the White House, told The New York Times. “The ramifications of this are so potentially dangerous and serious for the ability of journalists to gather and disseminate information that the American people have a right to know.”

Following the release of the superseding indictment, Justice Department officials argued that Assange was not a journalist and the case against Assange was not a threat to mainstream journalists.

“The department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy and we thank you for it,” John Demers, the head of the National Security Division of the Department of Justice, told BuzzFeed News. “It has not and never has been the department’s policy to target them for reporting. But Julian Assange is no journalist.”

Legal experts, however, pointed out that it is irrelevant under the law if the Justice Department considers Assange a journalist or not. “The Espionage Act doesn’t make any distinction between journalists and nonjournalists,” Matt Miller, former spokesman for Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder said. “If you can charge Julian Assange under the law with publishing classified information, there is nothing under the law that prevents the Justice Department from charging a journalist.”

Press freedom advocacy groups also expressed serious concern at the charges.

"The indictment of Julian Assange under the Espionage Act for publishing classified information is an attack on the First Amendment and a threat to all journalists everywhere who publish information that governments would like to keep secret," said Committee to Protect Journalists Executive Director Joel Simon. "Press freedom in the United States and around the world is imperiled by this prosecution."

Advocacy groups such as Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Freedom of the Press Foundation and the ACLU, among others, condemned the government’s actions in statements as well.

The superseding indictment charges Assange with violating the Espionage Act for allegedly solicited leaks of classified information. But the conduct that Assange is accused of engaging in is very similar, if not identical, to the conduct that mainstream journalists often engage in when dealing with whistleblowers.

The indictment specifically alleges that Assange solicited classified information by publishing a list of “Most Wanted Leaks” on WikiLeaks, which may have influenced Manning’s decision to look for and leak certain documents to WikiLeaks:

Beginning by at least November 2009, Manning responded to ASSANGE's solicitation of classified information made through the WikiLeaks website. For example, WikiLeaks's "Military and Intelligence" "Most Wanted Leaks" category … solicited CIA detainee interrogation videos. On November 28, 2009, Manning in turn searched the classified network search engine, "Intelink," for "retention+of+interrogation+videos." The next day. Manning searched the classified network for "detainee+abuse," which was consistent with the "Most Wanted Leaks" request for "Detainee abuse photos withheld by the Obama administration" under WikiLeaks's "Military and Intelligence" category.

This kind of “solicitation” of classified information is not unique to WikiLeaks. Reporters regularly tweet calls for whistleblowers to securely send them confidential or classified information related to specific government programs.

Another part of the indictment describes Assange communicating with Manning about the Iran War and taking steps to protect her identity:

At the time ASSANGE agreed to receive and received from Manning the classified Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs, the U.S. Department of State Cables, and the Iraq rules of engagement files, ASSANGE knew that Manning had unlawfully obtained and disclosed or would unlawfully disclose such documents. For example, not only had ASSANGE already received thousands of military-related documents classified up to the SECRET level from Manning, but Manning and ASSANGE also chatted about military jargon and references to current events in Iraq, which showed that Manning was a government or military source; the "releasability" of certain information by ASSANGE; measures to prevent the discovery of Manning as ASSANGE's source, such as clearing logs and use of a "cryptophone;" and a code phrase to use if something went wrong.

Once again, this is not unique to Assange and WikiLeaks. Mainstream national security reporters who publish articles based on classified information generally do so with the knowledge that their source is “a government or military source” and they are not authorized to disclose the information.

Prosecuting Assange for publishing the names of confidential informants could also set a dangerous precedent for journalists. According to the indictment, Assange published the unredacted State Department cables despite being told in advance by the State Department that doing so could put the informants’ lives at risk.

Demers, the Justice Department official, told the press that “no responsible actor — journalist or otherwise” would publish the information that Assange did. It’s true that most journalists wouldn’t recklessly identify so many confidential informants, but even mainstream newspapers like The New York Times have been known to identify covert intelligence officials over the government’s objections.

April 11, 2019

On April 11, 2019, federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, charging him with one count of conspiring with Chelsea Manning, a WikiLeaks source, to violate a federal anti-hacking law. The charge was unsealed just hours after Ecuador terminated Assange’s political asylum and British police arrested Assange inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

The indictment — originally filed under seal in the Eastern District of Virginia on March 6, 2018 — focuses on Assange’s communications with Manning in 2010, when she was an Army intelligence analyst looking to leak classified documents to WikiLeaks.

According to the indictment, between January 2010 and May 2010, Manning downloaded hundreds of thousands of internal government documents — including significant activity reports from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, diplomatic cables, and Guantanamo Bay detainee reports — and leaked them for publication on WikiLeaks.

The indictment alleges that in March 2010, after Manning had already leaked large caches of documents to Assange, she asked Assange to help her cover her tracks in order to avoid being detected as WikiLeaks’ source. Specifically, she wanted help breaking a hashed password so that she could use a different user account to access the government databases from which she was downloading documents. The indictment alleges that Assange agreed to help Manning decrypt the password, though it does not mention whether he actually did so.

Assange is being charged with one count of conspiracy to violate provisions of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a broad anti-hacking law that prohibits unauthorized access to computer systems. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison.

The indictment specifically alleges that Assange entered into a conspiracy with Manning to “facilitate Manning’s acquisition and transmission of classified information related to the national defense of the United States so that WikiLeaks could publicly disseminate the information on its website.” It alleges that Assange tried to further this conspiracy by agreeing to try and crack the password for Manning.

The indictment also lists different “ways, manners, and means” that Assange and Manning allegedly used to carry out the conspiracy, some of which are typical of interactions between sources and reporters:

19. It was part of the conspiracy that Assange and Manning took measures to conceal Manning as the source of the disclosure of classified records to WikiLeaks, including by removing usernames from the disclosed information and deleting chat logs between Assange and Manning.

20. It was part of the conspiracy that Assange encouraged Manning to provide information and records from departments and agencies of the United States.

21. It was part of the conspiracy that Assange and Manning used a special folder on a cloud drop box of WikiLeaks to transmit classified records containing information related to the national defense of the United States.

The indictment alarmed some press freedom groups.

“The indictment and the Justice Department’s press release treat everyday journalistic practices as part of a criminal conspiracy,” Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute, said in a statement about the charges. “Whether the government will be able to establish a violation of the hacking statute remains to be seen, but it’s very troubling that the indictment sweeps in activities that are not just lawful but essential to press freedom — activities like cultivating sources, protecting sources’ identities, and communicating with sources securely.”

Manning is currently imprisoned for refusing to testify in front of a grand jury. Assange is currently in British police custody in London, and it is unclear whether he will be extradited to the United States to face these federal charges.

“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.

Assange will have the opportunity to challenge his extradition at a May 2 hearing held at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].