WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrested and charged with conspiracy

April 11, 2019

On April 11, 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]

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