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Court Filing Suggests Prosecutors Are Preparing Charges Against Julian Assange

Nov 16, 2018
Originally published on November 17, 2018 9:51 am

Updated at 12:00 p.m. ET

The U.S. government may be preparing criminal charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, according to suggestions in a document filed in an unrelated case.

Assange's name appeared at least twice in papers filed in the Eastern District Court of Virginia, both times appearing to say that Assange has already been made the subject of his own case.

Prosecutors in Virginia say the court document was an error.

The filing alludes to the need to keep paperwork in the case under seal because "due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged."

It's not clear whether any possible charges against Assange would relate to the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election or earlier materials that were released by WikiLeaks.

It also isn't clear whether any charges actually have been filed. The Justice Department said it had no comment about the case.

Assange's lawyer, Barry Pollack, said he hoped federal authorities aren't actually planning to go after Assange.

"The last thing the Department of Justice should be doing is pursuing criminal charges against someone for publishing truthful information," he said.

The court papers' mention of Assange was spotted by terrorism researcher Seamus Hughes.

The exile

Long a thorn in the side of the U.S. government, Assange has spent years hunkered down in the Ecuadorian embassy in London fearing extradition. International diplomatic customs meant that British authorities do not want to venture into the embassy, creating what continues to be a haven from arrest.

The stay originally was meant to dodge a onetime rape investigation in Sweden — but Assange also has worried about prosecution in the United States.

Assange first grabbed international attention when WikiLeaks began releasing troves of classified documents about a decade ago.

WikiLeaks released secret reports related to the Iraq and Afghan wars. Later, it released a huge archive of sensitive State Department cables that revealed what American diplomats were saying in confidence about leaders and affairs the world over.

Many of those leaks proved embarrassing to the Obama administration, and Chelsea Manning, the former Army soldier responsible for releasing one such trove, initially received 35 years in prison for her role in the matter before President Obama commuted that sentence during his final days in office.

More recently, WikiLeaks played a central role in the campaign of "active measures" waged by the Russian government against the West since 2014.

In 2016, Russian intelligence officers stole emails and other data from scores of political targets in the United States, including the head of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Prosecutors allege the military intelligence agency, GRU, then gave this material to WikiLeaks to release throughout 2016. The disclosures cost the job of then-DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and embarrassed Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta.

Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether anyone on the Trump campaign conspired with these active measures.

Trump denies there was any collusion and he lashed out at the special counsel's office on Thursday with new condemnations about how it is a "mess" and how the Justice Department is ignoring what he calls transgressions by Democrats.

Assange's work annoying the United States government didn't end in 2016, however. Last year, WikiLeaks released a tranche of intelligence and surveillance documents from the CIA, including tools to turn smart TVs into listening devices and using USB thumb drives to pilfer data from a target computer.

Prosecutors have charged a former CIA software engineer with stealing and leaking the material.

Assange enjoyed the following of a cult figure earlier in his career but the allegations of sexual impropriety — which he denied — and his choice to make common cause with Russia's authoritarian government have diminished his status.

It became awkward for a self-styled champion of the press and free access to become a factotum for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government represses journalists and dissidents.

And Assange's foes in the United States government have labeled him and WikiLeaks explicitly as a "hostile intelligence service."

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Federal prosecutors have inadvertently revealed that they're pursuing criminal charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. This news came in a court filing that was made in error. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is following the case and joins us to talk more about it. Hi, Carrie.


SHAPIRO: Filed in error - this seems like a cut-and-paste mistake with global implications. What happened?

JOHNSON: Indeed, over the summer the U.S. attorney's office in the Eastern District of Virginia filed some court papers in another case that involved an overseas defendant. Instead of using the name of that person, in a couple of instances the word Assange appeared instead. Seamus Hughes, a terrorism researcher, noticed the document a few days ago, tweeted about it last night. And that has got us to where we are today, with the founder of WikiLeaks appearing to be in newly hot water here in the U.S. Just to be clear, Ari, we don't know whether Julian Assange has been indicted or charged in a criminal complaint or what those charges are at this point.

SHAPIRO: And I take it prosecutors are not commenting on this at all today.

JOHNSON: Absolutely not.

SHAPIRO: Remind us of why prosecutors would be interested in this man who's been in the news for years now.

JOHNSON: Yeah he first came on the radar of U.S. law enforcement back in 2010, after Chelsea Manning sent lots of war logs and State Department cables to WikiLeaks to publish. Since then, authorities here have been looking into Julian Assange's involvement in releasing other government secrets - including some hacking techniques the CIA has been using. WikiLeaks of course also got attention from the same people who are investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Special counsel Robert Mueller mentioned WikiLeaks as Organization 1 in charges earlier this year against a dozen Russian military intelligence officers. They were charged with conspiring to defraud the United States. The idea is that basically WikiLeaks was acting as a cutout for emails swiped from the Democratic National Committee and other Democrats in 2016. But it's not clear what - if any - of all of that activity forms the basis of these charges against Julian Assange. I reached out to his American lawyer Barry Pollack today. Barry Pollack said the last thing this Justice Department should be doing is pursuing criminal charges against someone for publishing truthful information. He says this is a dangerous path.

SHAPIRO: And none of this has anything to do with the charges against him in Sweden related to sexual misconduct, which is its own story.

JOHNSON: Another story, yeah.

SHAPIRO: Assange has been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for years now. And I understand his life there has changed recently. Tell us about that.

JOHNSON: It really has. Ecuador has a new president who's far less happy with Julian Assange and who's been trying to warm up relations with American officials, like Vice President Mike Pence and President Trump. Recently, the Ecuadorians have laid down the law with Assange, Ari. They say he needs to keep his room in this embassy clean and also pick up after his cat. And their patience seems to be wearing very thin with respect to Julian Assange, who's been there since 2012 - six years now.

SHAPIRO: So where does this go from here?

JOHNSON: Well, we're all waiting to see what these charges are and when they will become public. Then there's going to be kind of a complicated back and forth among Ecuador, the United Kingdom and the U.S. about possibly extraditing him. Now, several countries refuse to turn over fugitives to the U.S. without guarantees they will not face the death penalty. But it's not clear that that's even an option in this case. Moreover, Julian Assange has been on the run for years now. It's hard to imagine he won't put up another fight with respect to possible extradition here to the United States, where the U.S. government is decidedly unfavorable toward Julian Assange.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thank you.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.