Julian Assange’s Legal Trouble, Explained

The WikiLeaks founder is in British custody and faces extradition to the United States.

Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates court in London on April 11. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates court in London on April 11. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

British police ended WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s six-and-a-half-year sojourn in Ecuador’s London embassy by carrying him headfirst out of the building on Thursday after Quito revoked his asylum.

With a long white beard, his shock of white hair tied back, and clutching a Gore Vidal book, Assange was forced out of the embassy from which he has run his transparency organization since taking refuge there in 2012.

Assange was shuttled to a London courtroom, where he was quickly convicted on charges of violating the terms of his bail.

Thursday’s events represent just the latest twist in Assange’s journey from computer hacker to transparency activist to fugitive. U.S. prosecutors unsealed an indictment against him on Thursday and are seeking his extradition, setting up a legal showdown between the WikiLeaks founder and the U.S. Justice Department.

What are the charges against Assange?

The U.S. indictment accuses Assange of conspiring with the whistleblower Chelsea Manning to break into a U.S. government database containing classified information that Manning subsequently provided to WikiLeaks.

Thursday’s indictment against Assange is narrowly construed. It alleges that Assange encouraged Manning to search for classified information and that he offered to help break a password to a database containing classified material.

There is no evidence made public to date to indicate that Assange succeeded in breaking the password, but his offer to do so is documented in publicly released chat logs between Assange and Manning.

On March 8, 2010, Manning asked Assange if he was “any good” at cracking hashes, which are the encrypted format in which passwords are typically stored. “Yes,” Assange replied, prompting Manning to supply the hash.

What are the implications of Assange’s indictment?

The indictment accuses Assange of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Many of Assange’s supporters feared he would be indicted under the Espionage Act—so the actual charge is less severe than they expected. Nonetheless, press freedom activists argue that his indictment could set a precedent for American prosecutors to target U.S. journalists more aggressively and have a chilling effect on the American press.

Much of the activity attributed to Assange in the indictment resembles the work done by journalists reporting on national security issues. It describes as part of the conspiracy Assange and Manning’s use of a “cloud drop box” to transfer files. Such systems are routinely used by U.S. media organizations to receive sensitive material from sources while protecting the sources’ identities.

Assange’s act of encouraging Manning to supply government documents—also a routine aspect of national security journalism—is another part of the conspiracy, according to the indictment. When Manning informed Assange she had no more material to supply him, Assange wrote back, “curious eyes never run dry in my experience.”

In the wake of the WikiLeaks disclosures and other leaks of classified material, U.S. prosecutors working during the Obama administration stepped up their prosecution of government officials leaking classified material, bringing a record number of cases under the Espionage Act.

But the Obama administration never charged Assange for his role in orchestrating the leaks of classified material, spanning millions of diplomatic cables, military documents, and a video of a helicopter attack on civilians in Baghdad.

The Obama administration feared that going after Assange would create a dangerous precedent for journalists.

Assange, who cut his teeth as a hacker before venturing into publishing, has always defended his work as journalism and argued that he should be afforded the customary protections extended to the media. It remains unclear how a U.S. court would consider that question.

Assange’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, said in a statement Thursday that if his extradition moves ahead, “any journalist can be extradited for prosecution in the U.S. for having published truthful information about the U.S.”

Will Assange be extradited?

The answer to that question is unclear for now and will be aggressively litigated in British courts.

As part of his decision to revoke Assange’s asylum, Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno said that he secured a written commitment from the British government not to extradite Assange to a country in which he could be subject to torture or the death penalty.

But it’s not clear how relevant that commitment is for Assange. European law already prohibits the extradition of anyone at risk of capital punishment or torture, and yet Britain routinely extradites individuals to the United States, according to the website of the U.S. Embassy in London.

But recent computer hacking cases may point toward a favorable outcome for Assange.

Last year, a British court blocked the extradition of Lauri Love, who was accused of breaking into the computer systems of the FBI and other U.S. government agencies, and said he was likely to experience undue suffering in the U.S. prison system. And in 2012 none other than then Home Secretary Theresa May, now the prime minister, blocked the extradition to the United States of another accused computer hacker, Gary McKinnon.

Will there be additional charges against Assange?

Multiple media outlets reported on Thursday that prosecutors expect to issue additional charges against Assange.

Those charges could touch on any number of controversies from his past.

U.S. intelligence officials have, for example, accused Assange of conspiring with Russian intelligence to publish documents stolen from the computer systems of Democratic operatives during the 2016 presidential campaign. The publication of those documents was a key component of the Russian effort to boost Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

A grand jury remains empaneled in the Eastern District of Virginia and is currently taking evidence regarding Assange, an indication that the U.S. investigation of the WikiLeaks founder remains active. Manning is currently imprisoned for her refusal to give testimony before that body.

The Swedish sexual assault investigation in which Assange was wanted for questioning when he sought asylum in 2012 has been dropped. But on Thursday one of the plaintiffs in the case asked that the investigation be reopened, and Swedish authorities said they would consider whether to do so.

Why did this happen now?

Six and a half years into his stay in the Ecuadorian Embassy, Assange had become a uniquely annoying houseguest.

Ecuadorian officials have often complained of the cost of Assange’s stay in London, his poor hygiene, and the political cost of protecting a man who has made enemies in most world capitals. As his welcome wore thin, Assange signed an agreement pledging to clean up after himself and not to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries.

But the final straw seems to have been recent publications in Ecuador of emails and other messages belonging to Moreno, the Ecuadorian president, and his wife. Moreno’s political opponents quickly accused him of corruptly profiting from a business deal with a Chinese firm, the Daily Beast reports.

That controversy might have blown over had WikiLeaks not promoted the story on Twitter.

 Twitter: @EliasGroll