DOJ charges WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with 17 counts for publishing classified US government documents

julian assangeWikiLeaks founder Julian Assange makes a speech from the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy, in central London, Britain February 5, 2016.Thomson Reuters

  • The Justice Department has charged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with 17 counts, including violating the Espionage Act.
  • Assange's indictment was not unexpected - a federal prosecutor accidentally revealed in a recently unsealed case unrelated to Assange that he had been charged but that the indictment needed to be kept under seal so it wouldn't impede the ongoing investigation.
  • Assange and WikiLeaks were central to the special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Thursday indicted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with 17 counts, including violating the Espionage Act.

The DOJ has been investigating Assange since 2010 for his role in obtaining and disseminating sensitive information pertaining to US national security interests, and his indictment is not entirely unexpected.

In a recently unsealed court filing in an unrelated case, assistant US attorney Kellen S. Dwyer asked a federal judge in the Eastern District of Virginia to keep the matter sealed.

Kellen wrote that "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," adding that the charges would "need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested."

Dwyer was reportedly also working on the WikiLeaks case, and people familiar with the matter told The Washington Post that what Dwyer had revealed in the filing was true but unintentional.

Assange had been living at the Ecuadorean embassy in London under asylum since 2012.

But in April, British authorities arrested Assange after the embassy withdrew its protection. Shortly after, the DOJ indicted him on one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, according to an unsealed indictment from the Justice Department.

The indictment alleges that Assange helped the former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning hack a password on a classified Pentagon computer.

A grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia approved the indictment last March.

In a statement after the April indictment was unsealed, the Justice Department said the charge against Assange is connected to his alleged role in the 2010 release of thousands of pages of classified US government documents and videos related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Justice Department characterized the leak as "one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States."

"Manning, who had access to the computers in connection with her duties as an intelligence analyst, was using the computers to download classified records to transmit to WikiLeaks," the statement added.

"Cracking the password would have allowed Manning to log on to the computers under a username that did not belong to her. Such a deceptive measure would have made it more difficult for investigators to determine the source of the illegal disclosures."

Assange and WikiLeaks are at the center of the special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 US election.

In an indictment charging 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking into the Democratic National Committee and disseminating stolen emails, Mueller's office mentioned WikiLeaks - though not by name - as the Russians' conduit to release hacked documents via the hacker Guccifer 2.0, who is believed to be a front for Russian military intelligence.

WikiLeaks touts itself as an independent organization, but US intelligence believes the group to be a propaganda tool for the Kremlin. Former CIA director Mike Pompeo also characterized WikiLeaks as a "non-state hostile intelligence service."

The last indictment Mueller's office issued was against the 12 Russian military intelligence officers in July. The special counsel's office has been quiet over the last month or so, likely adhering to DOJ guidelines that bar prosecutors from taking any overt action that could influence the outcome of an election like the recent November midterms.

But Washington was abuzz in recent days with anticipation that Mueller would drop something big soon, whether in the form of an indictment or a report in his ongoing obstruction investigation against the president.

Speculation also mounted that he would charge certain individuals in connection with WikiLeaks' activities during the election, including the longtime GOP strategist Roger Stone and the far-right conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi.

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