6:43am PT by Eriq Gardner
U.S. Authorities Charge Julian Assange of Conspiring in Computer Hacking
Following the dramatic arrest on Thursday in the United Kingdom of Julian Assange, U.S. authorities have revealed an unsealed indictment that accuses the WikiLeaks founder of conspiring with Chelsea Manning to hack into government computers.
Assange has been holed up at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012. The Swedish-born Assange became internationally famous after WikiLeaks published classified cables by U.S. diplomats. The Swedes wanted to arrest him for alleged sexual assault, but he was granted asylum by Ecuador. For skipping bail in the U.K., Assange also faced charges in that country.
President Lenin Moreno of Ecuador announced on Twitter today that his country wouldn't shelter Assange any longer after "repeated violations to international conventions and daily-life protocols."
With Ecuador no longer standing in the way, U.K. police were invited into the embassy to arrest Assange. He now faces the prospect of extradition to the United States.
Federal prosecutors aren't charging Assange, 47, with publishing classified material but nevertheless are targeting him for alleged conspiracy connected to the 2010 publication of files that provided an unflattering look at how the United States was operating in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. Specifically, the indictment alleges that Assange and Manning, a former U.S. intelligence officer, engaged in discussions about the transmission of classified records. Assange is said to have assisted Manning in cracking a password that made files available only to users with administrative-level privileges. According to the indictment, Assange knew that Manning was providing WikiLeaks with classified records downloaded from the U.S. Defense Department and other agencies.
Assange now faces prosecution in the Eastern District of Virginia for intentionally conspiring to access a computer exceeding authorized access. It's unclear whether U.K. authorities will immediately hand him over to the U.S, but it's likely that Assange will explore legal options to contest an extradition.
For her part in the leaking of classified materials, Manning served seven years of a 35-year prison sentence before President Barack Obama commuted Manning's sentence before leaving office. Manning is currently back in a prison facility in Virginia for refusing to answer questions before a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks.
Assange has consistently maintained his innocence and characterized his actions as journalism protected by the First Amendment. Under Supreme Court precedent, the publication of legally obtained materials is protected even if the information itself was intercepted unlawfully by someone else. The allegation of Assange's active involvement in the obtaining of illicit information is sure to set up a high-stakes legal battle with ramifications for others in the media.
The prosecution also occurs as Special Counsel Robert Mueller just wrapped up his own investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. There, Russians are said to have hacked DNC computers and given materials to WikiLeaks for publication. Donald Trump has spoken fondly of WikiLeaks' efforts with respect to this, and, at least at the moment, Assange has not been publicly charged in court in connection to those activities.