Justice Department Charges WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
All right, here to talk through all of this now is NPR's justice reporter Ryan Lucas. Hey, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.
CHANG: So what more can you tell us about the indictment today?
LUCAS: Well, Assange has been charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. In layman's terms, what that means is a computer-hacking conspiracy. The indictment alleges that back in March of 2010, Assange agreed to help the then-U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning break a password to Defense Department computers. That would have given Manning access to more classified documents and communications and also would have allowed her to kind of hide her tracks.
The indictment does not say whether Assange and Manning ever succeeded in this, but Manning of course served jail time over this massive leak of classified information.
CHANG: Right. And we've had hints that Assange could face criminal charges here in the U.S., right?
LUCAS: That's right. He was in the crosshairs of the Justice Department during the Obama administration. So this goes back many years. The Obama Justice Department considered bringing charges. Ultimately it did not. That was at least in part because WikiLeaks does a lot of things that news organizations do. There were concerns about what sort of precedent bringing charges against WikiLeaks...
LUCAS: ...Might set. That's why I think that this computer hacking conspiracy charge today is interesting. It's narrow. It's not about the publication of leaked information or espionage. It seems to kind of sidestep the press freedom issues and First Amendment concerns.
CHANG: Right. It's very narrow. So the charge against Assange is not related in any way to 2016 or the Russia investigation, right?
LUCAS: No. This is not related to that. Wikileaks did, as you have noted, play a very big role in the 2016 U.S. election. We can all remember how it published the Democratic emails that the U.S. government says were hacked by Russia, passed on to WikiLeaks.
Special counsel Robert Mueller's team has alleged that WikiLeaks discussed actually with Russian intelligence operations the best time to publish those hacked emails in order to influence the election. It's unclear whether WikiLeaks knew that it was actually dealing with Russian intelligence.
But the bottom line for your question, no, the indictment does not address WikiLeaks' role in the 2016 election. All of that said, the U.S. government's frustrations with WikiLeaks go back well before 2016.
CHANG: Now, there are a lot of people out there who think of WikiLeaks as journalism. How would you characterize the U.S. government's view of WikiLeaks?
LUCAS: Well, the strongest thing that we've heard out of a U.S. government official that I can recall about Wikileaks and Assange came from Mike Pompeo back when he was CIA director. Here's how he described WikiLeaks.
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MIKE POMPEO: It's time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is - a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.
LUCAS: And there is a long list of things that WikiLeaks has published over the years that has angered the U.S. government. That includes the massive leaks of documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that Manning was a part of. There's leaks of State Department diplomatic cables, of course WikiLeaks' role in the 2016 election. Even more recently, though, WikiLeaks has published CIA documents about the agency's hacking tools.
American officials have argued for a long time that the leaks that WikiLeaks has been a part of have harmed U.S. national security. And they say that Wikileaks overwhelmingly focuses on the U.S. government, that it does not put the same sort of scrutiny on other governments, particularly authoritarian ones such as Russia. Pompeo, in his speech back in 2017 when he was CIA director - he even went so far as to accuse Wikileaks of being supported by authoritarian countries.
CHANG: Wow. I mean, that said, WikiLeaks does have a lot of supporters around the entire world.
LUCAS: Absolutely, absolutely. And what WikiLeaks' supporters say is that the organization is exposing government wrongdoing; it is shining a spotlight on government secrets. And what they argue is that in this regard, WikiLeaks really isn't any different than a media organization.
Assange's lawyer here in the U.S., Barry Pollack - he hit on that point today. And we're likely to hear this a lot as this case proceeds. What he said was that the charge against Assange boils down to encouraging a source, to provide information and then trying to protect that source. And he says that journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by the criminal charges against Assange.
CHANG: All right, so what happens next in this case?
LUCAS: Well, Assange is in the custody of British authorities at the moment. The Justice Department is working with them to get him extradited here to the U.S. And the Justice Department has until mid-June to present the materials to support their effort to get him over here. Assange's lawyer in the U.K. has said he will fight this. And so we're going to have to wait for this to play out.
CHANG: All right, that's NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas. Thanks, Ryan.
LUCAS: Thank you.