WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested in London on a US warrant charging him over his alleged role in a massive leak of military and diplomatic documents in 2010, the Justice Department said Thursday.
Assange faces up to five years in jail on a federal charge of “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for agreeing to break a password to a classified US government computer,” according to a statement.
The indictment alleges Assange conspired in March 2010 with Chelsea Manning, a former US Army intelligence analyst, to crack a password stored on Department of Defense computers.
Though it was unclear if the password was ever broken, the Justice Department said the effort was part of Assange’s role in “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States.”
Manning’s passing of hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks exposed US military wrongdoing in the Iraq war and diplomatic secrets regarding scores of countries around the world.
It also made WikiLeaks, which Assange founded several years earlier, a powerful force in the global anti-secrecy movement as media around the world for months after republished the secrets that WikiLeaks divulged.
Since then the US has regarded him as a national security threat, though before President Donald Trump came to office in 2017, the US government appears to have been unwilling to charge him, given that his activities were similar to what journalists do in their daily work.
In 2017, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, called WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service” abetted by Moscow.
Assange’s US lawyer Barry Pollack said in a statement that his arrest constitutes “an unprecedented effort by the United States seeking to extradite a foreign journalist to face criminal charges for publishing truthful information.”
The narrow charge of aiding Manning in attempting to crack a password appears intended to side-step critical issues related to the US Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press.
The indictment makes no mention of WikiLeaks’ role in publishing Democratic files and communications hacked by Russian intelligence during the 2016 election.