London’s Metropolitan Police Service today arrested Julian Assange after Ecuador’s Ambassador withdrew that country’s asylum protection.
Shortly after, the U.S. government confirmed that Assange had previously been indicted and charged with conspiracy to commit computer hacking by the United States Justice Department for his alleged role in the 2010 intrusion into U.S. Army systems with Chelsea Manning.
Assange is currently being held at London police station where he will await an appearance at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, according to police officials.
The arrests marks a dramatic twist in the trajectory of Assange’s career, an arc that has seem him hailed at times as a heroic free speech advocate, and other times denounced as a dupe for Russian propogandists whose goal was to elect Trump president.
Amid his rise as an iconoclast, Assange had been granted asylum by Ecuador in 2012 after efforts by Sweden to have him extradited on allegations of sexual assault. Assange has vigorously denied the charges, insisting they were part of a plot by political enemies to silence him.
Assange and Wikileaks had been steadily building in prominence for the past decade as a catalyst for whistleblowers. This work culminated with the bombshell publication in October 2010 of hundreds of thousands of documents related to the U.S. war in Iraq. That publication was done in partnership with mainstream newspapers such as The New York Times and The Guardian in the U.K.
That, and other work exposing corruption around the world, won the applause of such organizations as Amnesty International.
But while most of the revelations related to events under the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration was furious. An investigation led to the arrest of Chelsea Manning, a former intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, who was charged and sent to prison for leaking the database of documents.
That dispute in particular reportedly made Assange deeply upset with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In addition, there were accusations that U.S. and British spies had conducted secret campaigns against Wikileaks. For his part, Assange publicly denied he had a grudge against Clinton.
“There’s been a lot of misquoting of me and WikiLeaks on this,” he said in October 2016. “In this case, the notion that I hate Clinton or that I intend to destroy her. All those are false. They come about because her defenders are trying to personalize our publications.”
He made that statement shortly before Wikileaks began publishing a series of embarrassing and damaging emails that were hacked from Clinton campaign accounts by Russians. Because Trump confidant Roger Stone seemed to have advance notice of the impending publication, he became embroiled in legal issues that ultimately led to his own arrest.
While Assange had officially been denied communications and internet access at the embassy, the official Wikileaks Twitter account posted a message protesting his arrest:
URGENT: Ecuador has illigally terminated Assange political asylum in violation of international law. He was arrested by the British police inside the Ecuadorian embassy minutes ago.https://t.co/6Ukjh2rMKD
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) April 11, 2019
Julian Assange did not "walk out of the embassy". The Ecuadorian ambassador invited British police into the embassy and he was immediately arrested.
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) April 11, 2019
Despite the boost that the leaked emails gave the campaign of Donald Trump, his administration reportedly had discussed a deal with Ecuador to turn over Assange for debt relief. In November 2018, Assange was indicted by U.S. prosecutors.
It was those charges that the U.S. Department of Justice made public today. Assange has been charged with “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for agreeing to break a password to a classified U.S. government computer.”
Typically, if someone leaks classified documents to a newspaper, the law in the U.S. does not hold the newspaper legally responsible if the leaker obtained the information by illegal means.
However, in this case, the U.S. government alleges that Assange went beyond that by actively encouraging Manning to continue accessing confidential documents and providing them to Wikileaks.
In addition, the government alleges that Assange tried to provide direct assistance to Manning in her efforts to access some of documents by cracking an encrypted password. Manning had part of the password, but needed help unlocking the rest of it. The charges say she provided copies of the Linux system to Assange, though in the documents made public so far, it does not appear he was successful in decrypting the rest.
As Manning’s case unfolded, she was charged with the leaks, but also with refusing to testify against Assange. All the while, Assange was secluded in the Ecuador embassy. But it seems he finally overstayed his welcome there.
Last month, Ecuador’s government was infuriated by a Wikileaks tweet referring to a corruption scandal involving that nation’s president. From there, it seems Ecuador’s government put in motion plans to drop its asylum protection.
Whether Assange is extradited and eventually placed on trial in the U.S. will likely be determined in the coming days. But despite the notoriety of the case, the U.S. government will still have a big task ahead in proving definitely that Assange’s actions crossed a legal line.