The Justice Department has secretly filed criminal charges against the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, a person familiar with the case said, a drastic escalation of the government’s yearslong battle with him and his anti-secrecy group.
Top Justice Department officials told prosecutors over the summer that they could start drafting a complaint against Mr. Assange, current and former law enforcement officials said. The charges came to light late Thursday through an unrelated court filing in which prosecutors inadvertently mentioned them.
“The court filing was made in error,” said Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the United States attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia. “That was not the intended name for this filing.”
Mr. Assange has lived for years in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London and would have to be arrested and extradited if he were to face charges in federal court, altogether a multistep diplomatic and legal process.
The disclosure came as the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, is investigating links between President Trump’s associates and Russia’s 2016 election interference. WikiLeaks published thousands of emails that year from Democrats during the presidential race that were stolen by Russian intelligence officers. The hackings were a major part of Moscow’s campaign of disruption.
Though the legal move against Mr. Assange remained a mystery on Thursday, charges centering on the publication of information of public interest — even if it was obtained from Russian government hackers — would create a precedent with profound implications for press freedoms.
Mr. Assange has been in prosecutors’ sights for years because of WikiLeaks’s publication of thousands of secret government documents. Mr. Assange and his upstart website rose to prominence when Chelsea Manning, a low-ranking Army intelligence analyst, handed over thousands of classified Pentagon and State Department documents to WikiLeaks, which began publishing them in 2010.
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SOURCE: NY Times, Charlie Savage, Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt