U.S. Charges Julian Assange With Conspiracy to Hack a Government Computer

The United States has charged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange of conspiring to hack a computer as part of the 2010 release of reams of secret American documents, according to an indictment unsealed Thursday, putting him just one flight away from being in American custody after years of seclusion in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

The single charge, conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, was filed a year earlier, in March 2018, and stems from what prosecutors said was his agreement to break a password to a classified United States government computer. It carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and is significant in that it is not an espionage charge, a detail that will come as a relief to press freedom advocates. The United States government had considered until at least last year charging him with an espionage-related offense.

Mr. Assange, 47, has been living at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since 2012. British authorities arrested him on Thursday, heavily bearded and disheveled. A dramatic video showed him shackled and being carried out of the embassy and forced into a police van. He was detained partly in connection with an American extradition warrant after he was evicted by the Ecuadoreans.

Mr. Assange has been in the sights of the United States government since his organization’s 2010 disclosures. Most recently, Mr. Assange has been under attack for his organization’s release during the 2016 presidential campaign of thousands of emails stolen from the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee, leading to a series of revelations that embarrassed the party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. United States investigators have said that the systems were hacked by Russian agents; the conspiracy charge against Mr. Assange unsealed Thursday is not related to the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s election influence.

Mr. Assange will have the right to contest the United States extradition request in British courts. Most people who fight extradition requests argue that the case is politically motivated rather than driven by legitimate legal concerns.

In 2010 WikiLeaks released American files that documented the killing of civilians and journalists and the abuse of detainees by forces of the United States and other countries, airing officials’ unvarnished, often unflattering views of allies and of American actions.

Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst then known as Bradley Manning, was convicted of leaking that collection of files and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. President Barack Obama commuted the sentence after Ms. Manning had served almost seven years.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Eileen Sullivan and Richard Perez-Pena