Julian Assange, the co-founder of Wikileaks, was formally charged by the U.S. Department of Justice with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion due to what they described in a statement as "agreeing to break a password to a classified U.S. government computer." Assange was arrested at the Ecuadorian embassy in London on Thursday in accordance with the U.S./UK Extradition Treaty.
According to the statement, Assange's charges are related to an alleged role in what the Department of Justice described as "one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States."
The event in question dates back to March of 2010, when Assange allegedly conspired with Chelsea Manning, who at the time was an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, in order to discover the passwords on U.S. Department of Defense computers that would then grant them access to a secret government network where they would be able to unearth classified documents and communications. Manning used her access to the network to download information to provide for Wikileaks, while the ability to use other passwords would allow the source of such a leak to be more difficult to identify.
The Department of Justice claimed that during this period, Assange and Manning were in direct communication, with Assange serving as a source of encouragement in order to push Manning into providing more information, at one point allegedly telling the intelligence analyst, "Curious eyes never run dry in my experience."If convicted on all charges, Assange faces a maximum sentence of five years in federal prison, although the Justice Department notes that federal offenders rarely get the maximum penalty, especially on their first offense.
Manning, for her part, was convicted in 2013 of various violations of the Espionage Act, for which she was imprisoned until 2017, when then-president Barack Obama commuted her 35-year sentence. However, since March 8, 2018, she has been jailed in Virginia on contempt of court charges for refusing to testify against Assange in a grand jury case, as The Guardian reports.
Assange's arrest in London on Thursday morning, as well as the subsequent leveling of charges against him, sets a "bad precedent" for leakers, whistleblowers, and journalists working in and reporting on the U.S., says the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In a blog post on the agency's website, writer Ben Mizner warned that any attempt to punish Assange for leaking government information would be "unprecedented and unconstitutional," and would pave the way for the prosecution of other news organizations, which in turn would threaten the public interest.