Washington, DC – US prosecutors have charged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with conspiracy for agreeing to break a password to a classified US government computer with former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010.
According to court documents, unsealed on Thursday, the charge relates to Assange‘s alleged role in one of the “largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States”, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) said in a statement.
Assange, 47, was arrested by British police on Thursday, paving the way for possible extradition to the US. He had been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012, but Ecuador‘s President Lenin Moreno said the government revoked Assange’s asylum because of his “discourteous and aggressive behaviour”.
According to British police, the Ecuadorian ambassador in London invited authorities into the embassy where they made the arrest for breaking bail conditions in the UK and on “behalf of US authorities”.
Assange appeared in a British court later on Thursday and was convicted of breaking the terms of his bail seven years ago. He had pleaded not guilty. Assange will be sentenced at a later date. His next court appearance via a video-link is set for May 2 on the extradition case.
The US indictment alleges that in March 2010, Assange engaged “in a conspiracy with Chelsea Manning” to assist Manning in “cracking a password” stored in US Department of Defense computers connected with a US government network used for classified documents and communications.
Manning served seven years in prison for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks.
“During the conspiracy, Manning and Assange engaged in real-time discussions regarding Manning’s transmission of classified records to Assange,” the DOJ said in a statement.
“The discussions also reflect Assange actively encouraging Manning to provide more information,” the DOJ added. “During an exchange, Manning told Assange that ‘after this upload, that’s all I really have got left.’ To which Assange replied, ‘Curious eyes never run dry in my experience.'”
If convicted on the conspiracy charge, Assange faces up to five years in prison, the DOJ said in its statement.
Barry Pollack, Assange’s US-based lawyer, said that “journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by these unprecedented criminal charges” that led to Assange’s arrest.
He added in a statement sent to Al Jazeera, “While the indictment against Julian Assange disclosed today charges conspiracy to commit computer crimes, the factual allegations against Mr Assange boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identity of that source.”
Philip Holloway, a criminal lawyer and founder of the Holloway Law Group, said that the key to the current indictment is that it accuses Assange of agreeing with Manning to receive classified information.
“I think if he was merely receiving information then there would not be a conspiracy,” Holloway told Al Jazeera. Conspiracy is to do something illegal, he added.
Even for a journalist as atypical as Assange who was merely receiving information, it would not be considered a crime, he said.
However, if it were found that Assange entered into agreements with Manning to access computers that he should not be accessing, then it would be illegal.
The indictment is likely a placeholder for more detailed and extensive charges to come within days or weeks, according to Christopher A Ott, a former DOJ cybercrimes prosecutor now in private practice in Washington, DC.
“What is likely is that there will be superseding charges that are filed before an extradition decision is made. And there are hints in it that will be the case,” Ott told Al Jazeera.
By focusing on Assange’s coordination with Manning about cracking a password, prosecutors are framing their charges against Assange as more than a press freedom case.
“Tactically, if you are a prosecutor, you have to find a way to differentiate and so, at least in the primary charges, they said, ‘Look, he’s hacking, he’s not just publishing. He’s actually doing the password hacking.’ So, that is something more.”
The effect, Ott said, is to get around Assange’s likely claim that he was merely a publisher whose actions were protected under the US Constitution. If prosecutors file additional charges, it could result in a prison term for Assange longer than five years, if he is convicted, Ott said.
“These are relatively heavy-duty criminal spying charges,” Ott said. “Those would not be five-year-capped cases. Those are essentially treason cases.”
Assange’s extradition from the UK will probably take two to four months, Ott added.
Democrat Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement, that he hoped Assange would face swift extradition to the US.
“Julian Assange has long professed high ideals and moral superiority,” Warner said. “Unfortunately, whatever his intentions when he started WikiLeaks, what he’s really become is a direct participant in Russian efforts to undermine the West and a dedicated accomplice in efforts to undermine American security.”
Assange’s legal team in the UK expressed disappointment over Ecuador’s decision to allow for the WikiLeaks founder’s arrest.
“Ecuador will be blackballed from international society for doing this,” Assange’s lawyer Geoffrey Robertson told BBC News.
“You can’t give someone asylum for seven years and then hand them over, which is what Ecuador has done,” he added. “It’s a breach of international law.”