WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sought to recruit hackers at conferences in Europe and Asia and conspired with members of hacking groups – including LulzSec and “Anonymous” – to obtain government secrets, the United States Justice Department has said.
The new allegations against Assange were outlined in an updated indictment on Wednesday.
The “superseding indictment” does not contain additional charges beyond the 18 counts the Justice Department unsealed last year. But prosecutors said it underscored Assange’s efforts to procure and release classified information, allegations that form the basis of criminal charges he already faces.
Beyond recruiting hackers at the conference, the charging document accuses Assange of gaining unauthorised access to a government computer system of a NATO country in 2010. Two years later, he conspired with the leader of LulzSec and asked to be provided with documents and databases, the Justice Department said.
“In another communication, Assange told the LulzSec leader that the most impactful release of hacked materials would be from the CIA, NSA, or the New York Times,” it said.
Assange also published on WikiLeaks emails from a data breach of a US intelligence community consulting company by a hacker affiliated with LulzSec and “Anonymous”, it added.
The 48-year-old Assange was arrested last year after being evicted from the Ecuadorian embassy in London and is at the centre of a continuing extradition tussle over whether he should be sent to the US.
The Justice Department has already charged him with conspiring with former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in one of the largest compromises of classified information in US history. Prosecutors say the WikiLeaks founder damaged national security by publishing hundreds of thousands of classified documents, including diplomatic cables and military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that harmed the US and its allies and aided its adversaries.
Assange maintains he was acting as a journalist entitled to First Amendment protection. His lawyers have argued the US charges of espionage and computer misuse are politically motivated and an abuse of power.
Assange’s lawyer, Barry Pollack, said in a statement that “the government’s relentless pursuit of Julian Assange poses a grave threat to journalists everywhere and to the public’s right to know.”
“While today’s superseding indictment is yet another chapter in the US Government’s effort to persuade the public that its pursuit of Julian Assange is based on something other than his publication of newsworthy truthful information,” he added, “the indictment continues to charge him with violating the Espionage Act based on WikiLeaks publications exposing war crimes committed by the US Government.”
The allegations in the new indictment centre on conferences as far back as 2009, in locations including the Netherlands and Malaysia, at which prosecutors say he and a WikiLeaks associate sought to recruit hackers who could locate classified information, including material on a “Most Wanted Leaks” list posted on WikiLeaks’ website.
According to the new indictment, he told would-be recruits that unless they were a member of the US military, they faced no legal liability for their actions.
At one conference in Malaysia, called the “Hack in the Box Security Conference”, Assange told the audience, “I was a famous teenage hacker in Australia, and I’ve been reading generals’ emails since I was 17.”