WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange charged by US with conspiracy to hack a government computer

Assange is accused of conspiring with former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning

Published April 11, 2019 8:58AM (EDT)

Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates court on April 11, 2019 in London, England. (Getty Images/Jack Taylor)
Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates court on April 11, 2019 in London, England. (Getty Images/Jack Taylor)

Julian Assange, the fugitive founder of WikiLeaks, was charged by the U.S. with one count of conspiracy to hack a computer for his role in the 2010 release of thousands of secret government documents, according to a criminal complaint unsealed mere hours after British authorities arrested him in London.

The single charge – conspiracy to commit computer intrusion – comes from what prosecutors said was Assange's agreement to break a password to a classified U.S. government computer. The indictment, unsealed on Thursday, was filed in court last year on March 6 and includes no evidence that the password-cracking effort succeeded.

Assange was arrested by British authorities for violating the terms of his bail relating to a 2012 warrant and on behalf of the U.S. in response to an extradition request.

London's Metropolitan Police said in a statement that Assange was detained "on a warrant issued by Westminster Magistrates' Court on 29 June 2012, for failing to surrender to the court" and taken to a central London police station "where he will remain before being presented before Westminster Magistrates' Court as soon as possible." British police originally sought custody of Assange for skipping bail in August of 2012, while he was under investigation over allegations of sexual assault and rape in Sweden.

British officials said Assange had "been further arrested on behalf of the United States authorities" after his arrival at the police station in central London.

He has been under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice since 2010 after WikiLeaks published thousands of classified documents and videos about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, confidential diplomatic cables and files from Guantanamo Bay about prison camp detainees. The secret government records and communications were stolen by a former U.S. Army Intelligence analyst, now known as Chelsea Manning.

"Assange knew that Manning was providing WikiLeaks with classified records containing national defense information of the United States," prosecutors wrote in the court filings. "Assange was knowingly receiving such classified records from Manning for the purpose of publicly disclosing them on the WikiLeaks website."

The U.S. Department of Justice confirmed Assange was indicted on conspiracy with Manning to commit computer intrusion in 2010.

"The indictment alleges that in March 2010, Assange engaged in a conspiracy with Chelsea Manning, a former intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, to assist Manning in cracking a password stored on U.S. Department of Defense computers ," the Justice Department said in a press release Thursday.

Assange has most recently come under attack for claims WikiLeaks posted thousands of emails stolen from Democrats by Russian agents during the 2016 presidential election, which has been a focus of several investigations into alleged collusion between President Donald Trump's campaign and Russia. American investigators have said the systems were hacked by Russian agents.

The founder of the whistleblower website spent almost seven years living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. His arrest came after Ecuador dropped Assange's asylum status Thursday.

Ecuador granted Assange asylum in 2012, and he has been living in the country's embassy in London ever since. Ecuador's president, Lenin Moreno, said Thursday that his government made a "sovereign decision" to rescind Assange's political asylum due to "repeated violations to international conventions and daily life."

"Today, I announce that that the discourteous and aggressive behavior of Mr. Julian Assange, the hostile and threatening declarations of its allied organization, against Ecuador, and especially the transgression of international treaties, have led the situation to a point where the asylum of Mr. Assange is unsustainable and no longer viable," Moreno said in a video released on Twitter.

Moreno's decision to revoke Assange's asylum at its embassy in London points to a shift in the country's politics since it extended refuge to him and caps a standoff that first began in 2012.

Moreno previously pledged he would not turn Assange over to any country that has the death penalty. Assange accused the Ecuadorian government of attempting to end his asylum last year because of new rules the embassy imposed on him, which require him to pay for medical bills and phone calls, stay away from commenting on political issues online and clean up after his pet cat. Staff at the Ecuadorian embassy have also reportedly complained of Assange "riding a skateboard in the halls, of playing soccer on the grounds and behaving aggressively with security personnel."

Assange took refuge in the embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced questions about allegations that he had sexually molested one woman and raped another in August 2010. Assange has maintained his innocence in connection to the sex abuse allegations, casting it as a ploy for his eventual extradition to the U.S. He will have a right to challenge the extradition request in British courts.

Sweden rescinded its arrest warrant for Assange in May of 2017, although the case is not closed and could possibly resume. Sweden's Prosecution Authority could reopen the probe into Assange, prosecutor Ingrid Isgren said in a statement Thursday. The statute of limitations for the alleged crimes does not expire until August of 2020, she said. Isgren said Swedish officials "are following the developments."

By Shira Tarlo

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