WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange faces charges under seal
By ERIC TUCKER, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department has filed charges under seal against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a person familiar with the matter confirmed Friday after prosecutors inadvertently tipped off the information in a court filing.
Any charges against Assange, who has been taking cover for years in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, could help illuminate whether Russia coordinated with the Trump campaign to sway the 2016 presidential election. They would also suggest that, after years of internal wrangling within the Justice Department, prosecutors have decided to take a more aggressive stance against the secret-sharing website.
The person who confirmed that Assange had been charged spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the charges had not been made public. It was not immediately clear what charges Assange could face or when they might become unsealed.
The charges came to light in a recently unsealed court filing from a federal prosecutor in Virginia, who was attempting to keep sealed a separate, unrelated case.
In one sentence, the prosecutor wrote that the charges and arrest warrant "would need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested in connection with the charges in the criminal complaint and can therefore no longer evade or avoid arrest and extradition in this matter."
In another sentence, the prosecutor said that "due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged."
It was not immediately clear why Assange's name was included in the document, though Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the Eastern District of Virginia — which had been investigating Assange — said, "The court filing was made in error. That was not the intended name for this filing."
Recently ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year declared the arrest of Assange a priority. Special counsel Robert Mueller has been investigating whether Trump campaign associates had advance knowledge of Democratic emails that were published by WikiLeaks in the weeks before the 2016 election and that U.S. authorities have said were hacked by Russia.
Barry Pollack, a lawyer for Assange, told the AP earlier this week that he had no information about possible charges.
In a new statement, he said, "The news that criminal charges have apparently been filed against Mr. Assange is even more troubling than the haphazard manner in which that information has been revealed. The government bringing criminal charges against someone for publishing truthful information is a dangerous path for a democracy to take."
The filing was discovered by Seamus Hughes, a terrorism expert at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, who posted it on Twitter hours after The Wall Street Journal reported that the Justice Department was preparing to prosecute Assange and said, "To be clear, seems Freudian, it's for a different completely unrelated case, every other page is not related to him, EDVA just appears to have Assange on the mind when filing motions to seal and used his name."
The case at issue concerns a defendant named Seitu Sulayman Kokayi, a 29-year-old teacher who has since been indicted in Virginia on charges of enticing a 15-year-old girl to commit sex acts and to produce child pornography.
The document, a motion filed in late August asking to keep Kokayi's case secret, mentions Assange in two boilerplate sections, suggesting a copy-and-paste error or that his name was inadvertently left in a template used for the common filings. That document has since been unsealed.
There doesn't appear to be any connection between Assange and Kokayi.
Assange, 47, has resided in the Ecuadorian Embassy for more than six years in a bid to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where he was wanted to sex crimes, or to the United States, whose government he has repeatedly humbled with mass disclosures of classified information.
The Australian ex-hacker was once a welcome guest at the embassy, which takes up part of the ground floor of a stucco-fronted apartment in London's Knightsbridge neighborhood. But his relationship with his hosts has soured over the years amid reports of espionage, erratic behavior and diplomatic unease.
Any criminal charge is sure to further complicate the already tense relationship.
Ecuadorian officials say they have cut off the WikiLeaks founder's high-speed internet access and will restore it only if he agrees to stop interfering in the affairs of Ecuador's partners — such as the United States and Spain. He is allowed to use the embassy's WiFi, though it is unclear if he doing so. Officials have also imposed a series of other restrictions on Assange's activities and visitors — and ordered him to clean after his cat.
Carlos Poveda, Assange's lawyer in Ecuador, said he suspects the small South American nation's government has been maneuvering to kick his client out of the embassy through the stricter new living requirements it recently imposed.
He said possible U.S. charges, however, are proof his client remains under threat, and he called on Ecuador's government to uphold Assange's asylum protections. He said Ecuador would be responsible if anything happened to Assange.
With shrinking options — an Ecuadorian lawsuit seeking to reverse the restrictions was recently turned down — WikiLeaks announced in September that former spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson, an Icelandic journalist who has long served as one of Assange's lieutenants, would take over as editor-in-chief.
Hrafnsson did not immediately respond to calls and messages seeking comment.
WikiLeaks has attracted U.S. attention since 2010, when it published thousands of military and State Department documents from Army Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning. In a Twitter post early Friday, WikiLeaks said the "US case against WikiLeaks started in 2010" and expanded to include other disclosures, including by contractor Edward Snowden.
"The prosecutor on the order is not from Mr. Mueller's team and WikiLeaks has never been contacted by anyone from his office," WikiLeaks said.
Associated Press writer Raphael Satter in Paris and Chad Day in Washington contributed to this report.