On Thursday, the US unsealed charges against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. But despite a pervasive narrative that authorities were going to prosecute Assange for publishing information in the public interest, raising press freedom concerns, instead a court charged Assange with hacking crimes that had already been in media reports for years.
The new charges will change the public conversation about Assange and Wikileaks. While Assange and his supporters have said that they were merely releasing information obtained by others, the charges allege that he was actively conspiring to break into systems to obtain the information in the first place, through illegal means. Public perception-wise, this distinction is important, and changes the discussion from one about the ethics of publishing classified information to one about the ethics of hacktivism and using hacking to obtain information that the people who release it believe it to be in the public interest.
Assange is charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, according to an announcement from the Department of Justice (DOJ).
The charges relate to how Assange allegedly conspired with Chelsea Manning, Wikileaks’ source for the infamous Iraq War Logs and other disclosures, to crack a password protecting a classified computer system.
“On or about March 8, 2010, Assange agreed to assist Manning in cracking a password stored on the United States Department of Defense computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network, a United States government network used for classified documents and communications,” the indictment reads.
This offer of help to actually break into a system has been public knowledge since 2011. At the time, WIRED reported on a request from Manning to help her crack a password. The Washington Post printed snippets of an online chat between Manning and Assange, in which Assange says he has “passed it to our guys,” referring to the password hash to crack.
Manning’s disclosures contained information significantly in the public interest, including the Collateral Murder video, which showed a US military helicopter killing civilians and journalists in Iraq in 2007.
For months, advocates have claimed that the arrest of Julian Assange presented a press freedom issue, falsely assuming that charges would focus on the publication of information itself and not hacking.
Earlier Thursday, and after years of staying in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, police arrested Assange, the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) said in a press release. While initially arrested under an ongoing warrant related to his failure to surrender to court after breaching his bail, he was later “further arrested” due to an extradition request from the United States to face the computer-related charges, an updated release adds.
The arrest comes days after Wikileaks claimed that Assange’s removal from the embassy was imminent. According to the MPS release, the MPS was invited into the embassy by the Ambassador following the Ecuadorian government’s withdrawal of asylum.
Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno said in a video statement that Assange “particularly violated the norm of not intervening in the internal affairs of other states.” Moreno then pointed to the leak of Vatican documents as evidence of this interference.
"The patience of Ecuador has reached its limit on the behavior of Mr. Assange,” he added.
Assange was arrested on a long-standing warrant from 2012. He breached bail conditions by entering the embassy and failing to surrender to court. Although the bail related to sexual assault allegations against Assange in Sweden, and which were eventually dropped, the crime of breaching bail conditions stands. Westminster Magistrates’ Court has consistently upheld the warrant for his arrest.
“He appears to consider himself above the normal rules of law and wants justice only if it goes in his favour,” Judge Emma Arbuthnot said after that decision.
Assange faces a maximum of five years in prison from these current charges, the DOJ announcement adds. Prosecutors do have the option to add more charges at a later date; which perhaps could not deal with only this alleged hacking conspiracy.
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