The U.S. is considering altering its approach to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as the Department of Justice is reconsidering charging Assange for his organization’s release of classified material. It’s still slightly unclear how far along the DOJ is in the process; CNN is reporting that U.S. investigators have “prepared charges,” while the Washington Post reports the government is still weighing its options and possible courses of legal action. What is clear, however, is that the Trump administration is giving another look at its legal options when it comes to the Australian, who has been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after being granted asylum in August 2012. Assange was wanted in Sweden for allegations of sexual assault and sought refuge in the embassy because he believed Swedish authorities would extradite him to the U.S.
The Obama Justice Department—which was notoriously aggressive in its pursuit of leakers and the journalists that reported their stories—chose not to pursue charges against Assange because it felt legally tenuous to prosecute an organization that could be construed as a publisher. WikiLeaks is most certainly not the New York Times, but the organization does consider itself a publisher of documents of the public interest, making the potential First Amendment protections potentially difficult to overcome in a courtroom. The Obama administration did not close the case against WikiLeaks however and as the group’s methods and motives appear to either have shifted or simply become more clear, the U.S.’s legal reasoning appears to be shifting as well.
The renewed interest in getting to Assange comes after what’s considered to be a devastating leak last month of thousands of documents outlining the CIA’s hacking techniques. The question of WikiLeaks’ role in the release of hacked emails from the DNC and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta during the election is obviously a sensitive one in the Trump White House. But WikiLeaks increasingly visible ties to the Kremlin have changed the public perception of the group in the U.S.
Instead of focusing on the publication of classified material as a potential crime, investigators are now looking more closely at whether WikiLeaks broke any laws by assisting the leakers—including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning—which could conceivably shift the group’s role from publisher to accomplice in the court’s eyes. “Prosecutors are trying to determine the extent to which WikiLeaks encouraged or directed sources to engage in illegal activity,” according to the Post. “Prosecutors in recent weeks have been drafting a memo that contemplates charges against members of the WikiLeaks organization, possibly including conspiracy, theft of government property or violating the Espionage Act, officials said.”
Even if the U.S. did charge the WikiLeaks founder, it’s unclear how that would practically change his asylum status with the Ecuadorian government, although pressure from the U.S. would likely increase pressure on Quito to extradite Assange for trial.