In an accidental disclosure in two lines of an unrelated and recently unsealed court filing, the Justice Department revealed that it has prepared an indictment against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
The revelation came in a filing in a case in which 29-year-old Seitu Sulayman Kokayi was charged with sex crimes with a minor but also detained for interest in and connections to terrorism. Because the case contained previously classified information, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kellen S. Dwyer, who is also assigned to the WikiLeaks case, urged a judge in a filing to keep the matter sealed. He wrote, “[D]ue 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.” He later added that the charges would “need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested.”
Others familiar with the situation told the Washington Post that the disclosure, while accidental, was true. It appeared that prosecutors had accidentally added language from a similar filing into the document. “The court filing was made in error,” said a spokesman for the United State’s attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia. “That was not the intended name for this filing.”
The mistake was first discovered by Seamus Hughes, a terrorism expert at George Washington University, who uncovered the filing and posted it to Twitter. It’s not clear if prosecutors have actually filed charges against Assange, and one of Assange’s attorneys told the press that he did not know of any charges.
Even if charges are filed, it’s possible Assange could continue living in Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he first took shelter in 2012 from sex crime charges in Sweden, and where he has since stayed because of a professed fear that he would be extradited to the U.S. and punished for publishing government secrets. According to the Wall Street Journal, it’s possible prosecutors will publicly indict Assange in an attempt to convince Ecuadorian officials to turn him over. There have been reports that officials have tired of Assange’s presence in the embassy.
An indictment could have implications for press freedom and for those who publish government secrets obtained by a third party. The Department of Justice has been deliberating whether it could charge Assange since 2010, when Chelsea Manning gave WikiLeaks thousands of classified Pentagon and State Department documents. There has been a public debate as to whether Assange’s actions amounted to journalism. But the Obama-era Justice Department decided against pushing a case that could set a precedent of criminalizing investigative reporting. The Trump administration is less friendly to leaks of any kind. President Trump himself, who has said he “loves” WikiLeaks for publishing the Democratic National Committee emails, has muddled the administration’s message.
An indictment could also indicate a development in the special counsel investigation into Russia’s interference into the 2016 election. Russian intelligence officers hacked thousands of emails from Democrats before the race as part of their disruption campaign and handed them off to WikiLeaks, which published them. Robert Mueller has been looking into the communications between WikiLeaks and Trump associates, including political operative Roger Stone.