War Stories

Julian Assange’s Al Capone Moment

The WikiLeaks founder is being indicted for one of his least consequential offenses.

ulian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates’ Court
Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Thursday in London.
Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Julian Assange is having his Al Capone moment. Capone, the murderous Chicago racketeer, was arrested in 1931 for income-tax evasion. Similarly, Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who has published highly sensitive American documents, was indicted on Thursday for helping Chelsea Manning leak material marked “secret,” a relatively low level of classification.

In both cases, the prosecutors pursued not the most serious charge, but the one they could most make stick.

The Justice Department was clever in drawing up its single-count indictment against Assange. It charges him with “conspiring to commit computer intrusion,” a crime carrying a punishment of up to five years in prison.

Assange is not being indicted for publishing the material—a charge that any competent defense lawyer could swat by appealing to his First Amendment rights. Rather, the indictment states, Assange “agreed to assist Manning in cracking a password stored on United States Department of Defense computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network, a United States government network used for classified documents and communications.”

This goes well beyond the constitutionally protected practices of journalism.

Manning, then a U.S. Army intelligence analyst on a military base in Iraq, did not have high-enough clearance to decode the password. Had Assange not encouraged Manning to send him the file containing the password, he wouldn’t have opened himself up to the count in this indictment.

Before taking that extra step, Manning had provided Assange with databases containing nearly 1 million documents—including combat reports and diplomatic memos—related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of which WikiLeaks proceeded to release. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison by a military court for violating her oath not to share classified material. (President Barack Obama commuted the sentence after seven years served.)

The Justice Department has not charged Manning with conspiracy, though, theoretically, it could. She was recently jailed for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury—presumably the one that subsequently issued this indictment.

It would be a shame if Manning, a whistleblower whose naïveté Assange exploited, were punished any further. A few years ago, a senior military intelligence officer told me that for all the publicity they received at the time, her leaks had caused little harm to national security. She received such a harsh sentence because military law is explicitly about maintaining order and discipline, not seeking justice. (Nearly 50 years ago, Robert Sherrill wrote a book titled Military Justice Is to Justice as Military Music Is to Music.)

It is ironic, though, that the Manning case is the one that may bring down Assange. When he founded WikiLeaks in 2006, it seemed truly to be what he claimed it to be: a clearinghouse for whistleblowers of all stripes, exposing secrets of whatever countries. At some point, though, it devolved into a tool of the Kremlin.

Most notoriously, Assange served as a middleman for Russian leaks of Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails in the 2016 presidential election, which helped tilt the contest to Donald Trump. In 2017, Assange released thousands of documents on CIA hacking techniques, an act that could help only U.S. adversaries. (He made no claim, nor did the documents suggest, that the techniques had been used for domestic surveillance.)

The turning point may have come in the early part of this decade. In 2010, Assange told a Moscow newspaper that he had obtained compromising materials “about Russia, about your government and your businessmen.” For reasons yet unknown, these materials were never released, and WikiLeaks has since not done anything damaging to Russia.

One year later, in 2011, a WikiLeaks staffer named James Ball quit after learning that a Russian “peace activist” named Israel Shamir, a colleague and longtime friend of Assange’s, was providing raw intelligence files to the Belarusian interior minister. The following year, Assange hosted a short-lived talk show on RT, the Kremlin-funded television network.

Assange also arranged Edward Snowden’s travel itinerary when Snowden—a computer analyst at the National Security Agency who had leaked a treasure trove of highly classified materials—fled from Hong Kong to Moscow. (Snowden was accompanied on the flight by Assange’s girlfriend.) Snowden was scheduled to change planes at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport and fly on to Havana, then to Ecuador. Assange later told the Guardian that he’d advised Snowden to stay put in Moscow. For whatever reason, Snowden never did make the connecting flight and still lives in Moscow, under asylum granted by Vladimir Putin.

In the time since his initial fame, Assange has alienated many of his erstwhile admirers and colleagues. The documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras—whose portrait of Snowden, Citizenfour, won an Academy Award—spent six years making a film about Assange (called Risk), only to conclude, in a spell of narration toward the end, that she no longer trusted him.

For the past seven years, Assange has lived in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, having taken refuge there to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced questioning over sexual assault allegations. It is not known whether the termination of his asylum and his eviction were deliberately timed to coincide with the unsealing of the indictment. But he had been trying Ecuadorean officials’ patience for some time, not least by continuing to release leaked secrets of foreign governments to the anger and frustration of Ecuardor’s allies, including Britain and the United States. After his release of Clinton’s emails, Ecuador’s then-president, Rafael Correa, released a statement, noting that his government “does not interfere” in the “electoral processes” of foreign countries.

The British authorities will now likely extradite Assange to the United States for trial.* Assange’s lawyers will appeal the move, arguing that the indictment is politically motivated. But the narrowness of the charge, its dissociation from the act of publishing, and the relative brevity of the maximum jail sentence should he be convicted all suggest that he’ll soon be crossing the Atlantic flanked by U.S. marshals. What happens when he arrives, and whether he’ll be charged with further offenses, is another matter—which his lawyers might also raise in their appeal.

Correction, April 11, 2019: This piece originally stated that British authorities are likely to extradite Edward Snowden to the United States. It is Julian Assange who is likely to be extradited.