Euro Security Watch with Mathew J. Schwartz

Report: US Government Preps WikiLeaks Charges

Julian Assange: Manipulative Anarchist or Anti-Orwellian Crusader?
Report: US Government Preps WikiLeaks Charges
Detail from a Julian Assange mural by Thierry Ehrmann

As U.S. government officials continue to ramp up their anti-WikiLeaks rhetoric, President Donald Trump has reportedly directed federal prosecutors to examine ways in which members of WikiLeaks could be prosecuted.

See Also: Threat Horizons Report

In an April 13 speech, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, in his first public pronouncements since becoming the head of the intelligence agency, slammed WikiLeaks as being "a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia" that is a threat to democracies.

Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, also labeled WikiLeaks founder and chief Julian Assange as "a fraud, a coward hiding behind a screen."

Trump had lauded the group during his 2016 presidential campaign, declaring: "I love WikiLeaks."

But a flurry of new reports tied to unnamed U.S. government sources say that the Justice Department is preparing to bring charges against some members of WikiLeaks.

For context, the Obama administration looked into bringing charges against the organization in relation to its 2010 publishing of sensitive State Department cables, which Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. Army private, was convicted of leaking in 2013, the Washington Post reports. But the Justice Department demurred, worrying that such charges might create a precedent that would allow individual journalists who published classified information to be prosecuted, the report says. Still, the Justice Dept. never formally closed the WikiLeaks case,

And now a veteran prosecutor, the confusingly named Assistant U.S. Attorney James Trump - no relation to the president - has been added to the WikiLeaks case, the Post reports. He's already participating in the case against former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Before charges can be brought against WikiLeaks - and potentially Assange - they would need to be approved at the highest level of the Justice Department, the report says.

Beyond Extradition

At the moment, however, Assange is beyond extradition. He's been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012, after he lost his appeal against extradition to Sweden to face an arrest warrant related to rape allegations. Meanwhile, the group has continued with its leaks, most recently leaking CIA attack tools that it calls Vault 7.

While the CIA has not confirmed that the leaks are genuine, it has decried both them and WikiLeaks.

White House officials had hoped that recent elections in Ecuador might have led to Assange's expulsion from the embassy, CNN reports, as one candidate - conservative banker Guillermo Lasso - had promised to do. But after left-leaning candidate Lenin Moreno won, he promised Assange would be allowed to stay.

Life After 'Collateral Murder'

After WikiLeaks in 2010 gained global prominence by leaking the "collateral murder" video that showed a U.S. helicopter gunship crew killing civilians - and joking about it - could anyone have predicted the state of the whistle-blowing organization come 2017?

But the group's ongoing ability to stoke both praise and condemnation seems to remain inseparable from its leader.

Some see Assange as a fabulist, or at least someone predisposed to continually refine his own myth, as highlighted in this comment from Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore:

Winston Churchill famously referred to Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," and the same characterization could so easily be applied to Assange.

Raise your hand if, like me, you purchased the unauthorized copy of Julian Assange's biography in 2011. The book, which was prepared with Assange's cooperation but ultimately published against his wishes, went on to sell only 644 copies in its first week.

In typical Assange fashion, he later decried the book's release via a 5,400-word statement - including letters and telephone transcripts.

Initial sales figures aside, the book garnered many positive and insightful reviews.

In one review, "CherryD" called it "the story of a man who is either an agenda-driven anarchist with a desire to destroy establishments, manipulating people to his own ends whilst showing a nihilistic regard to his actions, or a modern-day martyr for the cause of truth who is fighting to remove the Orwellian cage that surrounds us masquerading as a freedom that is merely an illusion."

As WikiLeaks continues to leak, the Assange saga surges on and the U.S. government weighs related charges, don't expect clear answers to be forthcoming anytime soon.

About the Author

Mathew J. Schwartz

Mathew J. Schwartz

Executive Editor, DataBreachToday & Europe, ISMG

Schwartz is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience in magazines, newspapers and electronic media. He has covered the information security and privacy sector throughout his career. Before joining Information Security Media Group in 2014, where he now serves as the executive editor, DataBreachToday and for European news coverage, Schwartz was the information security beat reporter for InformationWeek and a frequent contributor to DarkReading, among other publications. He lives in Scotland.

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