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Julian Assange Arrested in London as U.S. Unseals Hacking Conspiracy Indictment

The WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested on Thursday in London to face a charge in the United States of conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer network in 2010, bringing to an abrupt end a seven-year saga in which he had holed up in Ecuador's embassy in Britain to avoid capture.

The Ecuadorean government suspended the citizenship it had granted Mr. Assange and evicted him on Thursday, clearing the way for his arrest. His hosts had displayed growing impatience, listing grievances including recent WikiLeaks releases they said interfered with other states' internal affairs and personal discourtesies, like the failure of Mr. Assange to clean the bathroom and look after his cat.

A bedraggled and shackled Mr. Assange, 47, was dragged out of the embassy. At a court hearing, a judge swiftly found him guilty of jumping bail, and he was detained partly in connection with an American extradition warrant. Mr. Assange indicated that he would fight extradition, and legal experts said that process could take years. He is likely to argue that the case is politically motivated rather than driven by legitimate legal concerns.

Mr. Assange's arrest brought to a head long-simmering tensions that have raised profound First Amendment press freedom issues. Since Mr. Assange began publishing archives of secret American military and diplomatic documents in 2010 -- provided by the former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning -- senior officials in two administrations had weighed whether to try to put him out of business by charging him with a crime. Ms. Manning was convicted at a court-martial trial in 2013 of leaking the documents.

The Obama administration had explored whether to bring charges against Mr. Assange but decided not to, in part because of fears of creating a precedent that could chill traditional journalism. But in November, an accidental court filing appeared to disclose that the Trump administration had secretly charged him with some unspecified offense.

The indictment unsealed Thursday, however, revealed that prosecutors in Northern Virginia had not charged Mr. Assange under the Espionage Act for publishing government secrets. Instead, they charged him with conspiring to commit unlawful computer intrusion based on his alleged agreement to try to help Ms. Manning break an encoded portion of passcode that would have permitted her to log on to a classified military network under another user's identity.

Because traditional journalistic activity does not extend to helping a source break a code to gain illicit access to a classified network, the charge appeared to be an attempt by prosecutors to sidestep the potential First Amendment minefield of treating the act of publishing information as a crime. Nevertheless, journalists should still be worried, said Barry Pollack, a lawyer for Mr. Assange.

"While the indictment against Julian Assange disclosed today charges a conspiracy to commit computer crimes, the factual allegations against Mr. Assange boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identity of that source," Mr. Pollack said. "Journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by these unprecedented criminal charges."

Spokesmen for the Justice Department's National Security Division and for the United States attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia declined to comment.

Mr. Assange has been in the sights of the United States government since his organization began publishing Ms. Manning's leaks in 2010, bringing to light many secrets -- like revealing that more civilians had died in Iraq than official estimates showed, detailing the accusations against Guantánamo detainees and airing American diplomats' unvarnished takes on what was happening around the world -- vaulting WikiLeaks to fame. A grand jury in Virginia began investigating people with links to WikiLeaks.

Most recently, Mr. Assange has been under attack for his organization's release during the 2016 presidential campaign of thousands of Democratic emails stolen by Russian hackers. (Russian intelligence officers apparently adopted the guise of a hacker calling itself Guccifer 2.0 when providing the files to WikiLeaks.) But the conspiracy charge against Mr. Assange is not related to WikiLeaks' role in Russia's operations to sabotage the election.

The internal government debate over whether to charge Mr. Assange continued under the Trump administration and was accelerated by Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, according to former officials involved in the discussions. It centered on whether Mr. Assange was a journalist or whether at least some of his actions could be deemed crimes unrelated to journalism.

A hacking offense cited in the indictment carries an eight-year statute of limitations, which may have played a role in spurring the Trump administration to decide whether to move forward: The unsealed court papers indicated that a grand jury returned the indictment on March 6, 2018 -- almost eight years to the day that Mr. Assange is accused of agreeing to help Ms. Manning try to crack the password, court papers showed.

The indictment says Mr. Assange made that agreement on March 8, 2010. Had they succeeded, prosecutors said, it would have helped Ms. Manning cover her tracks by making it harder for the government to later identify who had copied files. But Mr. Assange's efforts evidently failed -- he told Ms. Manning two days later, on March 10, that he had "no luck so far," according to the court filing.

Also on March 8, prosecutors said, Ms. Manning told Mr. Assange, "After this upload, that's all I really have got left." Mr. Assange replied, "Curious eyes never run dry in my experience."

That exchange came at a time when Ms. Manning had copied and sent to WikiLeaks archives of logs of significant events in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and dossiers about Guantánamo Bay detainees, but she had not yet sent the group hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables from American embassies around the world, the indictment said. Weeks later, she began copying and uploading the State Department messages to WikiLeaks, it said.

The pair also tried to cover their tracks by removing user names from the disclosed information and deleting their chat logs, according to the indictment.

During her court-martial, in which some of Mr. Assange's efforts to help were also discussed, Ms. Manning took complete responsibility for her actions and said that Mr. Assange had not pushed her to take them.

"No one associated with W.L.O." -- an abbreviation she used to refer to the WikiLeaks organization -- "pressured me into sending any more information," she said at the time. "I take full responsibility."

Ms. Manning was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking the files and served about seven -- the longest of any convicted leaker in American history -- before President Barack Obama commuted most of the remainder of her sentence shortly before leaving office in 2017.

Ms. Manning is in jail again. A judge held her in civil contempt last month for refusing to testify before a grand jury about her interactions with WikiLeaks.

If Mr. Assange is convicted on the conspiracy to hack offense alone, he could face up to five years in prison. The government could later seek to charge him with additional offenses, but because of extradition practices, any such superseding indictment would most likely need to come soon, before Britain formally decides whether to transfer custody of him.

Until recently, Mr. Assange's Ecuadorean citizenship, granted in 2017, presented a hurdle in President Lenín Moreno's efforts to remove him from the embassy. Ecuador's Constitution limits the government's ability to turn over citizens to a foreign justice system, especially if they could face torture or the death penalty, which are outlawed in Ecuador.

The country's former foreign minister, María Fernanda Espinosa, originally granted Mr. Assange's citizenship, citing a policy that allowed certain foreigners under "international protection" to be naturalized. She argued that Mr. Assange's refuge at the embassy was a case that qualified.

However, on Thursday, Ecuador's current foreign minister, José Valencia, said Mr. Assange's citizenship had been suspended because of irregularities, opening the door for him to be handed to the British authorities.

Mr. Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced questions about sexual assault accusations, which he has denied. Sweden rescinded its arrest warrant for Mr. Assange in 2017, but he refused to leave the embassy.

Under a previous president, Ecuador had offered Mr. Assange citizenship and open-ended refuge in its embassy. But its government soured on the relationship as the years kept passing, and it eventually began to impose limits on what Mr. Assange could say and do.

The Ecuadorean government said last year that it had cut off Mr. Assange's internet access, saying that he had violated an agreement to stop commenting on, or trying to influence, the politics of other countries. The government also imposed other restrictions, like limiting his visitors. He sued in October, claiming that it was violating his rights.

On Thursday, Mr. Moreno, who became Ecuador's president in 2017, said on Twitter that his country had decided to stop sheltering Mr. Assange after "his repeated violations to international conventions and daily-life protocols."

[Source: By Charlie Savage, Adam Goldman and Eileen Sullivan, The New York Times, 11Apr19]

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