On Thursday, The Daily Beast reported that the decision for Justice Department prosecutors to go after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose case had lain dormant since the early years of President Barack Obama’s administration, was made around the time President Donald Trump pushed to purge “leakers” from the White House.
According to one former national security official, while the current Assange charges are carefully crafted in response to First Amendment concerns — focusing on conspiracy to commit computer hacking as opposed to espionage, for example — they arose shortly after the administration decided to reexamine “what qualifies as media.”
The Obama administration had been interested in pursuing the case, stemming from a 2010 release of classified documents supplied by private Chelsea Manning, but as a result of the tangled policy issues at play, decided not to pursue it.
More recently, Assange has been accused of working with Russia to disrupt the 2016 presidential election by publishing documents stolen from Democratic Party officials by Russian military operatives. Assange has denied that his source for these hacked files is Russia, and these allegations are not part of the charges for which the United States is seeking extradition.
Opinions vary on whether Assange is a journalist exposing information in the public interest, or a de-facto vigilante intelligence service operator engaged in criminal conduct. Complicating the matter is that even if he is the latter, the precedent prosecutors may set by targeting him could have consequences for the former.