First Amendment advocates are enraged by the indictment and say it shows media protections are in jeopardy. A former top national security official told The Daily Beast the charges shouldn’t have triggered those concerns but did say the decision to go after Assange followed an administration push to re-examine “what qualifies as media.”
The indictment covers alleged crimes that occurred nearly a decade ago and that the Obama administration, after much debate, did not prosecute.
But Mary McCord, a career law-enforcement official who helmed the Justice Department’s National Security Division for the first four months of the Trump administration, said “there was renewed interest under the new administration to revisit issues of what qualifies as the media and to look back at the Assange case.”
“That’s not to say there was ever a lack of interest in Assange over the years, even under the previous administration,” McCord said. “There were evidentiary and policy issues that were at play previously, and probably continue to be at play—and reasonable minds can certainly differ about how decisions are made, both legal decisions in terms of statute, and policy decisions.”
McCord added that since the DOJ hasn’t charged Assange with publishing classified material—he was indicted for allegedly helping Chelsea Manning break a password to steal material from government computers—his case isn’t a window into the Trump administration’s view of press freedoms.
“This, to me, is no different than saying you don’t get a pass when you’re the media if you commit a bank robbery, you don’t get a pass when you’re in the media if you hack into computers or conspire to hack into computers,” she said.
Some press freedom advocates, however, said the indictment is troubling; Reporters Without Borders, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and the ACLU all raised concerns about the move.
Assange is charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, based on his alleged efforts in 2010 to help Manning obtain the classified material that he would later publish.
Following the first massive Wikileaks dump, Obama administration officials in various agencies worked to rectify the damage. Several foreign service officers who spoke to The Daily Beast said they were forced to comb through the documents to identify which documents could pose potential threats to informants.
“There was a general sense of worry. We worried that the leak would put lives in danger,” one former Obama administration official said. “We viewed it as a fire that had to be put out. We had to go through all the documents to identify any potential damage they could cause.”
Since that time, the U.S. has continued to gather intelligence on Assange and his relationship to the Russian government. While some agencies have pushed for the U.S. to go after Assange with vigor, others have cautioned that there was not enough evidence or that it was more important to gather counterintelligence information on Assange’s connection to Russia, according to former intelligence officials.
That debate faded under Trump.
In the first few months of his administration, a spate of high-profile classified leaks enraged the president. He tweeted that the FBI needed to find the leakers and criticized then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for failing to find them.
Sessions tried to play ball. On Aug. 4, 2017, he held a press conference at Justice Department headquarters to tout newly energized efforts to hunt down government officials who share classified material with reporters, including the formation of a new team focused on that issue. A few months later, he told Congress that the number of open leak probes at DOJ had risen by 800 percent.
DOJ has brought charges in a number of cases. Reality Winner, an NSA intelligence specialist who shared information about Russian election interference with The Intercept, is serving a five-year prison sentence. A senior Treasury Department official was charged with leaking confidential material to BuzzFeed. And in February, the DOJ charged an IRS employee with leaking information about ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen (who will soon begin a three-year prison sentence for unrelated crimes) to Michael Avenatti (who faces dozens of criminal counts for other, also unrelated alleged crimes). A former staffer for the Senate intelligence committee, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his communications with a reporter.
Obama administration officials who worked on the Assange case told The Daily Beast they focused on whether WikiLeaks could be defined as a traditional media organization. The fear, one former intelligence official said, was that the public would see any prosecution as an attack on the press.
Officials said the national security and intelligence communities had extensive, collaborative conversations about building a case against Assange for years. Many of those conversations, they said, touched on strategy and how to build the best case out of the Eastern District of Virginia.
During the first few years after the 2010 leak, U.S. law enforcement agencies probed the connection between Assange, Wikileaks and Russia. But, according to one, they initially struggled to find evidence of any links between him and the Kremlin.
"When I was in government I never saw any proof Assange was actively coordinating with Moscow,” said Michael Carpenter, who served in various national security roles in the Obama administration. “I think the understanding in the course of the Mueller investigation to understand how Russia intervened and partnered with Wikileaks… that understanding has shifted. I think that gets at this notion that this is not some journalistic organization unwittingly manipulated by the Russians. It coordinated to steal U.S. classified information and then to put it out in the public arena.”
Assange hasn’t been charged with acting as a foreign agent of a spy. But American officials have publicly called him one. A few months after Trump’s inauguration, Mike Pompeo—then the CIA director—said Wikileaks engaged in spying.
“It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia,” he said.
Within Washington’s tight-knit national security community, former senior officials took different views of the Assange prosecution. Some said it was evidence of President Trump’s eagerness to target reporters and fight leakers. Others, however, cautioned against that, saying the Assange case isn’t political. The Assange case file, sources said, was held within a close circle of investigators and prosecutors, who would have maintained some degree of independence in building the case against him.
The timing of the filing of Assange’s sealed indictment also points to apolitical considerations; it was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia on March 6, 2018—just two days before the statute of limitations for the charge would have expired.