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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange pleads guilty to felony charge, secures his freedom

The deal resolves a legal case that spanned years and continents over the publication of a trove of classified documents.
Julian Assange WikiLeaks
Posted at 5:28 AM, Jun 25, 2024

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange pleaded guilty to a single felony charge for publishing U.S. military secrets in a deal with Justice Department prosecutors that secures his freedom and concludes a drawn-out legal saga that raised divisive questions about press freedom and national security.

The plea was entered Wednesday morning in federal court in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific.

Though the deal with prosecutors required him to admit guilt to a single felony count, it would also permit him to return to his native Australia without spending any time in an American prison. He had been jailed in the United Kingdom for the last five years, fighting extradition to the United States on an Espionage Act indictment that could have carried a lengthy prison sentence in the event of a conviction.

The abrupt conclusion enables both sides to claim a degree of victory, with the Justice Department able to resolve without trial a case that raised thorny legal issues and that might never have reached a jury at all given the plodding pace of the extradition process. WikiLeaks, the secret-spilling website that Assange founded in 2006, applauded the announcement of the deal, saying it was grateful for “all who stood by us, fought for us, and remained utterly committed in the fight for his freedom.”

Assange arrived at court in a dark suit, with a tie loosened around the collar, after flying from Britain on a charter plane accompanied by members of his legal team and Australian officials, including the top Australian diplomat in the United Kingdom.

Inside the courthouse, he answered basic questions from U.S. District Judge Ramona Manglona, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, and appeared to listen intently as terms of the deal were discussed. As a condition of his plea, he will be required to destroy information that was provided to WikiLeaks.

The plea deal, disclosed Monday night in a sparsely detailed Justice Department letter, represents the latest and presumably final chapter in a court fight involving the eccentric Australian computer expert who has been celebrated by supporters as a transparency crusader but lambasted by national security hawks who insist that his disdain for government secrecy put lives at risks and strayed far beyond the bounds of traditional journalism duties.

The U.S. Justice Department agreed to hold the hearing on the remote island because Assange opposed coming to the continental U.S. and because it’s near Australia, where he will return after he enters his plea.

The guilty plea resolves a criminal case brought by the Trump administration Justice Department in connection with the receipt and publication of war logs and diplomatic cables that detailed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prosecutors alleged that he conspired with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to obtain the records and published them without regard to American national security, including by releasing the names of human sources who provided information to U.S. forces.

Related Story: Ex-CIA employee sentenced 40 years for sharing secrets with Wikileaks

But his activities drew an outpouring of support from press freedom advocates, who heralded his role in bringing to light military conduct that might otherwise have been concealed from view. Among the files published by WikiLeaks was a video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

The indictment was unsealed in 2019, but Assange’s legal woes long predated the criminal case and continued well past it.

Weeks after the release of the largest document cache in 2010, a Swedish prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for Assange based on one woman’s allegation of rape and another’s allegation of molestation. Assange has long maintained his innocence, and the investigation was later dropped.

He presented himself in 2012 to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he claimed asylum on the grounds of political persecution, and spent the following seven years in self-exile there, hosting a parade of celebrity visitors and making periodic appearances from the building’s balcony to address supporters.

In 2019, his hosts revoked his asylum, allowing British police to arrest him. He remained locked up for the last five years while the Justice Department sought to extradite him, in a process that encountered skepticism from British judges who worried about how Assange would be treated by the American criminal justice system.

Ultimately, though, the resolution sparing Assange prison time in the U.S. is a repudiation of sorts of years of ominous warnings by Assange and his supporters that the American criminal justice system would expose him to unduly harsh treatment, including potentially the death penalty — something prosecutors never sought.

Related Story: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will plead guilty in deal with US and return to Australia