In a stunning development Sunday, Politico reported the Justice Department decided not to charge WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange over his role in one of the most devastating leaks in CIA history. Dubbed Vault 7, the leak exposed the CIA’s hacking capabilities to compromise cars, smart TVs, web browsers, and operating systems. The move was seen as a surprise, given the Department’s decision to aggressively pursue Assange on other, more controversial charges.
Vault 7 “not only essentially rendered those tools useless for the CIA, it gave foreign spies and rogue hackers access to them,” the article states. Charging Assange, however, would have been difficult for both legal and national security reasons. Extradition laws require the U.S. to charge Assange within 60 days of their first indictment, which was in March. Additionally, the sensitive nature of his alleged role would have made its exposure in open court less than optimal. The prosecution would have had to confirm the authenticity of the documents, which the CIA has never officially done.
Instead, the Justice Department will stick to its original indictment: one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, for allegedly assisting former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack in to military computers, and seventeen counts of violating the Espionage Act. The latter has touched off a fierce debate among strange bedfellows over whether the case would even hold up in court, and who counts as a journalist.
The government insists it has a strong case in prosecuting the publication of the names of confidential sources in war zones. The law had traditionally been used against government leakers, not those who published the leaks. John Demers, head of the Justice Department’s national security division, told reporters they take seriously “the role of journalists in our democracy, and we thank you for it.” He added that journalists are not and never have been targeted for reporting. However, “Julian Assange is no journalist.”
Journalists disagree. While debate ensued within the journalistic and legal communities over the Manning charge, almost uniformly, both strongly condemned the Espionage indictment two weeks ago. Newspapers and magazines argued over the past week that the indictment was “an attack on the First Amendment,” which “could criminalize investigative journalism.” CNN contributor, and self-described hacker, Alexander Urbelis, called the indictment “legally idiotic, politically shrewd, and downright scary for its implications.” Indeed, he argued the additional 17 counts might decrease the chance he is extradited from the United Kingdom.
Sunday’s decision was only the latest move in the ongoing tug of war between states over what to do with the controversial criminal, and where to do it. A Swedish court will decide Monday whether prosecutors there can detain Assange in absentia, and request his extradition from the UK. Sweden reopened a 2010 rape probe against Assange in May. He is already living at Her Majesty’s pleasure, on a 50-week sentence for breaching bail. Ultimately, a decision on where to send him, and which request takes priority— extradition to the U.S. or a European Arrest Warrant— could rest with the Home Office. If convicted of the Espionage Act, Assange could spend the rest of his life behind American bars.