British police dragged Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean Embassy that was the WikiLeaks founder’s refuge for nearly seven years, and hours later the U.S. charged the man it says ran a hostile foreign-intelligence service with conspiring to hack into a military computer.
The U.S. Justice Department said Mr. Assange had been indicted in federal court on a computer-hacking conspiracy charge, in connection with what prosecutors described as “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States.”
His arrest is the latest twist in a nine-year saga that began when WikiLeaks released a huge trove of classified documents that presented a bleak view of the Afghanistan war. The website collaborated with top media organizations, and for years, Mr. Assange reveled in his status as an anti-U.S. gadfly and proponent of radical government transparency.
In 2012, he sought asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden. During the 2016 presidential campaign, from his London confinement he led WikiLeaks through the publication of tens of thousands of documents the U.S. says were stolen from Democrats by Russian government hackers. The release prompted then-candidate Donald Trump to proclaim: “I love WikiLeaks.” The rape allegations and the 2016 documents release had many of his backers re-evaluating their support for him and his cause.
“Unfortunately, whatever his intentions when he started WikiLeaks, what he’s really become is a direct participant in Russian efforts to undermine the West and a dedicated accomplice in efforts to undermine American security,” saidSen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.
In recent months, Mr. Assange has clashed with his Ecuadorean hosts over issues both big—his alleged meddling in political activities in other countries—and small, including his failure to clean up after his cat. This month, the Ecuadorean government accused WikiLeaks of leaking personal information about Ecuador’s president to a rival.
In the U.S. indictment, prosecutors alleged that in March 2010, Mr. Assange conspired to help former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning break into a U.S. Defense Department computer system by trying to help her crack a password.
At a court hearing in London, District Judge Michael Snow found Mr. Assange guilty of separate charges of skipping bail related to a since-closed Swedish investigation into rape allegations against him. Judge Snow only briefly addressed the U.S. charges, which will be handled in a separate proceeding. The U.S. has until June 12 to make its case for extradition.
On Thursday morning after Ecuador had withdrawn asylum protection, British police entered the embassy, arrested Mr. Assange for breaching bail conditions on the Swedish sexual-assault case, and brought him out to a police van. Once he arrived at the police station, they rearrested him on an extradition request from U.S. authorities.
Mr. Assange was dressed in black and appeared unkempt as he read a Gore Vidal book while awaiting his legal team’s arrival. He flashed a thumbs-up sign to supporters in the courthouse. British police are holding him at a police station in central London.
The Justice Department has long struggled with how to proceed against Mr. Assange, given the parallels between Mr. Assange’s antisecrecy work and that of the press, which is generally protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In the indictment, prosecutors appear to have narrowly tailored the case against Mr. Assange to his alleged effort to crack a password stored in a Defense Department file that Ms. Manning provided to him. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum prison sentence of five years. A grand jury in Virginia is still investigating Mr. Assange, and he could be charged with additional crimes.
Asked about his previous comments praising WikiLeaks on Thursday, President Trump said, “I know nothing about WikiLeaks” and that “I don’t really have an opinion” about the matter. He said he was aware Mr. Assange had been arrested but that his fate would be a determination made “mostly by the attorney general.”
A Washington-based attorney for Mr. Assange described the charges as unprecedented. “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,” Barry Pollack said.
The six-page indictment, dated March 2018, alleges Mr. Assange went beyond merely receiving classified information from Ms. Manning, who was then known as Bradley Manning, and engaged in activities that rose to the level of computer-hacking crimes by trying to help her access additional classified information she didn’t have authority to obtain.
Prosecutors also accuse Mr. Assange of attempting to coerce Ms. Manning to provide more documents. After one upload, Ms. Manning wrote to Mr. Assange, “that’s all I really have got left,” according to the indictment. Mr. Assange replied, “curious eyes never run dry in my experience,” it said.
Ms. Manning would eventually give more than 250,000 State Department diplomatic cables and nearly 500,000 files related to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to WikiLeaks, which would publish them in 2010 and 2011. In 2013, Ms. Manning was found guilty at a court martial of leaking U.S. government secrets and sentenced to 35 years in prison. President Obama commuted her sentence and she was released from military prison in May 2017, but she is now in custody after refusing to testify in March before a grand jury investigating Mr. Assange.
In addition to the Justice Department’s conspiracy probe, Special counsel Robert Mueller, in his now-completed investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, has focused on WikiLeaks’s role in publishing thousands of stolen Democratic emails in 2016.
During Thursday’s hearing, the judge described Mr. Assange as “a narcissist who cannot get beyond his own selfish interests,” adding that if Mr. Assange were to consent to the U.S. extradition request, the WikiLeaks founder could deal with the matter “and get on with your life.”
Ecuador’s relationship with Mr. Assange has deteriorated since the 2017 election of President Lenín Moreno, who has described him as a “stone in our shoe” and said his continued presence at the embassy was unsustainable.
Ecuador’s foreign-relations minister, José Valencia, on Thursday said the government rescinded Mr. Assange’s Ecuadorean nationality because of “irregularities” in how it was granted. The government gave Mr. Assange citizenship in late 2017, hoping he could then receive diplomatic status to leave the embassy with immunity from arrest. The British government denied the request for diplomatic status and said his Ecuadorean nationality wouldn’t protect him.
Mr. Moreno said Mr. Assange had violated international agreements by “intervening in the internal affairs of other states” through WikiLeaks. He cited WikiLeaks’ leaking of Vatican documents in January as the most recent example.
“Today, I announce that the discourteous and aggressive behavior of Mr. Julian Assange, the hostile and threatening declarations of its allied organization against Ecuador, and especially, the transgression of international treaties have led to a point where the asylum of Mr. Assange is unsustainable and no longer viable,” Mr. Moreno said.
U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt thanked Mr. Moreno for cooperating with Britain. “Julian Assange is no hero and no one is above the law. He has hidden from the truth for years,” he said on Twitter.
On Twitter, WikiLeaks said Ecuador’s termination of Mr. Assange’s asylum violated international law. “Powerful actors, including [the] CIA, are engaged in a sophisticated effort to dehumanise, delegitimize and imprison him.”
—Byron Tau in Washington
contributed to this article.
The U.S. request that Britain extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange kicks off a possibly long and politically contentious legal process. Here are some key points about how it works:
- The U.S. has 65 days to present “full extradition papers,” which provide further details of the charges against Mr. Assange and the reasons for seeking his extradition. On Thursday, a judge fixed a hearing to review those papers for June 12.
- In the U.K., the judiciary rules on the validity of an extradition request, but the Home Office—the British department that overseas legal issues, immigration and homeland security—executes the court’s decision.
- Following the 2012 conclusion of a 10-year-long, high-profile case in which the British government declined to extradite to the U.S. a computer hacker, citing his battles with Asperger’s syndrome and depression, changes to the process have left much of the responsibility of denying extradition requests to the judiciary. Meanwhile, courts have become less willing to entertain appeals.
- Mr. Assange’s defense lawyers are likely to make a range of arguments against his extradition. His attorneys could argue “that this is a political case, that he is being sought for reasons extraneous to the underlying offense,” said Rebecca Niblock, an extradition expert at law firm Kingsley Napley LLP.
- Another option for Mr. Assange’s defense could be to focus on the poor conditions of American prisons, an argument others have sought to employ to fight extradition. Mr. Assange could also argue that extradition would pose dangers to his physical and mental health, although “that will be a very hard-fought ground,” Ms. Niblock said.
- Under U.K. law, extradition requests must be refused if there is a risk that the individual will be tortured or face the death penalty. The U.K. doesn’t have the death penalty, and the U.S. charges Mr. Assange faces call for no such sentence.