The United States Justice Department has decided not to charge WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Espionage Act charges for his role in exposing some of the CIA’s most secret spying tools. WikiLeaks was responsible for publishing one of the CIA’s most potent arsenals of digital code used to hack devices, called Vault 7. The leak was one of the most devastating in CIA history and both essentially rendered those tools useless for the CIA and gave foreign spies and rogue hackers access to them.
Following the recent decision by the Ecuadorian embassy in London to hand over Mr. Assange to the authorities, for whom there was an arrest warrant for by the US government, prosecutors’ aggressively set upon the WikiLeaks founder on controversial Espionage Act charges. Some legal experts said these charges would not hold up in court.
There were two central factors preventing prosecutors from pursuing the charges against Mr. Assange. The government is running out of time to extradite him to the United States from the United Kingdom, where he is being held. Extradition laws require the US to bring any additional charges against Mr. Assange within 60 days of the first indictment, which prosecutors filed in March, accusing him of helping former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning hack into military computers. Prosecutors were also worried about the sensitivity of the Vault 7 materials and legal experts said broaching such a classified subject in court risks exposing even more CIA secrets. The CIA has never officially confirmed the authenticity of the leaked documents, even though analysts widely believe them to be authentic. The Justice Department will instead pursue charges against Mr. Assange on one count for allegedly assisting Ms. Manning and the 17-count Espionage Act indictment. Ms. Manning is in jail over her refusal to testify before a grand jury in the Assange case. Her lawyers have argued that if the Justice Department does not intend to bring further charges against Mr. Assange, the previous need for her testimony should be rendered moot.
Acting Assistant Attorney General for national security at the Justice Department until 2017 Mary McCord said, “There is no question that there are leak cases that can’t be prosecuted against the leaker or the leakee because the information is so sensitive that, for your proof at trial, you would have to confirm it is authentic. So, the irony, often, is that the higher the classification of the leaked material, the harder it is to prosecute.”
Press freedom activists have warned that charges against Mr. Assange could criminalize everyday journalistic behavior, such as soliciting sensitive information from government sources. Federal officials insist they have a strong case, arguing that Mr. Assange is not a journalist and intentionally published the names of confidential sources in war zones over the objections of national security officials.