The Justice Department, at least for now, appears to be drawing a distinction between those who were government employees or contractors and were required by law to protect classified information and those who received and published the material.
The Justice Department has unsealed an indictment charging former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden under the Espionage Act. Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong and then Russia, leaked tens of thousands of documents about U.S. surveillance programs that have led to reports in The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper, among other publications around the world.
“Snowden was a person who swore an oath, an employee of the National Security Agency,” said a second senior U.S. official, drawing a line between Snowden’s legal obligations and responsibility and someone like Assange.
Federal officials said the grand jury investigation has not been closed, and a spokesman for WikiLeaks said the organization drew no comfort from the fact that there was no sealed indictment.
“We will treat this news with skepticism short of an open, official, formal confirmation that the U.S. government is not going to prosecute WikiLeaks,” said Kristinn Hrafnsson, the spokesman. “It is quite obvious that you can shake up an indictment in a very short period of time.”
Hrafnsson added, “Unfortunately, the U.S. government has a track record of being deceptive and of choosing its words carefully on this issue and other issues as well.”
Assange, who published documents from one of the largest leaks of classified U.S. military and diplomatic documents, has been living in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London since June 2012, when he was granted political asylum.
The Australian national sought asylum after he lost a series of court battles in Britain to avoid extradition to Sweden to face questioning over allegations of sexual assault. There is still a warrant in Sweden for his arrest. A small office at the Ecuadoran Embassy, which is under constant watch by British police, has been converted into his private living area.
Assange and his associates have maintained that he was unwilling to travel to Sweden because he feared that he would ultimately be extradited to the United States to face possible charges under the Espionage Act.
“My focus of attention is on the U.S. case — the continuing grand jury investigation,” Assange told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper last month. “That is what I have received full political asylum in relation to. I assume the Swedish case will disappear of its own accord in due course.”
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the case.
In 2010, WikiLeaks received an enormous cache of classified U.S. documents from Pfc. Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst serving in Iraq. The documents included military field reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, diplomatic cables, assessments of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay facility and video of a U.S. helicopter firing on a group of people, including a Reuters cameraman, in Baghdad. The anti-secrecy group worked with the New York Times, the Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel to publish the material.
Manning was arrested in Iraq in May 2010 and sentenced by a military judge to 35 years in prison this August after he was convicted of violating the Espionage Act, among several counts.
After Manning was convicted, Zachary Terwilliger, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, said a grand jury investigation of WikiLeaks was ongoing. But he would not comment on whether there was a sealed indictment or whether Assange had been charged.
During Manning’s court-
martial, military prosecutors portrayed Assange as an “information anarchist” who encouraged Manning to turn over classified material. They also argued that WikiLeaks cannot be considered a media organization that was acting in the public interest.
Michael Ratner, an attorney for Assange, and civil liberties groups said at the time that it was increasingly likely that the United States would prosecute Assange as a co-conspirator.
“Either there [are] charges already, which I think is very possible, or they now have this and they can say they have one part of the conspiracy,” Ratner told The Post in July.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.