The Obama administration ultimately decided not to pursue the espionage case because of First Amendment concerns; it was revived under President Trump, over the objections of some prosecutors involved.
The superseding indictment does not add to the 18 charges accusing Assange of working with former Army private Chelsea Manning in 2010 to steal classified documents from the U.S. government. The statute of limitations for the new allegations has expired. But the document adds evidence to the government’s assertions that Assange is not a publisher or journalist but a hacker.
The new indictment in federal court in Alexandria alleges that Assange asked a teenager to illegally obtain recordings of phone conversations between politicians in a foreign country. The description matches that of Sigurdur Thordarson, an Icelandic hacker who was interviewed by prosecutors last year. Assange and Thordarson made a “joint attempt” to decrypt a file stolen from an Icelandic bank, according to the indictment.
Assange was evidently angry at Iceland because it blocked a deal to put WikiLeaks servers in Finland, one official said.
According to prosecutors, Assange obtained access to an Icelandic government website and used it to confirm he was being monitored by police.
A key development in the investigation into Assange came in June 2011, when a cyber team at the FBI’s New York field office arrested a notorious hacker and the same night, one of the agents, Milan Patel, flipped him. Hector Monsegur, who went by the online handle Sabu, co-founded LulzSec, an offshoot of the hacktivist collective Anonymous that hacked thousands of user accounts at Sony Pictures and crashed the CIA’s public website.
The agents directed Sabu to ask Thordarson to prove he was working for Assange. As the two chatted online, Thordarson panned the camera on his iPhone over to Assange and then back down to the chat, according to former officials. He uploaded the video to YouTube, and the FBI kept a copy before Thordarson deleted it.
Over the next two weeks, Sabu chatted directly with Assange, who was unaware that FBI agents were monitoring him. With the agreement of the Icelandic government, U.S. authorities created fake classified documents for Sabu to feed Assange, including an ersatz map purporting to show the computer network topology of the government.
Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, working with the FBI, drafted a complaint charging Thordarson with conspiracy to hack government computers. The idea was to use that complaint to encourage Thordarson to cooperate and get direct evidence that Assange was soliciting hacks, but the government never moved forward.
Another hacker, Jeremy Hammond, who worked with LulzSec to expose private information from the firm Strategic Forecasting, or Stratfor, around the same time, refused to cooperate with the government and was held in contempt. But the new indictment includes chats in which Hammond told Sabu he attacked Stratfor a second time at Assange’s “indirect” request and expressed frustration that he didn’t get much material, “especially when we are asked to make it happen with [WikiLeaks].” Assange says he can’t suggest the hack “for the obvious legal reasons” but then goes on to name Stratfor as a good target.
According to the indictment, Assange told Sabu at one point that “the most impactful release of hacked material would be from the CIA, NSA or the New York Times.”
The new indictment also notes that Assange encouraged leaks at hacker conferences and helped Edward Snowden flee the United States after he exposed top-secret government operations.
Barry Pollack, an attorney for Assange — who is fighting extradition from the United Kingdom — stressed that no new charges were added and said the “government’s relentless pursuit of Julian Assange poses a grave threat to journalists everywhere.”
But Michael Vatis, a former head of the FBI’s computer crime program, said the additional factual allegations seem to strengthen the prosecution’s case. “They do seem to have a lot of detail in which Assange is intimately involved in deciding on targets and means and in instructing hackers to take certain actions,” he said.