The charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will remain sealed for now, with a federal judge in Alexandria saying she would hear more before ruling on whether the public has a right to see the documents.
“This is an interesting case, to say the least,” Judge Leonie M. Brinkema said Tuesday. “Obviously, some kind of mistake has been made.” That mistake by the government, she noted, exposed Assange’s name and “the fact that he has been charged” in a filing for an unrelated case. “Given the fact that this statement does appear in a government filing, and given that everybody knows where this man is, what is the rationale for sealing the charge?”
But Brinkema said she knew of no other case in which the government had been compelled to unseal a charging document before the defendant’s arrest.
Attorneys for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit organization pushing for the case to be unsealed, plan to file new documentation bolstering their argument.
“The filing, inadvertent or not . . . confirms the speculation” that Assange has been charged with a crime, RCFP legal director Katie Townsend said in court. “At a minimum, Mr. Assange knows that he has been charged.” Any justification for keeping the case sealed, she said, has “evaporated.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg countered that no such confirmation exists, although officials have told The Washington Post that charges against Assange were indeed filed. If there is a case, Kromberg said, explaining the need for secrecy in open court would be counterproductive.
“Any discussion of why it would be sealed cannot be done in a public forum,” he said. “This court . . . doesn’t know what needs to be said.”
Brinkema appeared sympathetic to that argument, saying “there are many sound reasons why many indictments are kept under seal. . .until someone is charged.” In cases with multiple defendants, she noted, the seal can last even beyond an arrest. The important thing, she said, “is making sure that person is brought to justice.”
Barry Pollack, who represents Assange, watched the proceedings and said that although his client does not oppose the unsealing, he does not plan to intervene.
“Mr. Assange as a journalist is certainly aligned with the Reporters Committee,” he said.
Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia have been investigating WikiLeaks ever since the anti-secrecy site published diplomatic cables and military documents in 2010, and took a fresh look at that case after CIA hacking tools were exposed in 2017.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III also has looked into whether WikiLeaks coordinated with Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign to disseminate Democratic emails that prosecutors say were stolen by Russian operatives.