Inside the decadelong, global pursuit of Julian Assange that ended in a plea deal met with praise and scorn | CNN Politics (2024)

Inside the decadelong, global pursuit of Julian Assange that ended in a plea deal met with praise and scorn | CNN Politics (1)

A photo of Julian Assange shared by WikiLeaks on X, with a caption that reads, 'Approaching Bangkok airport for layover. Moving closer to freedom.'


The United States’ pursuit of Julian Assange for leaking state secrets has played out for more than a decade in courtrooms and government offices across the world, from Washington, DC, to London to Stockholm and Quito, Ecuador.

But on Wednesday it came to a sudden, somewhat uneasy end, when the WikiLeaks founder pleaded guilty in a US federal court to a single felony charge related to his alleged role in orchestrating one of the largest-ever breaches of US classified military and diplomatic documents. The plea deal allows Assange to avoid prison in the US and return to his native Australia.

Discussions between Assange’s legal team and US prosecutors ebbed and flowed across three US presidencies during his yearslong battle to avoid extradition to the US where he faced a trial on 18 felony counts.

Australian diplomats brought up the plight of Assange every chance they got during the past three years of the Biden administration, a stark contrast to their behavior during the Trump years, when they largely avoided the matter due to concerns it could harm the broader bilateral relationship between the two countries, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.

“That never came up in our conversations,” said David Stilwell, the State Department assistant secretary for the Pacific region during the Trump administration. “Not a word.”

But in recent months, talks heated up, in part thanks to the efforts of a left-leaning Australian government that came to power two years ago, giving Assange a powerful ally as he waged a protracted legal battle from a London prison. Recent rulings in UK courts favoring Assange in his extradition fight also provided key gains in the saga.

At a meeting in the Oval Office as part of an official state visit at the end of October, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese raised the issue of Assange with President Joe Biden, suggesting that enough time had passed and that the case needed to be resolved. Biden and his team responded positively but made clear they would not interfere with the Justice Department, according to people familiar with the matter.

As recently as April, Assange’s attorneys and DOJ prosecutors held discussions about a potential deal. Assange insisted that he would agree to plead guilty only to misdemeanor charges related to his dissemination of US classified documents, people briefed on the talks told CNN.

That same month, Australian officials also wrote a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland suggesting the outlines of a potential deal, including having Assange plead guilty and being allowed to return to Australia, but also leaving open the potential of a felony plea, according to a person briefed on the matter.

Biden told reporters at the time that he was considering a request made by the Australia parliament in February for the Justice Department to drop the 18 felony charges brought against him in 2019.

Inside the Biden administration, there was opposition from the FBI and some DOJ officials to any deal that didn’t include felony charges, people briefed on the matter said. Some officials also pushed for Assange to be brought to federal court in northern Virginia and face at least some US prison time.

In Australia, a senior Australian intelligence source told CNN, there was distinction between the elected government’s preferences and that of the nation’s security services.

“No one here was particularly advocating for his return,” said the source, referring to one of the government’s intelligence agencies, which is part of the so-called Five Eyes consortium of security services from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

Assange spent the last five years in London’s high-security Belmarsh prison fighting off extradition. He left the facility on Monday to travel to the Northern Mariana Islands for his plea hearing and sentencing before a federal judge there. US prosecutors had asked the court for the proceedings to take place on the same day because Assange was resistant to setting foot in the continental US for his guilty plea, according to a letter from prosecutors.

A judge in US federal court on Wednesday in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, accepted Assange’s guilty plea and ruled Assange is entitled to a credit of time served at Belmarsh.

“You will be able to walk out of this courtroom a free man,” Judge Ramona Manglona said.

A May ruling by London’s High Court that Assange could continue appealing his extradition appeared to change the trajectory of the negotiations, prompting the US Justice Department and Assange’s lawyers to renew their discussions over a plea deal. For US prosecutors, the fact that Assange had already served five years at Belmarsh fighting extradition, and the likelihood that a guilty plea for similar crimes would result in a comparable sentence within the US, added to efforts to try to seal an agreement.

Inside the decadelong, global pursuit of Julian Assange that ended in a plea deal met with praise and scorn | CNN Politics (2)

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The White House said on Tuesday that it wasn’t involved in the decision. But Biden’s comments in April suggest they weren’t putting up any resistance.

Assange and WikiLeaks rose to international prominence after the site released massive troves of classified materials from the Pentagon and State Department that were supplied to Assange by former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.

Assange allegedly goaded Manning into obtaining thousands of pages ofunfiltered US diplomatic cablesthat potentially endangered confidential sources, Iraq war-related significant activity reports and information related to Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Manning served about seven years in prison for her role in the massive leak. Before leaving office, then-President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.

A yearslong legal battle

Assange’s hearing on Wednesday concludes what has been a yearslong legal battle that stretched across the past three US presidential administrations.

The Obama administration believed that criminal charges against Assange posed potential First Amendment concerns because of the role major news organizations played in publishing some documents obtained by WikiLeaks.

But the Trump administration pursued the criminal case after taking a second look at the federal government’s investigation, eventually charging Assange with 18 counts that carried a max of up to 175 years in prison, though he was unlikely to be sentenced to that time in full.

When the chargeswere made public in May 2019 the Australians felt that they were in a sweet spot in terms of relations with the Trump administration, according to a source familiar with the relations at the time. They were planning a state visit for September 2019 and highly cognizant of the fact that Trump often let issues bleed into one another instead of keeping them separate.

As a result – despite some internal frustration – they were not willing to risk the working relationship over Assange.

TOPSHOT - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gestures from the window of a prison van as he is driven out of Southwark Crown Court in London on May 1, 2019, after having been sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for breaching his bail conditions in 2012. - A British judge on Wednesday sentenced WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to 50 weeks in prison for breaching his bail conditions in 2012. Assange took refuge in Ecuador's London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden and was only arrested last month after Ecuador withdrew his asylum status. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images) DANIEL LEAL/AFP/AFP via Getty Images Related article Julian Assange’s mission was to change the world - but at what cost?

Justice Department prosecutors may have brought the case against Assange under Trump but not under Obama because Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, prioritized investigating leaks of classified information, according to Adam Hickey, who served as a national security-focused official at the Justice Department under the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations.

Sessions’ focus on national security-related leaks was “probably one of the reasons why the [Assange] case had more traction,” Hickey told CNN. Hickey said he was not involved in the Assange case when he was a senior official at DOJ’s National Security Division from 2016 to 2023.

But the Assange case was always going to present challenges for prosecutors. His background was unusual compared to others the Justice Department has charged under the Espionage Act or other counterintelligence and national security laws.

“Assange is neither your traditional journalist nor is he a spy or a card-carrying foreign intelligence officer,” said Hickey, who’s now a partner at the law firm Mayer Brown. “So how that plays out in court would be interesting. [It] could be unpredictable.”

Most well-known groups supporting press freedoms, and some major news outlets, opposed the Assange indictment. Some have argued that the case imperiled journalists, even if Assange didn’t operate under the same rules or ethics that guide newsrooms.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations that advocate for the First Amendment recently raised these concerns while urging the Justice Department to drop the case altogether.

“The prosecution of Assange in the United States would create legal pathways under the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that would allow for the prosecution of journalists who are simply doing their jobs and covering matters of public interest,” the coalition wrote in a letter to Garland last month.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 21: (AUSTRALIA OUT) Wikileaks founder Julian Assange poses during a portrait shoot on May 21, 2010 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Chew/Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images). Mark Chew/Fairfax Media/Getty Images Related article Exclusive: Security reports reveal how Assange turned an embassy into a command post for election meddling

Andrew McCabe, former FBI deputy director and a CNN contributor, called the indictment against Assange, “totally valid.” But he also echoed Hickey’s concern about the uncertainty of a potential trial, telling CNN that court proceedings could be “divisive” and have a “negative impact on journalistic activities.”

“The guy deserved to be charged how he was charged but it’s also the right thing to come to this resolution. Both decisions are legitimate,” McCabe said.

Stilwell, the former State Department official under the Trump administration, pushed back on the Assange plea deal.

“He knew what he was doing when he did it, and instead of going through regular channels like the inspector general he did it is own way, he did it for himself,” Stilwell said. “The number of sources and methods we lost because of Assange is unfathomable. Releasing him sets a precedent and is wrong. He should rot in prison or worse.”

Others have more nuanced views.

Bradley Moss, a seasoned national security attorney based in Washington, DC, told CNN the Assange plea deal “avoids the significant constitutional implications” that would’ve emerged at Assange’s trial, which would’ve happened at the federal court in northern Virginia, where the jury pool includes people in the defense and intelligence sectors.

“There is no longer a concern that the presiding judge would have to determine the extent to which the First Amendment protects members of the media, who themselves do not hold security clearances, from criminal prosecution under the Espionage Act,” Moss said, adding that past US administrations have “avoided touching” this third rail.

He also said that after Assange’s dozen years in de facto detention – seven years at the Ecuadorian embassy in London and then five years in British jails – in the eyes of federal prosecutors, “there is no more blood to be squeezed from this proverbial rock.”

This story has been updated with additional details.

CNN’s Josh Campbell, Zachary Cohen, Marshall Cohen and Kevin Liptak in the United States, and journalist Thomas Manglona in Saipan contributed to this report.

Inside the decadelong, global pursuit of Julian Assange that ended in a plea deal met with praise and scorn | CNN Politics (2024)


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