WASHINGTON (TNS) — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London early Thursday at the request of the United States, and the Justice Department later said he had been indicted in connection with a computer hacking conspiracy, a dramatic development in the nearly decadelong global saga.
Prosecutors accused Assange of working with Chelsea Manning, a U.S. Army intelligence analyst in Iraq in 2010, to crack a government computer password and access a vast trove of classified U.S. military and diplomatic reports and cables that were subsequently disclosed through WikiLeaks.
It was one of the largest unauthorized releases of classified materials in U.S. history, involving some 250,000 State Department cables, 400,000 reports from the Iraq War and another 90,000 reports involving fighting in Afghanistan, according to the indictment.
If convicted on the conspiracy charge, Assange, 47, could face five years in prison. It wasn't immediately clear if he would face additional U.S. charges now that he is custody.
Assange is a deeply polarizing figure, and his case reflects a collision of critical issues in the internet age. His supporters hail his pioneering role in exposing what they consider official wrongdoing, while national security experts see him both as a direct threat and symbol of chaos as governmental institutions scramble to protect what they consider legitimate secrets.
The indictment does not cite WikiLeaks' role in the release of thousands of hacked Democratic Party emails during the 2016 election, a focus of the special counsel investigation led by Robert S. Mueller III. Mueller said Russian operatives provided the stolen material to WikiLeaks.
Trump lavished praise on Assange's organization dozens of times while it was undermining Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent, but he sidestepped the question when asked by reporters at the White House on Thursday.
"I know nothing about WikiLeaks," he said. "It's not my thing."
The indictment focuses on an alleged conspiracy with Manning to make it more difficult for authorities to track the source of the leaked information. It said Manning was attempting to use someone else's credentials to log into a classified Defense Department computer network, and he provided a portion of the password to Assange for him to decode.
Assange apparently could not crack the password, however, telling Manning he had "no luck so far," the indictment said.
Assange was not charged in connection with publishing government secrets. Legal experts said that declining to file such charges could allow prosecutors to sidestep fraught legal issues involving the First Amendment, which has protected the right of journalists to publish classified government documents and other secret material.
"For me, the key is that this isn't about the Espionage Act or the publication of classified national security information," University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck wrote on Twitter. "It's not a direct threat to the press."
Paul Rosenzweig, a cybercrime expert and former Homeland Security official, said prosecutors have charged Assange with violating a 1984 cybersecurity law called the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. "Journalists are not at risk from this prosecution as currently framed," he said.
Barry J. Pollack, a Washington-based lawyer for Assange, said U.S. journalists should still feel threatened by the prosecution of the WikiLeaks founder.
"While the indictment against Julian Assange disclosed today charges a conspiracy to commit computer crimes, the factual allegations against Mr. Assange boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identity of that source," Pollack said in a statement.
The case is being handled by the U.S. attorney's office in the Eastern District of Virginia. Assange plans to fight extradition, which could turn the process into a lengthy legal battle, so it's not clear when he is likely to appear in a U.S. court.
Assange was brought to Westminster Magistrates' Court in London hours after his arrest, and he waved to supporters in the public gallery and gave a thumbs-up.
Judge Michael Snow said he showed "the behavior of a narcissist who cannot get beyond his own selfish interest," and he ordered him to appear in court via a video link on May 2 as part of the extradition process.
Under British law, the judge must receive extradition papers within 65 days, and a full extradition request must be certified by the Home Office.
His lawyer in London, Jennifer Robinson, argued that the case poses a threat to British journalists.
"This precedent means that any journalist can be extradited for prosecution in the United States for having published truthful information about the United States," she told reporters.
She said she had just visited Assange in jail and that he seemed unsurprised by his arrest, telling her, "I told you so."
Manning is in U.S. custody after a federal judge in Alexandria, Va., found her in contempt and ordered her to jail last month for refusing to testify before a grand jury, reportedly in connection with the case against Assange.
In 2013, a military judge sentenced Manning to 35 years in a maximum security prison for her role in leaking the trove of classified materials in 2010. President Barack Obama commuted her sentence before he left office and she ultimately served seven years dating from her initial arrest.
Assange lived in the Ecuadorian Embassy for almost seven years, but the president of the South American country revoked his diplomatic asylum Thursday and allowed London police to take him into custody.
Ruptly, a news service of Russia Today, captured video of Assange being hauled from the embassy building. He had a full beard and gray hair pulled back in a bun, and he appeared to be arguing with the police as they loaded him into the police van. "This is unlawful. I am not leaving," he reportedly shouted.
Although Assange is viewed in heroic terms by some transparency advocates, he has long been denounced as a national security threat by U.S. officials. Two years ago, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo described WikiLeaks as a "nonstate hostile intelligence service" while he was serving as CIA director.
The existence of an indictment against Assange was not a surprise. In November, federal prosecutors accidentally revealed in an unrelated case that he was facing charges under seal.
The indictment released Thursday was dated March 6, 2018, a sign that U.S. officials have been prepared to move forward for more than a year.
Ecuador has increasingly made clear it was looking to oust Assange from its embassy, where he took refuge in 2012 to avoid facing sexual assault allegations in Sweden.
Those charges were eventually dropped, but he also faced arrest by British authorities for violating his bail in the case, and Assange long feared being forced to stand trial in the United States.