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Arrest expected to open new chapter in WikiLeaks saga

PA via AP

Julian Assange gestures as he arrives at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London, after the WikiLeaks founder was arrested by officers from the Metropolitan Police and taken into custody on Thursday.

The Associated PressWASHINGTON (AP) — Julian Assange’s arrest on Thursday in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London opens the next chapter in the saga of the WikiLeaks founder: an expected extradition fight over a pending criminal prosecution in the United States.

It’s also likely to trigger a debate over press freedom and call attention to unresolved questions about Assange’s role in the release of stolen Democratic emails leading up to the 2016 presidential election, part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s recently concluded investigation into ties between the campaign of U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia.

Assange, for now at least, faces a single count of computer intrusion conspiracy. He’s accused of conspiring in 2010 with Chelsea Manning, then a U.S. Army intelligence analyst who leaked troves of classified material to WikiLeaks, to crack a password that would give her higher-level access to classified computer networks.

Press freedom implications

Assange and his supporters say he’s a journalist who deserves legal protections for publishing stolen material. But the indictment doesn’t really have to do with whether Assange is a journalist.

The allegations don’t relate to the publication of classified information but focus on his attempts to obtain the material in what prosecutors say was an illegal manner.

That distinction could be vital in the government’s case and complicate Assange’s efforts to cast the prosecution as infringing on press freedom. U.S. Justice Department media guidelines are meant to protect journalists from prosecution for doing their jobs, which has historically included the publication of classified information. But the protections don’t easily extend to journalists or others who themselves break the law to obtain information or who solicit others to do so, as the government alleges.

“The act of coaching” someone on how to steal information, as alleged in the indictment, “is a step too far,” said Ryan Fayhee, a former U.S. Justice Department prosecutor who specialized in counterintelligence cases.

Extradition to the U.S.

Assange is expected to fight extradition to the United States, a process that could stretch out for years.

He has a top-notch legal team, many devoted supporters and the legal issues in the U.S. case may prove complex.

Assuming he is eventually brought to the United States, Assange would face charges in the Eastern District of Virginia, just outside Washington. The office has considerable experience in national security prosecutions involving accused terrorists and spies and other high-profile matters, like the case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

U.S. Justice Department officials could easily supplement their indictment with a new one with more serious charges. Manning was jailed last month after she refused to testify before a grand jury in Virginia, suggesting that prosecutors’ work related to Assange is not done.

Connections to Russia probe

On its face, the charges have nothing to do with Mueller’s probe.

The indictment was brought not by Mueller and his team but rather by prosecutors in Virginia and the Justice Department’s national security division.

There is no allegation in the indictment of any involvement in Russian election interference, coordination with Russian hackers or interactions with Trump campaign associates.

That’s striking, since Assange and WikiLeaks have surfaced, albeit obliquely and not by name, in multiple criminal cases brought by Mueller. WikiLeaks was the organization that published Democratic emails stolen by Russian intelligence officers. And Roger Stone, a Trump confidant under indictment, repeatedly boasted of connections to WikiLeaks and of having advance knowledge of the organization’s publication plans.

Mueller has farmed out investigations peripheral to his central mission to other Justice Department offices. Though Assange and WikiLeaks cut to the heart of the question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, the special counsel ultimately closed his investigation without charging him and before he could even be taken into custody.

That could suggest Mueller didn’t see a criminal case to be made against Assange or deferred to the Justice Department’s existing investigation into him.Speech

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