Surprise disclosure puts Assange in US spotlight

Surprise disclosure puts Assange in US spotlight
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Time may be up for Julian Assange.

The WikiLeaks founder, who played a central role in leaking hacked emails during the 2016 election, has spent the past six years avoiding prosecution in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. But a recently revealed court filing points to U.S. prosecutors having already pressed sealed charges against him, even as he's avoided arrest.

And with Ecuadorian leaders publicly growing frustrated over their longtime tenant, it could be just a matter of time until Assange faces extradition to the United States.

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Assange’s prosecution would be a win for the U.S. federal government, including special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE, who has eyed WikiLeaks over the distribution of Democratic emails ahead of the 2016 election that he alleges were hacked by Russian military officers.

The court document, filed in August of this year, was first flagged Thursday on Twitter by Seamus Hughes, a researcher at the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, hours after The Wall Street Journal first reported that the U.S. was preparing to bring charges against Assange.

Legal experts told The Hill that the mistaken filing is a clear sign that an indictment against Assange is at least in the works, if not already filed against him.

This filing, written by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kellen Dwyer — who is also working on the WikiLeaks case — argues in the unrelated case that it’s necessary to seal the charges in the case in order “to protect this investigation.”

“Another procedure short of sealing will not adequately protect the needs of law enforcement at this time because, due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged,” the filing reads.

Assange is mentioned again later in the document, in a statement asserting that all documents related to the charges in the unrelated case “would need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested in connection with the charges in the criminal complaint and can therefore no longer evade or avoid arrest and extradition in this matter.”

“So it seems likely that Assange has been charged and the sealing motion was filed in that case, and then somebody made this cut and paste error in this new case,” said former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade.

It’s unclear what charges Assange may be facing. But the U.S. has sought to prosecute him since WikiLeaks distributed classified U.S. cables obtained from former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010.

Assange is also facing an arrest warrant in Sweden over an accusation of rape, which he has denied.

Assange’s attorney Jennifer Robinson said Friday that the report is “confirmation of what we’ve been concerned about and been talking about since 2010.”

“There is a very real risk that the United States is going to seek to prosecute him for his publishing activities and potentially seek to extradite him, and that if there was to be an indictment, it would be sealed, it would be secret, and we wouldn’t know that it existed until such time as he was in custody,” she told the progressive show "Democracy Now!"

Prosecutors generally keep charges sealed to prevent from showing their hand as they come closer to apprehending a suspect, over fears that an individual at the center of a case may attempt to escape law enforcement’s jurisdiction or cause harm to others.

Former federal prosecutor Bob Mintz said that while the U.S. will likely still have to follow the standard procedure for extraditing and charging Assange, the inadvertent disclosure of the possible indictment “does inject some additional urgency into the process.”

“I think there will be some desire on the part of the DOJ to expedite this process if they intend to go forward with it,” Mintz said.

McQuade, currently a professor at Michigan Law School, said the filing to seal charges in an indictment is one of the last steps in a case. And considering that this document was filed in August, she predicted that the Assange charges may have been handled before then.

The U.S. has been wary of bringing charges against WikiLeaks in the past, as free speech and First Amendment groups claim that it would be an attack on freedom of speech. WikiLeaks has argued that it is a media outlet and has a right to share the classified documents that it obtains, just as traditional press outlets often do.

Free speech groups have quickly spoken out in defense of Assange since news of the possible indictment broke. The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement Friday that any prosecution of Assange over WikiLeaks’s actions “would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations.”

McQuade said that in the course of Mueller’s investigation, the special counsel's team may have uncovered evidence that shows WikiLeaks working in coordination with Russian intelligence that causes federal prosecutors to view the group “in a different light.”

She also noted that Assange likely has information that could be valuable to the special counsel's probe, referring to Mueller’s focus on former informal Trump campaign adviser Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneHouse panel subpoenas Flynn, Gates House panel subpoenas Flynn, Gates Court orders release of sealed documents in mysterious Mueller grand jury case MORE and his interactions with WikiLeaks, as well as the release of the Democratic National Committee emails.

Mueller has been questioning associates of Stone’s for months to determine whether the president’s longtime confidant had prior knowledge of the WikiLeaks email dump. Stone has denied knowing that the group would release the emails, instead claiming that a source gave him an inside tip that WikiLeaks would soon release damaging information that would “roil” the 2016 presidential election.

McQuade added that Assange might want to strike a plea deal with the U.S. if only to get out of the Ecuadorian embassy.

Ecuador has allowed Assange to stay in its embassy in London since 2012. But the country has shown signs that it is growing fed up with Assange’s presence, warning him that he will be evicted from the premises if he doesn’t start cleaning up after himself and his cat.

The nation also said earlier this year that it had granted Assange citizenship, thinking that he may then be able to leave the facility without facing arrest. However, those hopes were dashed when authorities in the United Kingdom said they couldn’t guarantee that Assange wouldn’t be arrested as soon as he left the premises.

Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor, said the U.S. and Ecuador do have an extradition treaty in place, but that it allows exemptions in cases of political charges. He said that while he’s not sure that Assange’s indictment would be considered a political one — the charges remain unknown — his lawyers could make the argument in court that it does.

Still, he said an indictment against Assange would be significant, considering the bevy of potential charges that the U.S. could be weighing. But just charging Assange would only be the start of the battle.

“I think they would have a hotly contested case in court and likely a trial,” Honig said. “I think that would be the real test.”