You’ve likely heard his name in connection with WikiLeaks, but what is his role in it, and what criminal activity could he be charged with?
Who is Julian Assange?
Julian Assange, 47, is a computer programmer and hacker best known as the founder of WikiLeaks, which publishes confidential and classified government information. Assange founded Wikileaks in 2006, and the site drew headlines in 2010 for publishing secret U.S. military information related to the Iraq War, which had been provided to Assange by Chelsea Manning.
Assange was born in Australia and now resides in Ecuador’s embassy in London under political asylum. He became an Ecuadorean citizen in 2016.
Russia, Assange and Hillary Clinton’s emails
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Assange published numerous emails that stolen from the accounts of Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager, John Podesta. It was later determined that the emails were taken by Russian hackers under the supervision of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wanted to damage Clinton and boost Trump into the presidency.
The emails were released at points in which Clinton’s lead was expanding or Trump’s campaign seemed to be in trouble. A trove was published hours after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump was heard bragging about sexually assaulting women. Some in the GOP fretted that Trump would have to step aside as the candidate, but WikiLeaks’ dump significantly distracted from the scandal.
Trump praised WikiLeaks several times on the campaign trail. “I love Wikileaks,” he said.
The Chelsea Manning controversy
Starting in 2010, Assange published material obtained from the U.S. military by Chelsea Manning, including a video which showed U.S. soldiers fatally shooting 18 people from a helicopter in Iraq, about 250,000 diplomatic cables, and files from Guantánamo prison.
The U.S. government said the releases compromised national security. Attorney General Eric Holder looked into charging Assange under the Espionage Act of 1917, but decided against it, fearing it would create a precedent under which legitimate investigative journalists could be prosecuted for publishing confidential material in the public interest.
Why is Julian Assange in asylum?
In August 2010, Assange visited Sweden, where he was accused of sexual assault by two women. He was questioned there and released. In November 2010, Sweden reopened the case, issuing an international arrest warrant for Assange, who turned himself in to UK police in December. He was released on bail, but didn’t show up for his hearing.
Assange claimed that if he were extradited to Sweden, he would then be extradited to the United States, where he could face prosecution (including the death penalty) for espionage.
In August 2012, the Ecuadorian government said it would grant Assange asylum at its embassy in London. He has lived there since. But in July 2018, the Ecuadorian president said he had begun talks with the UK government about withdrawing Assange’s asylum status. The Swedish case was dropped in May 2017, but there is still a warrant out for Assange’s arrest in the UK because of his skipped bail.
Assange and Russia
We don’t know if Assange is, in fact, going to be indicted or for what crime. But Robert Mueller’s investigators have been circling Trump associate Roger Stone in recent weeks. Stone once claimed to have a direct line to WikiLeaks, and he sent text messages during the campaign suggesting he had advance knowledge of forthcoming anti-Clinton email dumps.
If WikiLeaks/Assange and Stone coordinated the Clinton email releases — material stolen by Russia, a hostile foreign power — to occur at times that were favorable to the Trump campaign, that could amount to conspiracy against the United States. Mueller has already indicted other Trump associates for that crime.