WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange accused of conspiring to break DOD password

(Allie Caren | The Washington Post) British police arrested WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange April 11 in London. Assange had been living in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London since seeking asylum in 2012.

Prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia on Thursday unsealed a conspiracy to commit computer intrusion charge against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who had been arrested by British police at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London.

Assange is accused of agreeing to help former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning break a password to the Defense Department’s computer network in 2010. That, prosecutors alleged, would have allowed Manning to log in anonymously. The indictment does not include evidence that Assange and Manning ever succeeded.

The narrow case - focused solely on a handful of interactions with Manning nine years ago - suggests the Department of Justice is hoping to avoid a fight over the First Amendment protections. Attempts to prosecute Assange under President Barack Obama faltered out of concern that doing so would be akin to prosecuting a news organization for publishing classified material.

Soon after taking office, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions began to talk with Dana Boente, at the time both the U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia and the acting deputy attorney general, about charging Assange. Prosecutors - some of whom had been skeptical of the case - took a second look, people familiar with the matter said.

Asked in April 2017 about his concern about leaks and whether it was a priority for the Justice Department to arrest Assange, Sessions said, "We are going to step up our effort and already are stepping up our efforts on all leaks" and added, "Yes, it is a priority . . . whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail."

Assange was indicted in March 2018 - just within an eight-year statute of limitations for the conspiracy crime. But a grand jury in Alexandria is continuing to investigate and Manning is currently in jail for refusing to testify before them. Prosecutors can add to the indictment until Assange is extradited from the United Kingdom.

Barry Pollack, an attorney representing Assange in the United States, maintained that even this limited case imperils freedom of the press.

"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. "Journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by these unprecedented criminal charges."

Before the interactions regarding the password, Manning had already given WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of classified records, prosecutors allege. The material included four nearly complete databases, according to prosecutors, comprising 90,000 reports from the Afghanistan war, 400,000 reports from the Iraq War and 250,000 State Department cables.

Manning told Assange in a March 8, 2010, chat she was "throwing everything" she had from Guantanamo detainee reports at him, according to the indictment.

"After this upload, that's really all I've got left," she added.

"Curious eyes never run dry in my experience," the indictment says Assange responded.

"Any good at IM-Hash cracking?" Manning asked Assange soon after, according to records produced at her military trial in 2013. The part of the password Manning wanted help decoding was stored as a "hash value" in a DOD computer file she was not supposed to access, according to prosecutors.

"Yes," was the reply. When Manning sent a string of numbers, according to the military prosecutors, Assange replied, "Passed it on to our guys."

Prosecutors said in the indictment unsealed Thursday that days later, Assange told Manning he had had "no luck so far."

Manning was found guilty of espionage, theft and computer crimes; her 35-year sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama in 2017. Prosecutors have argued she has not never fully revealed the extent of her interactions with WikiLeaks.

At her court-martial in 2013, Manning said she only began sharing information with the group in February 2010 and did so entirely on her own initiative. Military prosecutors argued that the relationship started months earlier, not long after Manning deployed to Iraq.

The case against Assange was revived under President Donald Trump, after WikiLeaks released secret CIA cyber tools. The Justice Department has in this administration waged an aggressive crackdown on disclosures of classified information, more than tripling the number of leak investigations in then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions's first six months on the job.

Before the 2016 elections, WikiLeaks released tens of thousands of emails that had been stolen from the Democratic National Committee and from Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, in cyber hacks that U.S. intelligence officials concluded were orchestrated by the Russian government. Russian military intelligence officers charged by special counsel Robert Mueller discussed the timing of the disclosures with WikiLeaks, according to an indictment, "to heighten their impact on the 2016 presidential election."

The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.