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Julian Assange’s arrest could raise serious concerns about freedom of the press

The WikiLeaks founder was arrested in London pending extradition to United States.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 11: Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates court on April 11, 2019 in London, England.  After weeks of speculation Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was arrested by Scotland Yard Police Officers inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in Central London this morning. Ecuador's President, Lenin Moreno, withdrew Assange's Asylum after seven years citing repeated violations to international conventions. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 11: Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates court on April 11, 2019 in London, England. After weeks of speculation Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was arrested by Scotland Yard Police Officers inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in Central London this morning. Ecuador's President, Lenin Moreno, withdrew Assange's Asylum after seven years citing repeated violations to international conventions. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

WikiLeaks head Julian Assange was arrested at the Ecuadorian embassy in London early Thursday pending extradition to the United States over the publication of sensitive military and diplomatic documents from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Obama administration considered bringing charges against WikiLeaks over the Iraq and Afghanistan documents, but it ultimately decided that the case presented what officials called “the New York Times problem”  —  that it would be impossible to charge WikiLeaks without opening the door to prosecuting journalists.

The indictment unsealed Thursday does not charge Assange, 47, with violating the Espionage Act, which makes it a crimes to reveal “any document … relating to the national defense.” Many legal experts have worried that such a prosecution could have a chilling effect on mainstream news outlets that often report on classified information.

“Section 793(e) of the Espionage Act has been described as ‘pretty much one of the scariest statutes around,” Jonathan Albano, a partner at Boston law firm Morgan Lewis and longtime outside counsel for The Boston Globe, told ThinkProgress in 2017.

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“Julian Assange is no hero and no one is above the law,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Twitter. “He has hidden from the truth for years.”

The indictment alleges that Assange helped former Army private Chelsea Manning try to crack the password to a classified computer system in order to conceal her downloads of classified material. Assange is being charged with one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.

“Cracking the password would have allowed Manning to log on to the computers under a username that did not belong to her,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia said in a press release. “Such a deceptive measure would have made it more difficult for investigators to determine the source of the illegal disclosures.”

Manning passed thousands of documents from Iraq and Afghanistan to WikiLeaks, and she served seven years in jail before President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.  Manning has been in solitary confinement since last month, when she refused to testify before a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, that is investigating WikiLeaks.

“This man is a son, a father, a brother,” WikiLeaks tweeted after the arrest. “He has won dozens of journalism awards. He’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year since 2010. Powerful actors, including CIA, are engaged in a sophisticated effort to dehumanise, delegitimize and imprison him.”

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Assange’s U.K. lawyer did not immediately return requests for comment, and a spokesperson for Manning declined to comment.

The indictment against Assange was filed under seal in July, according to markings on the document. Prosecutors accidentally revealed its existence in a court filing in an unrelated case that was unsealed in November, though they did not reveal what Assange had been charged with.

Video posted online Thursday showed a handcuffed Assange being carried down the steps of the Ecuadorian Embassy and into a waiting police van. “U.K. must resist,” he said as he was loaded into the van.

Assange will appear at Westminster Magistrates’ Court “as soon as is possible,” according to a statement from the Metropolitan Police. He has spent nearly seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after Sweden charged him with rape in 2012. Sweden dropped those charges in 2017, but Assange still faces charges in the U.K. for jumping bail, in addition to the U.S. charges.

WikiLeaks and its supporters have long maintained that the charges in the U.K. and Sweden were an excuse to arrest Assange for publishing the documents from Iraq and Afghanistan. Thursday’s arrest, after Ecuador withdrew Assange’s asylum, seemed to confirm those fears.

“It is bitterly disappointing that a country would allow someone to whom it has extended citizenship and asylum to be arrested in the embassy,” Barry Pollock, Assange’s U.S. lawyer, said in a statement on Twitter.

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WikiLeaks became a focus of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling after it published emails that Kremlin hackers stole from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign in 2016. Mueller’s indictment against several Russian intelligence officials for the hacking scheme described how they ferried documents to WikiLeaks (referred to as “Organization 1”), but it does not say whether WikiLeaks knew it was communicating with Russian intelligence agents.

The Special Counsel’s Office did not charge WikiLeaks as part of its investigation.

President Donald Trump famously declared that he loved WikiLeaks in 2016, after the DNC leak. But his administration cooled on the organization quickly and began to pursue a prosecution the Obama administration had tabled.

“WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, then CIA director, said during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2017. “It has encouraged its followers to find jobs at CIA in order to obtain intelligence. It directed Chelsea Manning in her theft of specific secret information.”

Assange has long had a tense relationship with the Ecuadorian government. The embassy cut off his internet access last year, and Ecuador warned him against “intervening in the internal affairs of other states” while he was a guest of the embassy.

“Ecuador has sovereignly decided to terminate the diplomatic asylum granted to Mr. Assange in 2012,” Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno said in a video posted to Twitter Thursday. “The asylum of Mr. Assange is unsustainable and no longer viable.

Moreno, a moderate, has made a priority of improving his country’s relationship with the United States after years of decline under leftist President Rafael Correa.