Data Breach , Data Loss , Insider Threat

After Outlasting Sweden, WikiLeaks Founder's Fate Murky

Trump Administration Has Expressed Renewed Interest in Julian Assange
After Outlasting Sweden, WikiLeaks Founder's Fate Murky
Julian Assange participates via video link in an October 2015 conference in Buenos Aires. (Photo: Romina Santarelli, Flickr/CC)

Sweden has ended a seven-year rape investigation against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. But it's far from the end of the legal troubles for the man whose spilling of secrets has shaped world politics.

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Sweden's Director of Public Prosecution, Marianne Ny, said it's unlikely Assange would ever be returned to the country under an issued European arrest warrant. Assange, an Australian citizen, voluntarily sought refuge in Ecuador's embassy in London in June 2012.

"At this point, all possibilities to conduct the investigation are exhausted," Ny says. "In order to proceed with the case, Julian Assange would have to be formally notified of the criminal suspicions against him. We cannot expect to receive assistance from Ecuador regarding this."

But Ny added that the investigation against Assange could be reopened: "If he, at a later date, makes himself available, I will be able to decide to resume the investigation immediately."

Assange claims the rape allegation against him is false. He has long suggested the rape investigation, as well as now-dropped probes concerning sexual assault, were a pretense to detain him for his WikiLeaks work.

"Detained for seven years without charge while my children grew up and my name was slandered," Assange writes on Twitter. "I do not forgive or forget."

In August 2015, Sweden stopped pursuing two allegations of sexual assault after the statue of limitations expired. Remaining was a more serious charge of rape, lesser degree. The statute of limitations on that charge does not expire until 2020.

Although he has been granted asylum by Ecuador, Assange hasn't left Ecuador's embassy. He still faces potential arrest by U.K. authorities for skipping bail by taking refuge there. There are also looming legal issues over his work for WikiLeaks, which has leaked highly sensitive U.S. military and government information.

Part Publisher, Part Activist

From his small room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange continues to run WikiLeaks, which he founded in 2006. Four years later, the part-publisher, part-activist website scored a major leak: tens of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables and military documents from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

The cables, written in sometimes frank and unguarded language by diplomats, deeply embarrassed the U.S. government, and the military documents raised serious concerns over civilian casualties. Chelsea Manning, the U.S. Army intelligence analyst formerly known as Bradley Manning who leaked the material, was released Wednesday from Fort Leavenworth in Kansas following former President Barack Obama having commuted her sentence (see Obama Commutes Sentence of WikiLeaks Leaker Manning).

Since 2010, the U.S. government has actively investigated WikiLeaks. A grand jury investigation, which decides if someone can be indicted on charges, was convened in 2010, but none of the related charges have been unsealed.

In the intervening years, WikiLeaks has continued to release corporate and government material. But in 2016, the website became a major player in the U.S. presidential election. It trickled out leaked emails and information that came from key Democratic Party officials, altering an already chaotic presidential campaign.

The disclosures largely benefited President Donald Trump. The leaks kept Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton off balance and off message, even as the information frequently bordered on the mundane. Trump used the disclosures to cast doubt on Clinton's honesty on issues ranging from an investigation into her use of a private email server to her paid speaking appearances at Wall Street firms.

"This just came out," Trump said at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 10. "WikiLeaks. I love WikiLeaks."

U.S. intelligence agencies unanimously believe Russia waged a hacking campaign that sought to disrupt the election. The government believes the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency, passed stolen documents to WikiLeaks. The organization has declined to reveal its source. Also, the FBI continues to investigate whether members of Trump's campaign colluded with Russian intelligence (see Comey's Gone: Will the Russian Hacking Probe Stall?).

Possible Prosecution?

Although WikiLeaks boosted Trump's campaign, the U.S. government has reinforced its dim view of the organization. That's in part due to Vault 7, which comprises large caches of network exploitation techniques suspected to have come from the CIA. Vault 7 was published by WikiLeaks in early March (see WikiLeaks Dumps Alleged CIA Malware and Hacking Trove).

In an April speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, CIA Director Michael Pompeo dismissed Assange as a "narcissist" and a "fraud" who "relies on the dirty work of others to make himself famous."

"Julian Assange and his kind are not the slightest bit interested in improving civil liberties or enhancing personal freedom," Pompeo said, according to a transcript. "They have pretended that America's First Amendment freedoms shield them from justice. They may have believed that, but they are wrong."

Pompeo's comment touches on a key issue: whether prosecutors could justify an espionage-type case against Assange or whether WikiLeaks is protected by freedom of the press. News outlets frequently publish classified information, but prosecutors can only bring cases against those who leaked the material.

Just a week after Pompeo's speech, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself from the FBI's investigation into Russia, promised that the government would step up its efforts to pursue those behind leaks, including Assange.

"We have professionals that have been in the security business of the United States for many years that are shocked by the number of leaks, and some of them are quite serious," Sessions said last month in a press conference, the Guardian reports. "So yes, it is a priority. We've already begun to step up our efforts and whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail."


About the Author

Jeremy Kirk

Jeremy Kirk

Managing Editor, Security and Technology, ISMG

Jeremy Kirk is a veteran journalist who has reported from more than a dozen countries. Based in Sydney, he is Managing Editor for Security and Technology for Information Security Media Group. Prior to ISMG, he worked from London and Sydney covering computer security and privacy for International Data Group. Further back, he covered military affairs from Seoul, South Korea, and general assignment news for his hometown paper in Illinois.




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