Julian Assange has a knack for uncovering some of the U.S. government’s most dangerous secrets, but his legal status in the U.S. remains a mystery even to him.
The U.S. Justice Department’s (DOJ) inquiry into WikiLeaks, a journalistic organization best known for publishing the Iraq and Afghan War Diaries, has been called the largest national security investigation in American history. It is also one of the agency’s most highly guarded secrets. That the investigation is ongoing, however, there is little doubt.
In March, U.S. District Court judge Barbara Rothstein shot down a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) on the basis that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and DOJ are still pursuing an “ongoing criminal investigation of WikiLeaks.”
Furthering the Obama administration’s ability to keep secret all things tied to its investigation, Google was at first gagged from notifying Appelbaum—an American not publicly accused of any crime—that his communication records had in fact been seized.
It was not until this April that he received notice via his Google account.
Unsealed court records, first published by the Intercept, disclosed that the government does not consider Appelbaum (oft-published in the German weekly Der Spiegel) to be a journalist. Regardless, the government argued, “journalists have no special privilege to resist compelled disclosure of their records, absent evidence that the government is acting in bad faith.”
— Jacob Appelbaum (@ioerror) June 19, 2015
Top-secret documents delivered by Snowden, published by the Intercept in February 2014, revealed that the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s top spy agency, had secretly monitored visitors to the WikiLeaks website.
Additionally, the NSA had considered, in an effort to expand its surveillance authority, designating WikiLeaks as a “malicious foreign actor.” The U.S. spy agency listed Assange’s name, according to Intercept journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Gallagher, alongside alleged “terrorists, drug traffickers, and Palestinian leaders.”
The files also disclose how the Obama administration pressured its foreign allies to pursue Assange. “The United States on 10 August urged other nations with forces in Afghanistan, including Australia, United Kingdom, and Germany, to consider filing criminal charges against Julian Assange,” reads a document titled “Manhunting Timeline.”
Google was at first gagged from notifying Appelbaum.
Sources near Assange are unable to say with certainty what events could transpire that would convince the hacker-journalist to vacate London’s Ecuadorean embassy, his home for three years. If he were to step outside the red-brick six-story building at 3 Hans Cres, he would undoubtedly find himself arrested and behind bars in short time.
The U.K. has made clear that Assange will be granted no safe passage out of the country. Instead, he’s to be arrested on sight for breaching his bail conditions, which were established in December 2010 as a British court weighed his extradition to Sweden.
Despite the appearance of being one of the world’s most-wanted criminals, to date Assange has not been publicly charged with any crime. Nevertheless, since 2010, the Metropolitan Police Service have spent an unprecedented £12 million monitoring the Ecuadorean embassy—a steep tab for a suspect only technically wanted for violating his bail. This long-running surveillance operation has only fueled theories about a potential U.S. indictment.
Three-quarters of the Swedish government’s investigation into Assange expired in early August due to a statute of limitations. Thus far, he has not been indicted for any crime in Sweden. The country’s law prevents a suspect from being charged without first being interviewed.
The three allegations dropped pertain to sexual assault accusations made five years ago by two women in Stockholm. A more serious allegation of rape—which is denied by Assange—remains.
Assange’s legal team has repeatedly invited Swedish investigators to question him, either by video or in person in London, regarding the allegations. “From the beginning I offered simple solutions,” Assange said in a statement. “Come to the embassy to take my statement or promise not to send me to the United States. This Swedish official refused both,” he said, adding that the Swedish prosecutor heading the case has refused to accept even a written statement.
An attorney for Assange told the Kernel that by allowing the allegations to expire, the Swedish authorities had effectively robbed his client of the ability to clear his name.
An attorney for Assange told the Kernel that by allowing the allegations to expire, the Sweden had effectively robbed Assange of the ability to clear his name.
“The Swedish prosecutor keeping Assange detained for five years only to drop most of the case has taken an unacceptable toll on Assange’s health, family, and reputation,” said Carey Shenkman, a civil rights attorney representing Assange with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.
“The prosecutor did nothing for five years while multiple countries, dozens of international organizations, and countless legal experts slammed Sweden’s unjustified delays,” Shenkman added.
Marianne Ny, the Swedish prosecutor, said in a statement last month: “Julian Assange has voluntarily stayed away from justice by taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy. Now that the limitation period has passed for some of the [alleged] crimes I am forced to discontinue the preliminary investigation in these parts. This means that the investigation of the events is left unfinished because the suspect has not been heard, which I regret.”
“If this had been about a man resident in Sweden, no major damage would have occurred,” writes former Swedish district prosecutor Rolf Hillegren. “He’d have been questioned one more time and then the investigation would have been closed again. But the suspect wasn’t just anyone and no one could have predicted what was going to happen. And this is when the circus began.”
No one is sure, and officials won’t say, what precisely would happen if Assange were to be captured by the British authorities. It is plausible, however, that the U.S. government has already obtained a secret indictment for his arrest—if the indictment were to be sealed, neither Assange nor his attorneys would be alerted.
Likewise, if such an indictment does exist, there may be little reason to doubt that the U.K., America’s closest ally and intelligence partner, would extradite Assange at U.S. government’s request.
A version of this story originally appeared on the Daily Dot on Aug. 13, 2015.
Photo via Espen Moe/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman