Julian Assange was arrested in Britain on a single charge of conspiracy but that is almost certainly just the opening salvo by the United States as prosecutors draw up more serious charges that could well result in the WikiLeaks founder spending the rest of his life behind bars.
Former CIA officers point to the colossal scope of the classified information dumps perpetrated by the Australian national, 47, and argue that he was responsible for American deaths. Few people are more despised by the American intelligence and criminal justice communities. Using a single, straightforward, and relatively minor charge is a common legal tactic designed to speed up an extradition process.
[ WATCH: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange dragged out of Ecuadorian Embassy in London by police]
Arthur Rizer, a former federal prosecutor and U.S. Army veteran, described Assange as an “information terrorist” and “intelligence mobster.” He told Washington Examiner: “There are a million things other this guy could be charged with. And I wouldn’t be surprised if one of things he’s charged with is espionage.”
Rizer, now a director at the R Street Institute, said that charges of manslaughter, obstruction of justice, and mishandling of classified material were possible. “He could also be charged with many different counts of the same thing, because he published so many things,” he added.
Charles Stimson, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs and a Navy reservist told the Washington Examiner, “I’m sure there will be superseding indictments. There’s no doubt in my mind as a prosecutor. They might have a superseding indictment that’s sealed already,” he suggested.
“It’s the practice of the DOJ in a lot of instances to bring forward a single count indictment at the beginning of a long and complicated case to start the proceedings.”
The plan for how to deal with Assange was probably drawn up by the Obama administration and honed under Trump, Stimson, a Heritage Foundation scholar, said. Who would be privy to it? “I suspect [former DOD general counsel and DHS Secretary] Jeh Johnson and the previous team at the Obama administration knows and that senior leaders in the Trump administration know too.”
Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA station chief in Moscow, said Assange was likely in further legal jeopardy, saying, “There’s the Chelsea Manning case and there’s the DNC hacking lawsuit brought against him.” It was also an open question as to “what aspects of the Mueller report fit in to all this.”
He rejected the notion that Assange could claim to be a mere journalist with free-speech protections. “WikiLeaks is more than just a repository for classified information, they’re actually out actively seeking it. And the question is whether Assange was enabling individuals like Chelsea Manning to steal classified information. That would make him a co-conspirator.”
While he doubted “there was a direct link between Assange and Russia” but he said “there may have been third party cut-outs — mutually trusted intermediaries — used by WikiLeaks and Moscow. That might make an espionage trail difficult for prosecutors to establish.
“WikiLeaks would get the information that the GRU [Russian military intelligence] hacked, but they wouldn’t get it from GRU but rather from GRU cut-outs. And that gives Assange a fig leaf of deniability,” Hoffman said. “The cut-out is designed to conceal the real collector … But it’s a distinction without a difference.”
Hoffman said that, although Assange himself did plenty of harm, “the ones who did the most damage were the ones who stole classified information — those who hacked the DNC and Chelsea Manning stealing military files.”
Bob Baer, a former CIA case officer in the Middle East who was the model for the character played by George Clooney in the movie “Syriana,” cast that Assange could be charged under the 1917 Espionage Act. He told the Washington Examiner: “I’ve yet to see anything proving that. And you can’t bring an espionage indictment against someone just based on suspicion. I doubt they take him to trial on something like that, unless they have the goods on him,” he said.
Pointing to infamous espionage cases like the ones involving former CIA officers Aldrich Ames and Harold James Nicholson and former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, Baer said, “They caught these guys in the act passing secrets and taking money. And I would assume those standards still apply on espionage.”
Baer said WikiLeaks inflicted major damage to U.S. national security: “Think about the damage that Chelsea Manning did to the State Department… People look at the State Department and think, ‘Who in God’s name is going to tell them anything?’ It effectively blinds the United States.” In the case of some information, the cost was direct: “Giving up the NSA [National Security Agency] stuff gets people killed.”
Stimson said: “WikiLeaks was exponentially harmful to personnel to people in uniform, it put incredible pressure on our relationships with our allies, and it was grossly damaging to national security. And it was intended to be that way.
WikiLeaks has defended itself as an opponent of government corruption and a champion of free speech. It tweeted that Assange was “a son, a father, a brother. 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 dehumanize, delegitimize, and imprison him.”
The single-count conspiracy indictment against Assange that was unsealed in the Eastern District Court of Virginia carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The DOJ stated that “Assange engaged in a conspiracy with Chelsea Manning, a former intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, to assist Manning in cracking a password stored on U.S. Department of Defense computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network.”
It alleged Assange encouraged Manning to hand classified information to WikiLeaks: “These databases contained approximately 90,000 Afghanistan war-related significant activity reports, 400,000 Iraq war-related significant activity reports, 800 Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs, and 250,000 U.S. Department of State cables.”