US charges WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange with conspiracy to commit computer hacking

  • The Justice Department announces a criminal charge against WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, accusing him of conspiring with Chelsea Manning to hack into a classified U.S. government computer.
  • "The charge relates to Assange's alleged role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States," the DOJ says.
  • Assange was arrested Thursday at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had been living for nearly seven years.

The Justice Department announced a criminal charge Thursday against WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, accusing him of conspiring with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into a classified U.S. government computer.

"The charge relates to Assange's alleged role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States," the Justice Department said in a press release.

The announcement followed an extradition request by the U.S. for Assange, 47, who on Thursday morning was arrested and removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has lived for nearly seven years. A British judge said Thursday that the U.S. must share its case justifying Assange's extradition by June 12, multiple outlets reported.

If convicted, Assange could face five years in prison, though his actual sentence would likely fall below the legal maximum.

CNN reported, however, that Justice Department officials expect to bring additional charges against Assange.

"This is a dark day for journalism," a representative for Assange said outside British court. "We don't want this to go forward. This has to be averted."

"It's called conspiracy. It's conspiracy to commit journalism," the representative continued, adding: "There is no assurance that there will not be additional charges when he is on U.S. soil."

The indictment, filed under seal in the Eastern District of Virginia in March 2018, states that he and Manning worked together in 2010 to crack passwords on government computers and download reams of information with the intent of publishing them on WikiLeaks. Manning was jailed last month for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating Assange's document-sharing organization.

The alleged conspiracy has no direct connection to the 2016 presidential election, where Assange's whistleblowing organization became a main engine of controversy by publishing troves of Democratic National Committee officials' internal emails. U.S. intelligence officials alleged in a January 2017 assessment of Russia's election meddling that Kremlin military intelligence gained access to DNC networks and fed the hacked information to WikiLeaks.

President Donald Trump had praised WikiLeaks repeatedly in the late stages of the election, in which he defeated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Asked by reporters about the situation during an Oval Office meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-In on Thursday, Trump said, "I know nothing about Wikileaks. It's not my thing."

Manning, who held a top-secret security clearance, sent hundreds of thousands of U.S. military documents to WikiLeaks agents so that they could be publicly disclosed — and the website did publish the "vast majority" of those classified records between 2010 and 2011, the indictment alleges.

Those documents allegedly included approximately 800 Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs, a quarter-million State Department cables and 400,000 Iraq War-related reports.

In March 2010, Assange allegedly "agreed to assist Manning in cracking a password stored on United States Department of Defense computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network, a United States government network used for classified documents and communications."

Manning used a Linux operating system to access the password, which would help disguise her activities but was stored on a computer she did not have specific privileges to access, according to the court filing.

Assange was allegedly aware that Manning was providing him information in violation of Army regulations.

On March 8, 2010, before forging the agreement to crack the government password, Manning allegedly told Assange that "after this upload, that's all I really have got left."

The indictment says Assange replied: "Curious eyes never run dry in my experience."

A spokesperson for Manning told NBC News on Thursday that "our legal team is reviewing the language now as it may impact her appeal to the charge of civil contempt," referring to Manning's current legal situation.

"We are confident in Chelsea's legal strategy regarding the grand jury and the appeal and that we may have more we can share soon," the spokesperson added, NBC reported.

Assange had been holed up in the London-based embassy since 2012 in order to avoid an extradition to Sweden related to a sexual assault case. Two years earlier, Sweden had issued a warrant for Assange related to allegations of sexual assault and rape from two women. Those charges were dropped in 2017, though Swedish prosecution agents said that one of the alleged victim's lawyers has requested that the investigation be reopened,

But Assange had refused to leave the embassy for fear of being extradited to the U.S. — a situation that reportedly wore thin for Ecuadorian officials.

Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno tweeted Thursday that his country had withdrawn Assange's asylum status "after his repeated violations to international conventions and daily-life protocols."

U.K. authorities had entered the London embassy and arrested Assange, who yelled "U.K. must resist" while being loaded into a police wagon. He appeared to be carrying a copy of Gore Vidal's "History of the National Security State" at the time of his arrest.

He was arrested for allegedly breaching U.K. bail conditions, and had been arrested again in a U.S. extradition warrant, according to Metropolitan Police. Multiple outlets reported Thursday that a British court found Assange guilty of jumping bail.

Assange's lawyer, Jen Robinson, did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment on the DOJ's announcement of the charge against her client. She had tweeted earlier Thursday that the U.S. warrant had been issued in December 2017.

Robinson vowed Thursday that "we will be contesting and fighting extradition." She added that Assange "will be brought before the court again within the next month."

Read the full indictment against Assange here:

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