The US Department of Justice is reconsidering pressing charges against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, according to new reports from The Washington Post and CNN. While declining to press formal charges, the Obama administration had never fully closed the case on Wikileaks’ publication of classified material, and Trump’s Justice Department has expressed new willingness to bring related charges against the website and its founder.
According to The Washington Post, the charges would include conspiracy, theft of government property, or violating the Espionage Act. Wikileaks has defended its actions as journalism, and without any evidence that the group actively stole information rather than merely publishing it, it’s unclear whether those charges would stick.
Civil rights groups have already objected to the prosecution on first amendment grounds. “Never in the history of this country has a publisher been prosecuted for presenting truthful information to the public,” said Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “Any prosecution of Wikileaks for publishing government secrets would set a dangerous precedent that the Trump administration would surely use to target other news organizations.”
The move represents a shift for President Trump, who applauded Wikileaks on the campaign trail after the group published information seen as damaging to Hillary Clinton.
According to CNN, the project has taken on particular urgency after the Ecuadorian election in February. The more conservative candidate, Guillermo Lasso, had publicly opposed Assange’s Ecuadorian asylum claim, which currently protects him from a Swedish court’s arrest warrant on rape charges. Lasso lost the election on February 19th, and Assange’s asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London has continued.
Assange had previously pledged to turn himself into authorities if Chelsea Manning were pardoned. Barack Obama later commuted Manning’s sentence, making the order just three days before Trump’s inauguration. Manning is due to be released in May, but Assange has insisted that the commutation does not fulfill the agreement, and he has no plans to turn himself in.
Update 8:37PM ET: Updated with statement from ACLU.