Skip to main content

The case against Julian Assange is serious — but smaller and shakier than some people feared

The case against Julian Assange is serious — but smaller and shakier than some people feared

Share this story

Julian Assange Appears At Westminster Magistrates Court
Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested today after Ecuador’s UK embassy revoked his asylum status, ending a stay of more than six years. The US Department of Justice revealed that Assange is charged with one count of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). It’s a far less aggressive charge than many people feared Assange would face — but one that could still be ominous news for the free press.

The US government’s case against Assange has remained mysterious for years. In theory, he could have faced accusations of stealing government property or violating the Espionage Act by publishing leaked documents from whistleblower Chelsea Manning. This would have immediately raised huge questions about the First Amendment. “Any prosecution by the United States of Mr. Assange for Wikileaks’ publishing operations would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations,” warned the American Civil Liberties Union after Assange’s arrest.

Assange could have faced charges of espionage or stealing government property

But the indictment is comparatively modest. It claims Assange tried (seemingly unsuccessfully) to crack a password that would have helped Manning cover her tracks, thus conspiring to get secret government files without authorization. He faces up to five years in jail — which is a serious threat, but only a fraction of Manning’s commuted 35-year sentence, and courts rarely apply a crime’s maximum penalty.

The CFAA is a notoriously overbroad law that can be easy for prosecutors to abuse. But according to attorney Tor Ekeland, who has worked on several high-profile CFAA cases, the Justice Department’s argument here is relatively shaky. Among other things, there’s usually a five-year statute of limitations on CFAA charges, and Manning’s document leaks stopped in 2010. Ekeland says the Justice Department is stretching that limit by invoking a section that classes hacking as an act of terrorism, but a court might take issue with its strategy. “It’s not that strong an indictment,” he says.

The Justice Department might still be looking at other charges, including espionage. But if the UK turns over Assange specifically for this CFAA violation, prosecutors can’t simply indict him for new crimes later. “If this is the indictment that they presented to the UK for extradition, they’re locked into it,” says Ekeland. “The United States government can’t bring him to the United States and add 50 charges.”

That said, we’ll probably see an extended legal fight over extradition in the UK, and we don’t know what information might surface during that period. Assange’s lawyers will likely fight the attempt to extradite him, and Ecuador’s president Lenín Moreno claimed he’d been assured the UK would deny requests from any country with the death penalty — although that’s not necessarily a guarantee.

The Justice Department is sidestepping a First Amendment firestorm

By charging Assange with a hacking violation, the Justice Department is sidestepping a direct war over the right of news outlets to publish leaked information. “I think they’re using the CFAA because of how utterly chilling — and likely unconstitutional — it would be to use the Espionage Act against a publisher,” says Jesselyn Radack, who has represented former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers in court.

And some WikiLeaks critics argue Assange isn’t being charged over any legitimate journalistic practice. “While journalists do publish material that is gathered by sources, we don’t help the sources pick the locks on the safes that hold the information,” wrote New York Times reporter Katie Benner on Twitter.

But the CFAA is still being wielded as a weapon against someone who published leaked information, and given the law’s scope, there’s no guarantee it won’t be applied to more traditional reporting. Intercept writer Micah Lee noted that prosecutors called the practice of deleting chat logs and putting files in a cloud storage folder part of the “conspiracy” between Assange and Manning — “what stops them from charging other journalists with ‘conspiracy’ for deleting metadata and chat logs to protect sources, encouraging sources to leak documents, or using whistleblower submission systems?” he asked.

Meanwhile, Assange still has some legal trouble outside the US. As Reuters reported earlier today, a British court found him guilty of skipping bail back in 2012, when he refused an extradition order from Sweden in a now-dropped sexual assault investigation. The charge carries a maximum of 12 months in jail.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed 60 minutes ago Striking out

A
Youtube
Andrew Webster60 minutes ago
Look at this Thing.

At its Tudum event today, Netflix showed off a new clip from the Tim Burton series Wednesday, which focused on a very important character: the sentient hand known as Thing. The full series starts streaming on November 23rd.


A
The Verge
Andrew WebsterTwo hours ago
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.


J
Twitter
Jay PetersSep 23
Twitch’s creators SVP is leaving the company.

Constance Knight, Twitch’s senior vice president of global creators, is leaving for a new opportunity, according to Bloomberg’s Cecilia D’Anastasio. Knight shared her departure with staff on the same day Twitch announced impending cuts to how much its biggest streamers will earn from subscriptions.


T
Twitter
Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.


A
External Link
If you’re using crash detection on the iPhone 14, invest in a really good phone mount.

Motorcycle owner Douglas Sonders has a cautionary tale in Jalopnik today about the iPhone 14’s new crash detection feature. He was riding his LiveWire One motorcycle down the West Side Highway at about 60 mph when he hit a bump, causing his iPhone 14 Pro Max to fly off its handlebar mount. Soon after, his girlfriend and parents received text messages that he had been in a horrible accident, causing several hours of panic. The phone even called the police, all because it fell off the handlebars. All thanks to crash detection.

Riding a motorcycle is very dangerous, and the last thing anyone needs is to think their loved one was in a horrible crash when they weren’t. This is obviously an edge case, but it makes me wonder what other sort of false positives we see as more phones adopt this technology.


A
External Link
Ford is running out of its own Blue Oval badges.

Running out of semiconductors is one thing, but running out of your own iconic nameplates is just downright brutal. The Wall Street Journal reports badge and nameplate shortages are impacting the automaker's popular F-series pickup lineup, delaying deliveries and causing general chaos.

Some executives are even proposing a 3D printing workaround, but they didn’t feel like the substitutes would clear the bar. All in all, it's been a dreadful summer of supply chain setbacks for Ford, leading the company to reorganize its org chart to bring some sort of relief.


J
External Link
Jay PetersSep 23
Doing more with less (extravagant holiday parties).

Sundar Pichai addressed employees’ questions about Google’s spending changes at an all-hands this week, according to CNBC.

“Maybe you were planning on hiring six more people but maybe you are going to have to do with four and how are you going to make that happen?” Pichai sent a memo to workers in July about a hiring slowdown.

In the all-hands, Google’s head of finance also asked staff to try not to go “over the top” for holiday parties.


E
External Link
Insiders made the most money off of Helium’s “People’s Network.”

Remember Helium, which was touted by The New York Times in an article entitled “Maybe There’s a Use for Crypto After All?” Not only was the company misleading people about who used it — Salesforce and Lime weren’t using it, despite what Helium said on its site — Helium disproportionately enriched insiders, Forbes reports.