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A resolution in the Julian Assange case

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RCFP's Gabe Rottman explains what we know about Julian Assange's plea deal.
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The yearslong effort to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in the United States has been resolved with a plea deal and his return to Australia under an agreed-to sentence of time served.

Assange appeared on Wednesday to enter his plea in the U.S. District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands, given his reported objection to traveling to the continental United States and the proximity of the court to Australia, where he arrived later the same day. He pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act in connection with the publication of classified U.S. documents more than a decade ago. 

In its statement about the plea deal, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press focused on the fact that the U.S. courts will not have the opportunity to consider the government’s legal theory in the “pure publication” counts, which argued that the sole act of publishing classified information online violates the Espionage Act. On that front, with the plea agreement, “a potentially dangerous precedent for national security journalism would be avoided.” 

The legal filings related to the plea are relatively sparse, but here’s what is public. The government initially filed a letter and accompanying “Criminal Information” in the Saipan district court asking the judge to provide public notice of the hearing for Assange to plead guilty. 

The Criminal Information sets out the bare bones of the charge. Assange pled guilty to one violation of 18 U.S.C. 793(g), the Espionage Act conspiracy provision, for conspiring with Chelsea Manning over the course of 2009 through 2011 to violate three other provisions of the Act. 

Those provisions are: (1) section 793(c), which criminalizes the receipt of national defense information, or NDI, knowing that it can be used to the injury of the United States or advantage of a foreign nation, and that it “had been or would be taken, obtained, and disposed of” in violation of the Espionage Act; (2) section 793(d), which covers willfully communicating NDI from someone with authorization to possess it to someone not authorized to possess it; and (3) section 793(e), which covers willfully communicating NDI from someone with unauthorized possession to someone else not entitled to receive it. Those all cover the acts of Manning in exfiltrating and transmitting the relevant classified material to Assange.

The U.S. Justice Department also issued a press release with details on the case, including a passage stating that unlike “news organizations that published redacted versions of some of the classified documents that Assange obtained from Manning … Assange and WikiLeaks disclosed many of the raw, classified documents without removing any personally identifying information.” In previous analyses, we’ve commented on why the redaction issue is legally irrelevant to the Espionage Act claims.

There is a very short stipulation of facts in aid of sentencing, which includes details regarding Manning’s conviction, sentencing, and commutation by President Barack Obama. And, finally, there is the plea agreement, which includes a more detailed statement of facts. 

There will be more to say and write about the case in the coming days, but that’s all the public documentation right now on the plea agreement.

The Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press uses integrated advocacy — combining the law, policy analysis, and public education — to defend and promote press rights on issues at the intersection of technology and press freedom, such as reporter-source confidentiality protections, electronic surveillance law and policy, and content regulation online and in other media. TPFP is directed by Reporters Committee attorney Gabe Rottman. He works with RCFP Staff Attorney Grayson Clary and Technology and Press Freedom Project Fellow Emily Hockett.

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