Some Good News For Julian Assange

The Justice Department has "all but concluded" that it won’t press charges against Julian Assange or WikiLeaks for publishing classified government documents, multiple outlets are reporting. This may sound surprising to those familiar with the Obama administration’s aggressive prosecution of leakers and whistleblowers, but the explanation behind the decision has a degree of internal consistency to it. While Assange most certainly did publish a whole bunch of stuff the U.S. government would have rather he didn’t, he didn’t actually leak any of it; that was Chelsea Manning's doing. That, to the DOJ, is a crucial distinction; if the administration started prosecuting outlets simply for publishing leaked materials, it would soon be pressing charges against the New York Times, the Guardian, and just about every other news organization that reports on politics.

The decision isn’t set in stone and hasn’t been announced. WikiLeaks attorney Barry Pollack wants the DOJ to issue “a formal, unequivocal statement” that Assange won’t be charged, which it hasn’t yet done. But multiple outlets are reporting that the decision has more or less been made, with one official telling the Washington Post that the department has “all but concluded” that it won’t charge Assange.

"The problem the department has always had in investigating Julian Assange is there is no way to prosecute him for publishing information without the same theory being applied to journalists," former Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller told the Washington Post. "And if you are not going to prosecute journalists for publishing classified information, which the department is not, then there is no way to prosecute Assange."

WikiLeaks essentially brushed off this week's report, saying in a statement that the situation "remains unchanged:"

The formal position of the US Department of Justice is that the investigation continues. Rather than caveat riddled claims from anonymous officials with undefined motivations, the government ought to do the right thing: close the investigation and formally and unequivocally tell WikiLeaks that no charges will be brought. Despite our lawyers’ repeated requests, they refuse to do so. Presently, the situation for WikiLeaks and its publisher Julian Assange remains unchanged. Perhaps with such an assurance this dark chapter for freedom of the press can be closed.

If the reports are true, it's good news for Assange; however, it also does little to solve his current predicament of being confined to the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Assange sought refuge there in June 2012 to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where he’s wanted on sexual assault charges. Were the U.S. to formally decide not to press charges against him, London would still presumably extradite him to Sweden if he left the embassy.