WASHINGTON – With news that Sweden has ended its investigation into sexual assault allegations leveled against Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder enters a new, uncertain legal landscape with U.S. authorities still eyeing his prosecution.
Long a thorn in Washington’s side for his relentless campaign to publish sensitive government documents, Trump administration officials have in recent months signaled that they plan to pursue and perhaps seek Assange’s arrest.
The end of the Swedish investigation and the lifting of a European arrest warrant presents American prosecutors with a series of tough decisions about how – and whether – to pursue the case against Assange.
While a grand jury investigation of Assange has never been officially confirmed, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said that the WikiLeaks founder’s arrest remains a “priority,” and a federal inquiry is widely assumed to be underway by prosecutors in Virginia. In April, CIA Director Mike Pompeo slammed WikiLeaks as a “hostile intelligence service.”
According to a former senior Justice Department official, who requested anonymity to discuss the Assange case, American authorities are now presented with a “cat and mouse game.”
“The decision on whether to indict him rests largely on whether they can get their hands on him,” the former official said.
Indicting the head of an organization such as WikiLeaks presents a huge number of First Amendment issues, but the Trump White House has indicated such issues may be less of a hurdle than during previous administrations. Prosecutors could seek a sealed indictment – or may have one already – to be unveiled if and when Assange strays within reach of American law enforcement, the former official said.
In the short term, the announcement by Swedish authorities represents a clear victory for Assange, who was never charged by prosecutors there but was wanted for questioning. Fearing that he may be extradited from Sweden to face charges in the United States, Assange sought asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy in 2012 and has been holed up for five years.
While today was an important victory and important vindication, the road is far from over,” Assange said from the embassy balcony on Friday. “The war, the proper war, is just commencing.”
Police in London said they will still arrest Assange if he leaves the embassy on charges of failing to appear before a judge.
In fact, Swedish prosecutors did not vindicate Assange. “I can conclude, based on the evidence, that probable cause for this crime still exists,” chief prosecutor Marianne Ny told reporters in Stockholm.
“All prospects of pursuing the investigation are now exhausted,” she said in a statement explaining the decision to lift the arrest warrant and to end the investigation of Assange.
President Donald Trump, who touted WikiLeaks on the campaign trail when it disseminated documents stolen from the computer systems of the Democratic Party and its operatives, has lately turned against the organization.
After declaring “I love WikiLeaks!” as a candidate, he told the Associated Press in April, “I don’t support or unsupport” the actions of Assange. Asked whether Assange’s arrest represents a priority, Trump said it wasn’t his call: “If Jeff Sessions wants to do it, it’s OK with me.”
According to American intelligence officials, Russian operatives orchestrated the operation, though Assange has denied having any links to the Kremlin. But the hack and subsequent publication of those emails has become part a sprawling FBI investigation of the presidential election and whether any Trump aides colluded with the Russian government.
Prosecuting Assange could prove tricky. Obama administration lawyers worried indicting Assange would open the door to prosecuting journalists at mainstream news outlets as well.
Whether the Trump administration would be willing to pursue legal arguments that may establish precedents making it easier to go after media outlets and risk controversy represents yet another question mark hanging over Assange’s future.