Press Group Loses Bid to Unseal DOJ Assange Records

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – Refusing to unseal court documents related to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a federal judge told a press freedom group vying for the records Wednesday to wait until prosecutors confirm Assange’s indictment.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange greets supporters from a balcony of the Ecuadorean embassy in London on May 19, 2017. The Justice Department inadvertently named Assange in a court filing in an unrelated case that raised immediate questions about whether the WikiLeaks founder had been charged under seal. Assange’s name appears twice in an August 2018 filing from a prosecutor in Virginia in a separate case involving a man accused of coercing a minor. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File)

 “Until there is a sufficiently certain disclosure that charges have in fact been filed, the committee’s common law and First Amendment claims are premature,” U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema wrote. “To hold otherwise would mean that any member of the public or press – by demanding access to judicial records based on little more than speculation – could effectively force the government to admit or deny that charges have been filed.”

Describing the suit by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press as a “fishing expedition,” Brinkema said relief could mean forcing courts to sort through a seemingly endless number of documents that would be largely speculative.

The committee brought its petition to unseal the documents last year in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia after a prosecutor mentioned Assange by last name only in a motion for an altogether separate matter.

That case involved a man charged with coercion and enticement of a minor, but the Department of Justice prosecutor working on it was simultaneously working on a lawsuit involving WikiLeaks.

In Wednesday’s ruling, Brinkema labeled the mention of Assange an “obviously erroneous filing in an unrelated case.” 

Though news stories and anonymous statements from government officials have otherwise suggested that Assange may soon face indictment, Brinkema said such speculative connections do not rise to the “level of certainty” that might be afforded by official acknowledgment.

Prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia have been investigating WikiLeaks for nearly a decade.

The Department of Justice under President Barack Obama wanted to charge the group for illegally disclosing secret cables and classified military records in 2010 but decided instead to back off, citing concerns to press freedom.

But following an onslaught of cyberattacks threatening national security over the last few years – including WikiLeaks role in publishing stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee in 2016 — prosecutors have reportedly brought Assange back into focus.

Reports citing anonymous officials familiar with the investigation were published in both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post last year.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday.

While not officially charged in the United States, Assange remains a fugitive from British arrest after ignoring a notice to surrender for extradition. He has been living in asylum at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since June 2012.

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