ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been criminally charged under seal, according to multiple media reports. If true, the charge – revealed by mistake in a court filing – could have significant implications for the Robert Mueller investigation and press freedoms.
In the U.S. government’s motion to seal a child pornography case unrelated to the WikiLeaks founder, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kellen Dwyer wrote in Assange’s name instead of the child porn defendant’s name.
The U.S. attorney’s office said the slip-up was an error.
“The court filing was made in error,” said Joshua Stueve, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office Eastern District of Virginia. “That was not the intended name for this filing,”
When asked whether the Justice Department intended any disciplinary actions over the alleged error, Stueve replied, “I have no further comment.”
Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s program on extremism, discovered Assange’s name in the August 22 court filing and posted a screenshot of that portion of it on Twitter.
“You guys should read EDVA court filings more, cheaper than a Journal subscription,” Hughes, who’s been known to comb through extensive court filings, tweeted.
The filing in the federal court in Alexandria said “Another procedure short of sealing will not adequately protect the needs of law enforcement at this time because, due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged.”
The government now maintains that Assistant U.S. Attorney Kellen Dwyer accidentally wrote in Assange’s name instead of that of the defendant in the motion to seal a child pornography case.
Retired U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner, who now teaches at Harvard Law School, told Courthouse News on Friday that if the government actually did charge Assange with a crime under seal, it could have significant implications for the Mueller investigation.
“Assange is the link, as I understand it from the media, between the Russians and the Trump campaign and Roger Stone,” Gertner said. “In other words, WikiLeaks was a vehicle used by the Russians … so if there’s an indictment against Assange and particularly links one of the members of the Trump campaign, that would be obviously very significant.”
It also raises questions about whether Assange qualifies as a journalist or if he could be charged with espionage, Gertner continued.
“The first issue is whether or not he’s a journalist or not, and whether he had a role in obtaining national security information,” she said. “There’s also an interesting question about whether his role in deploying this information when he did at the behest of the Russians – it changes him from a journalist to something else.
“I don’t know the answer … there are a lot of questions that have to be asked, and carefully answered because it’s has implications for all journalists,” Gertner said.
“The disclosing of information that someone else wrongfully obtained usually doesn’t implicate a journalist. That’s what was behind the Pentagon Papers … It’s not an easy prosecution, it’s a complicated prosecution,” she added.
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Executive Director Bruce Brown said that the government needs to unseal documents pertaining to Assange.
“We can’t comment on underlying charges until we see them, but there’s certainly no longer any justification for keeping the indictment sealed. The government should unseal it,” Brown said in an email.
Assange’s U.S. attorney, Barry Pollack of Washington-based Robbins, Russell, Englert, Orseck, Untereiner & Sauber, told Courthouse News in an email this morning that Hughes’ discovery is disturbing.
“The news that criminal charges have apparently been filed against Mr. Assange is even more troubling than the haphazard manner in which that information has been revealed,” Pollack said. “The government bringing criminal charges against someone for publishing truthful information is a dangerous path for a democracy to take.”