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Unrelated Case Suggests U.S. Prepared Charges Against WikiLeaks' Assange


This morning we are learning about some possible legal trouble for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. He has, for years, been holed up in Ecuador's Embassy in London, worried that he might end up being extradited to the United States. Well, now an unrelated legal filing suggests that U.S. prosecutors have prepared charges against him. And for more on this, I'm joined by Carrie Johnson, who covers the Justice Department for us. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what exactly is this filing here?

JOHNSON: This is a filing that actually took place in August of this year. But it was only uncovered last night by Seamus Hughes, who's a national security and terrorism researcher at George Washington University. It actually - in an unrelated case involving a defendant with some possible national security connections, but his specific case may have related to a sex crime - appears to be like a cut-and-paste fail because there's a paragraph, at least one paragraph, in these court filings that deal with the fact that Julian Assange has been charged. That's the language.

Now, the U.S. attorney's office in Virginia, where this document was filed, says this appears to be an inadvertent situation and that Assange was not the name that was supposed to be included in that document. But it raises a whole host of questions about whether Julian Assange has already been charged under seal or whether they're preparing charges against him for something now.

GREENE: OK, so much to unpack here. So it sounds like this might not be related to the charges that he has been facing in Sweden. This would be a separate thing that was not supposed to ever be made public. But now we know that he is being charged with something. Is that right?

JOHNSON: Well, we don't know for sure he has already been charged. The Justice Department is not confirming that. His attorney, Barry Pollack, his United States-based attorney, says it would be a very dangerous road to go down for charging someone with a crime for publishing what they perceive as truthful information that he and the ACLU are saying could have big implications for U.S. media organizations.

We just don't know, David, what Julian Assange has been charged with, if anything, here inside the U.S. We know he's been under investigation for many many years, dating back to the Obama administration, for whatever role he played in inducing, allegedly inducing, Chelsea Manning to leak a host of war reports and State Department cables in the Obama years that really embarrassed the U.S.

And then more recently, WikiLeaks has been named - although, not named exactly but named as Organization 1 - in court filings by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, as part of indictments against Russian military intelligence officers who helped hack the Democratic National Committee emails and other documents as part of the election interference campaign in 2016. For now, though, we have no confirmation of what exactly Julian Assange is in trouble for here inside the U.S.

GREENE: But does the fact that this is now public, that he may have been charged or may be charged with something at some point - does that change the whole climate for both him and potentially U.S. prosecutors?

JOHNSON: That's a really good question. Now, extraditing somebody is hard. It really is hard. You have to show here in the U.S. that their crime is a crime in both Ecuador and in the U.S. And you have to produce a lot of information to convince the host country. That said, Julian Assange has been wearing out his welcome in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and recently got into a spat over whether he was keeping his space there clean enough and whether he was picking up after his cat. So he appears to be on short order there in the embassy.

GREENE: OK, NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks for that update, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.