Assange Agrees to Plead Guilty in Exchange for Release, Ending Standoff With U.S.


Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, agreed to plead guilty on Monday to a single felony count of illegally obtaining and disclosing national security material in exchange for his release from a British prison, ending his long and bitter standoff with the United States.

Mr. Assange, 52, was granted his request to appear before a federal judge at one of the more remote outposts of the federal judiciary, the courthouse in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, according to a brief court filing made public late Monday.

It was a fitting final twist in the case against Mr. Assange, who doggedly opposed extradition to the U.S. mainland. The islands are a United States commonwealth in the middle of the Pacific Ocean — and much closer to Mr. Assange’s native Australia, where he is a citizen, than courts in the continental United States or Hawaii.

Mr. Assange is scheduled to appear in Saipan at 9 a.m. local time on Wednesday and is expected to fly back to Australia “at the conclusion of the proceedings,” Matthew J. McKenzie, an official in the department’s counterterrorism division, wrote in a letter to the judge in the case.

Barring last-minute snags, the deal would bring to an end a prolonged battle that began after Mr. Assange became alternately celebrated and reviled for revealing state secrets in the 2010s.

Those included material about American military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as confidential cables shared among diplomats. During the 2016 campaign, WikiLeaks released thousands of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, leading to revelations that embarrassed the party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

In 2019, a federal grand jury indicted Mr. Assange on 18 counts related to WikiLeaks’ dissemination of a broad array of national security documents. Those included a trove of materials sent to the organization by Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who handed over information about military planning and operations nearly a decade earlier.

If convicted, Mr. Assange could have faced a maximum of 170 years in a federal prison.

The agreement was not unexpected. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia suggested that U.S. prosecutors needed to conclude the case, and President Biden signaled that he was open to a rapid resolution. Top officials at the Justice Department accepted an agreement with no additional prison time because Mr. Assange had already served longer than most people charged with a similar offense — in this case, over five years in prison in Britain.

Soon after the charges were announced, the London Metropolitan Police entered Ecuador’s embassy, where Mr. Assange had sought sanctuary years earlier, and took him into custody. He has been held in custody ever since, as his legal team has fought the Justice Department’s efforts to extradite him.

After weeks of negotiations, Mr. Assange is pleading guilty to one of the charges in the indictment — conspiracy to disseminate national defense information — which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Mr. Assange and his supporters have long argued that his efforts to obtain and publicly release sensitive national security information was in the public interest, and deserved the same First Amendment protections afforded to investigative journalists.

In 2021, a coalition of civil-liberties and human-rights groups urged the Biden administration to drop its efforts to extradite him from Britain and prosecute him, calling the case “a grave threat” to press freedom.

Much of the conduct he is accused of is what “journalists engage in routinely,” the group argued. “News organizations frequently and necessarily publish classified information in order to inform the public of matters of profound public significance.”

But U.S. officials argued that Mr. Assange’s actions went far beyond news gathering, putting at risk national security. The material furnished by Ms. Manning, prosecutors claimed, endangered the lives of service members and Iraqis who worked with the military, and made it harder for the country to counter external threats.

Mr. Assange has been held in Belmarsh, one of Britain’s highest-security prisons, in southeast London, as his extradition case has made its way through the British courts. For five years, he has repeatedly challenged the order for his removal, and last month, Mr. Assange won a bid to appeal the extradition order.

Afterward, Stella Assange, Mr. Assange’s wife, told supporters gathered outside the central London court that the case should be abandoned.

“The Biden administration should distance itself from this shameful prosecution,” said Ms. Assange, who secretly began a relationship with Mr. Assange when he was living in the Ecuadorean embassy. The pair have two young sons.

Mr. Assange has rarely been seen in public as his case has wound its way through the courts, citing health issues. In 2021, Mr. Assange had a small stroke while in prison.

And he did not attend the hearing in May because of undisclosed health reasons.

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